The Soil Hoop: Easier To Make Than The Soil Block -- Saves Water, Fertilizer, Soil Too
Seedlings are happiest when their roots are free
A plant's roots, like all of us, crave freedom
Soil blocks allow roots to wander where they will A plant's roots go looking for water and minerals and other nutrients. Even a thin layer of peat, newspaper,or cardboad is a barrier; the tentril can pierce the paper or peat but it's work for the plant,taking energy away from growth and development. The label on biodegradable pots says they return to the earth, and they do...eventually. with a soil block, there's nothing to wait for to decompose.
The soil block idea is a great innovation
Whether vegetable seedlings go into a traditional garden bed in the ground or are grown in patio pots or grow bags, there's got to be someplace to start the seed. I save paper & foam coffee cups, and I sometimes use peat pellets, but when I learned about soil blocks, I was excited! I liked the idea that I wouldn't have to buy anything & I wouldn't have to origami anything. Soil blocks were a great idea because they'd keep me from having to fold a kajillion newspaper cups & toilet paper rolls into seed cups. No more trips to buy peat or cardboard cups designed to rot away (talk about planned obsolescence!).
Commercial greenhouses have a device that's a cross between a garlic press and a trash compactor. The sides, top and bottom come together and smash the soil mix together.
Pressing the soil tightly
But pressed blocks don't work when I don't have time to do them perfectly every time
Theoretical design is great when I've got time to experiment or make tiny adjustments. But when time is short. . .
In my experience, making small soil blocks large enough to start a seed is easy enough with a little practice. When it comes to a larger block, comparable to a 4-inch plastic pot, things go to pieces -- literally.
Managing the moisture content is a hassle. I quickly found that if the soil was a little too dry, the block crumbled. If the soil was a little wet, the round block jammed in the can and couldn't be extruded from the open end. Just having the soil mix sitting in a plastic dishpan on the garden table in my basement meant the top surface of the mix was drier than the soil at the bottom of the dishpan.
I make my own peat-based soil mix, and while I try to keep the peat and potting soil and water in good proportion, the mix will have wet and dry spots where there is more dry powdery peat moss and where there is less peat in that area of the bin. So not only is my dishpan of soil mix drier at the top and wetter at the bottom, but it also has drier and muddier pockets throughout. Not huge differences; it didn't take much variance to mess up the block-making process.
With time and practice, I'm sure I could have made blocks a bit faster, but there still would have been that pesky failure rate and wasted time as I dumped the soil from the failed block back into the bin and re-pressed it.
Commercial block makers vs. DIY models for home garden use
The trick to ready-made soil block makers are designed for large-scale,long-term use, and they're expense. And the trick to homemade block makers is that they are tricky. The container must be squishy enough to release the block, yet firm enough to ompress the soil particles close enough to one another for integration.
For my needs, it's hard to come up with a block maker which allows for variations in soil mix moisture. I use a peat-based mix which drains well.In a soil block, if the mix is a ltttle dry,the block crumbles when it comes out of the maker.
Homemade block makers
Hobby gardeners make their own soil block makers in square or round form. When the process works as it should, a cube or cylinder of firm soil is formed. Each block has a small hollow on the top where the seed or a seedling is put in. There are no sides or bottom to the soil block so roots encounter no barriers as they grow. (Cue The Mamas & The Papes singing "Go where you wanna go / do what you wanna do") When the root ends reach the sides of the block, it's time to transfer the soil block into the ground or into a larger container.
I made myself a nice block maker using a large can with a pusher made from the can lid and a wooden handle. My pusher even had an indent maker to push in a recessed spot for a small soil block. I made a couple of round soil blocks and felt quite pleased with myself.
Jammed up or crumbling apart
So I invented the soil hoop!
The soil hoop is a round soil block with a band or collar around the outside. This little bit of reinforcement is enough to keep the shape from crumbling to pieces. I could use a soil mix that was a little on the dry side and it would stay together. Once I had the soil hoop where I wanted it, I could add moisture in situ.
Soil hoops still work even when I do them "wrong"
How to make the newspaper collar
Update #2: Soil Hoops in A Shallow Garden Bed
I pulled up some garlic and had room for new plants. The bed is about three feet by five feet, and is mostly just lawn turf I turned over with a garden fork. Last fall I punched holes in this upside-down and put in garlic bulbils, with a layer of cardboard over everything as a solid mulch layer.
The semi-composted brown cardboard has been pulled up, and it would take a lot of garden soil to make a solid plantable layer on top of the space. I wanted to get the bed working for me right away, and didn't want to wait for "dirt lasagna" layers of cardboard, compost, and soil to break down.
So, since I plant beans in hills anyway, I replaced the hill shapes with soil hoops, planting four or five beans in each. I think the disk shape will keep water and nutrients from running downhill away from the young plants. In this way, I can direct all waterings and feedings (diluted plant food and high-nitrogen worm compost "tea") right where I want them. I save labor, time, and resources when I don't spread it all out. I did plant a few extra beans, because I had them already soaked, into the bed between the two rows of soil hoops. I then scattered dill seeds into the non-hoop areas of the bed. I do like "dilly" beans and now I have the ingredients all growing together!
Soil hoops right on top of a shallow garden bed
Thank you for reading this!
I started out learning to garden from relatives, who taught me to lay out row gardens with walking space in between the carrot and pea plants. Then I read in a book about how to do a raised bed garden, and did lots of shoveling to mound up the earth. I first saw the idea of a no-dig garden on a blog, and then asked a friend about it while she and I were having lunch. And now I have all the great Hub posts here, with how-tos and photos, which let me improve what I'm doing. I just saw something this week about a new way to use comfrey as part of my natural fertilizer plan. Oh, and Tums! Turns out other people are using digestive aids to sweeten acid soil! :)