Gardening Tips: Playing in the Mud

Editor’s Note: Today’s column first appeared on 7 March 2018.


What to do this week

I’m back after a short break. Thank you all for your patience. I hope your onion seedlings are started! If they are not, you can do them in soil blocks. If you have them already going, there will be other seeds to plant in the coming weeks, and soil blocks are really the way to go. They are a unique and effective way of starting seedlings.

It can work out fine to plant seeds in little pots, but there can also be a few drawbacks. One is that the plants can get root shock when you pull them out of the little pot to transplant them. Some plants are more sensitive than others to having their roots disturbed, but I don’t think any plant likes it.

Soil blocks. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Soil blocks. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Another problem you may find is that the roots hit the bottom and sides of the pot and keep growing. They grow around and around, either inside or even outside of the pot, and you end up with a mass of long root that isn’t always the best for getting resettled into your garden.

Soil blocks solve both of these potential problems — and you get to play in the dirt. You will prevent transplant shock and encourage healthy dense root systems. Once a root hits the side of the block and discovers air, it stops, but the plant keeps growing other smaller roots in a cluster. This way, the plant develops complex and dense root systems that will really help once it is in its permanent growing spot.

You can buy official soil block molds at Lee Valley Tools, or any good garden store, but I often just use an old square pot with the bottom cut out. It works perfectly. Basically, you make a moist mixture of soil and compost, and get your hands really dirty mixing it up and stuffing it into molds.

The correct mix for the soil is three parts pro seedling mix to one part good compost. Add enough water so that the soil will hold together. You will want it quite moist. Fill the mold, forcing in the mix so it is well packed, then turn it over and place it on a water proof tray as if it were a sand castle. You can make a little dimple in the top of the block for the seeds, so they don’t roll off the top of the block.

Your first few blocks might not work out as you would like. Perhaps you place the block on your tray and it just crumbles. Scoop it back into the bowl and add more water. If your block is too wet and collapses like a pile of mud, scoop it back and add more soil. After a try or two, you will get it just right.

You will be watering the blocks by putting water into the tray, not onto the top of the block. The blocks will soak up the water from below. The blocks can be a bit delicate at first, but once the root system gets going, they will hold together well. You will even be able to pick them up and handle them.

Once your blocks are neatly lined up on your trays, you can put the seeds on top, into a little dimple if you like, but you don’t have to cover the seed with more soil. The seed will sprout in place with the green part growing up and the root system growing down. Cover the tray with transparent plastic for the first few days to a week, until the seeds have germinated. Otherwise, the seeds might dry in place. The plastic allows light to get through, but keeps the moisture in. Once the seeds germinate, take the plastic off. Your little seedlings need moisture, light and warmth, but also air.

I start almost everything I do in soil blocks. You may already have your onions planted, but if not, plant five or six seeds in each block. Onions grow well in clusters. You can also plant kale and lettuces. Soon it will be time for tomato. If you try making soil blocks for the seedlings you have planned, you will most likely become an instant convert, and have fun getting there.


snowflake border



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.