Soil blocks, compressed soil for seedlings, come recommended by almost everyone who tries them, as long as they can get the things to hang together. The web is full of grumbling from people whose blocks disintegrated when moved, planted, or breathed on, and accolades from those who changed their soil mix and found success. The word is out: don't skimp here, and for once I decided to take that advice. Sort of.
So a couple of Fridays back I headed for Planet Natural* for my soil block ingredients: coconut coir, perlite, and greensand. We had barely time to unload the car and wash up before joining husband Steve for a soup dinner benefiting a local artist's studio group and then a local production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Abdoulaye came along for all of it, so he got to meet Eric at PN, have a tomato soup that couldn't be beat, and then see a show that really has no equivalent in Mali.**
Over the weekend a friend and I hauled everything outside and prepared the mix. Here's the recipe I got on-line at Jason Beam's site, where I ordered my molds:
Note: There's much more information on the recipe page than I've reproduced here!
I'm using coir instead of peat moss, since it functions in much the same way but is a renewable resource, being derived from coconut husks rather than thousand-year-old bogs. There's a discrepancy between the information on Jason Beam's website and the recipe above, also from the website: while the recipe treats coco peat and coco pith/fiber/coir as identical, the FAQ page on Beam's site draws a sharp distinction between them: “The pith is from the stringy coconut waste, the peat is ground up shell, pulverized and gritty, not suitable for blocks without adding peat moss. Know the difference." . While the recipe I've reprinted above says to mix either coir or coco peat with an equal quantity of peat moss, the FAQ page says that coir can be used on its own in soil blocks.
In his e-book Transplants in Soil Blocks (free on the Beam website), David Tressemer recommends starting with a screened peat which he then re-screens to eliminate all large particles. Coir, so far as I know, doesn't come in different grades, and I, er, left out the screening, so there are long threads protruding from some of my blocks. And yes, if I pull on one, sometimes the block simply disintegrates. That should teach me to leave well enough alone.
ON THE OTHER HAND, coir comes highly recommended by the Ladbrooke folks. Way down on their info page, which is where you end up if you click on "What kind of soil do I use?" on the home page, there's a heading "What kind of peat do I use?" which touts the wonders of coconut coir.
The lime in the recipe is needed to counterbalance the acidic peat, so I left it out, as coir's pH is higher than peat's. Besides, it's a reasonable guess that the “good garden soil” I used has higher than optimal pH, since this is, after all, a Montana valley. (The mountains, for reasons that I don't yet understand, are quite acidic; hence all the blueberries and huckleberries, which generally don't grow in the valleys.)
As for the perlite, I ended up with fine rather than coarse, so I crossed my fingers and went with that. Since my own compost isn't ready yet, I fell back on a commercial mix of vermicompost, humus, and compost, which also contains both endo and ecto mycorrhizae.
I didn't have exactly the fertilizer ingredients called for (okay, when you get right down to it I didn't have exactly anything!), but If you look at the list, it's clearly designed to provide equal quantities of nitrogen in the form of the blood, feather, shrimp, or alfalfa meals; phosphate (the colloidal phosphate); potassium (the greensand) and trace minerals (rock dust and greensand). The blood meal I have, the greensand I bought. The others? Not so much.
Instead of colloidal phosphate and rock dust, I re-crossed my fingers and used what's in the garage already: for phosphate, steamed bone meal, and for potassium, Kmag Natural Granular Potassium Magnesium Sulfate. Both are slow release nutrients, so I'm hoping they'll stand in for the recommended items. (The only fertilizer used by Tressemer is basalt rock powder.) Since I used four other sources, all of which do provide trace minerals (one of the major advantages of organics over pure, commercial fertilizers), I think the bases should be covered. My mix might be (gulp) just a tad heavy on potassium, what with the greensand and the Kmag. Not to mention the bit of wood ashes I tossed in. If anyone knows right off that I've poisoned my plants, please break it to me gently.
Here's my final mix:
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