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March 29th, 2011

From Seed-Starting Trays to Soil-Blocks in 3 Steps

Kim Draves resides in Emmaus, Pa, works at Rodale Inc.as a Marketing Director, and perpetually bothers the Organic Gardening staff with gardening questions.  As a form of payment for their continual advice, she submits this blog entry.

The Decision

As the ground outside began to thaw and I could see my lawn for the first time in months, I stared at my plastic seed-starting cells and trays and decided that I really didn’t like them. I mean, they are good, and they served me well (I reused them for several years), but I felt like it was time to try something new. After all, isn’t our age measured by our willingness to try new things? So I decided to try soil-block making.

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I purchased the Medium 4 Soil Blocker from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’ve purchased so many items from Johnny’s that my husband has started announcing, “Here’s Johnny!” à la Ed McMahon when the postman comes to the door.

The Process

Thankfully, the shipment included a recipe for seed-starting mix. I grabbed a few shovelfuls of compost from my garden, purchased some perlite, and found a leftover bag of peat in the garage. For a cost of about $10, my husband and I had a mixture ready in just 20 minutes.

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The soil-block maker itself worked well when the mix was the right moisture level. The blocks turned into blobs if the mix was too wet, which is the mistake we made. Although I kicked my seed-starting cells to the curb, I did keep the trays and the plastic covers to transport the blocks from the worktable outside into my little garden room indoors. I couldn’t let go of all the utility those trays provided.

The soil-block maker also included dibbles that made little holes for the seeds. This feature really appeals to me because it allowed my 3-year-old daughter to help place the seeds in the blocks. I just had to show her where the holes were and she was more than happy to help. In about an hour, we had five trays of about 30 soil blocks ready to go under the lights for germination.

The Outcome

I was worried about watering the soil blocks. As I mentioned, we already had a problem with moisture at the time we made the blocks. Very few of the blocks crumbled when I watered them, and the seedlings have still come up beautifully. I am officially converted from a seed-starting-tray user to a soil-block user, and I cannot wait to simply plop the soil blocks into the ground without having to pry them out of the plastic cell packs.

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Trying new things is always scary, but I have no regrets about this decision. It was actually more fun and involved more of my family members. If you’re thinking about switching from plastic seed-starting trays to soil-block making, go ahead! You won’t regret it!

The one problem that the soil-block maker did not solve for me is leggy tomato seedlings. I’ve tried multiple solutions, including putting them closer to the light source and putting a fan directly on them. I know I can just bury them up to their first set of leaves, but I think they’d be much stronger at the time of transplant if it weren’t for this issue. If you’ve experienced this problem or have any suggestions, I’d love to hear what you’ve done to prevent it or correct it.

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March 14th, 2011

Heirloom Tomato Goes Hollywood

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Guest blogger Diane Ott Whealy makes her home in Decorah, Iowa, where she is the cofounder and vice president of education at Seed Savers Exchange. Her new book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, will be released in May 2011. The story chronicles her life of homesteading; nurturing children, gardens, and seeds; and maintaining sanity and a sense of humor while helping grow the largest nongovernmental seed bank of its kind in the country.


TOMATOaudubon

And the Oscar for outstanding contribution to our gastronomic happiness goes to (drumroll, please) the heirloom tomato. For those of you who are not familiar with this award, let me explain.

The movie The Kids Are All Right—a personal favorite of mine—was up for four Academy Awards this year. I love the line when Nic, played by Annette Bening, becomes fed up with all the farm-to-table, new organic food hoopla.

“If I hear one more person say how much they love heirloom tomatoes, I’m going to punch them right in the face,” she declares.

Excuse me, but did I just hear heirloom tomato mentioned in a major motion picture? Indeed, the term has almost become a buzzword these days. Even before I saw this movie, I noticed other indicators that heirloom has crept into pop-culture vernacular.

Last August, I was walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago and stopped for lunch at a small bistro. On the menu was an “heirloom tomato salad.” I asked my waiter, “What is an heirloom tomato?” “I really don’t know; I think it is yellow,” he replied. I did not comment. Then later that month on NBC’s Today, Matt Lauer was assisting a guest chef preparing a salad. The chef said, “Now add one pound of chopped tomatoes.” Matt immediately added, “heirloom tomatoes.” I am not saying he knew what an heirloom tomato was, but he made it sound extra special.

So it appears that heirlooms are fashionable, yet that has not always been the case. When Seed Savers Exchange began more than 35 years ago, our early members lamented the fact that few people still seemed interested in collecting and saving seed. It was popular in the ’70s for modern gardeners to grow F1 hybrids. The prevailing sentiment was, Why drive a Model T when you could drive a Cadillac? Our members knew exactly why they should hold on to their Model T seed.

At that time, hybrid seeds replaced the traditional varieties and heirloom seed was becoming extinct. The country was moving away from small gardens in favor of mass-produced crops. At the same time, gardeners began favoring new-and-improved seed. Newly hybridized seed produced tomatoes uniform in size for harvest by machines and shipped across the country. Iowa could now have tomatoes in January—what’s wrong with that? The problem was the quality of such tomatoes paled in comparison to the juicy fruit we all remembered fresh from our grandparents’ gardens.

These family heirloom seeds survived for centuries thanks to amateur gardeners whose main qualifications were that they cared enough about the varieties to save the seeds and pass them down in their families.

Since the 1970s, Seed Savers Exchange members have saved and distributed thousands of old-fashioned seed varieties. In 2011, SSE members offered 13,376 different varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds to fellow gardeners in the annual yearbook. Today, due to this effort and many other concerned gardeners, those seeds are widely available to seed companies, small farmers, local and regional markets, chefs, and home gardeners.

It is quite an achievement for an heirloom tomato unknown in the gardening world some 35 years ago to find its way into a Hollywood movie. We have come a long way, but hopefully heirloom does not become just another fad or meaningless adjective. Even Hollywood recognizes that heirloom tomatoes are beautiful long after the red carpet is rolled up.

Tomato Photo: David Cavagnaro
Photo of Diane: Jim Richardson


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