We plant very few of our crops by direct seeding. Farmer John uses his walk-behind seeder for root crops mainly, like carrots, radishes, turnips and beets. We start almost everything else in our greenhouses.

Many gardeners and farmers use plastic trays molded into “cells” for their starts, but we’ve always been a fan of soil blocks. They’re popular in Europe (ooh la la!) and touted by John’s gardening guru, Eliot Coleman. Those two facts alone are reason enough for Farmer John to be enamored with the soil block method. And because we reuse the flats that hold the soil blocks – therefore preventing at least a little more plastic from ending up in the landfill – it makes all of our ecological egos (eco-egos?) here on the farm glow that much greener.

Soil blocks are exactly what they sound like: blocks of soil. They’re formed using a hand-held contraption


with a cookie cutter-type grid on the underside of it.


After pouring a pile of wetted potting soil onto the cement floor and tamping it down to even it out (like a crumbly cookie dough), the person in charge of making the soil blocks – usually Mary, who’s become quite the expert at it – pushes the blocker into the mix, pulls a lever on the handle that forces the grid to grab the soil, then lifts it over to a plastic tray and gently releases it. Each tray holds three “grabs,” thus giving us 60 cubes per tray. (At this point, the cubes resemble brownies more than cookies…but as far as sweet treats go, I’d be happy with either one.)


Every block is molded with an indentation on top for placing the seeds, and the tiny air spaces between the blocks deter the roots of each individual plant from straying all willy-nilly outside its boundaries. When the starts grow large enough to either transplant into 3-1/2” pots or set out as-is into the rows, we simply pull them out of the trays, block-by-block. It makes transplanting so easy.

If only the same could be said for seeding the blocks in the first place.

Well, actually, for some it does come easy. Seeding soil blocks is Dana’s expertise. For reasons light years beyond my comprehension, Dana considers an afternoon of sitting at a table transplanting starts into 3-1/2” pots the equivalent of, say, being forced to stand on her head in a corner and miss supper…yet she actually enjoys hunching over that same table, reading glasses balanced at the end of her nose while she meticulously drops miniscule seeds one-by-one into soil blocks.

And you know what’s even crazier? When John tells her we need 2-3 seeds per block, or 5-7 seeds, or 1 seed, she gets it right. So does Mary, though I don’t think she finds the satisfaction in it that Dana does. Davy hasn’t had as much practice, but he does a good job, too. Me? I stink at it.

Normally I beg off soil block detail altogether. However, a few weeks ago when we realized the latest succession of lettuces needed desperately to be seeded for fear of getting them planted too late, it happened to be a Sunday. Out of sheer guilt, I volunteered to seed the soil blocks Farmer John had made that morning, so he could go out and ride around on his tractor (or do some other Sunday Farmer John-esque thing like set up new rows of irrigation, or watch sports on TV).

John instructed me to put 1-3 lettuce seeds in each soil block, then left me alone with my seed packets. Did you know that green leaf lettuce seeds are not only infinitesimal, but they’re also black? The same color as wet potting soil? I quickly gave up trying to count how many microscopic seeds tumbled into each block, and chose instead to go on instinct.

Never trust my instinct. Ever. Last week, we planted the results of my lettuce seeding. We knew already from the looks of the flats in the greenhouse that it wasn’t starting out well.


The flats appeared to be a tad…thick. The proof was in the pudding (yet another deliciously sweet treat!) as we pulled apart the soil blocks and found multitudinous plants crammed into each one.


Hint to gardeners: It takes a whole lot longer to set out transplants when you first have to pinch off all the excess starts. As an example, when I finished trimming the block shown above, I was left with this.


By my count, it looks like I’d planted at least nine more seeds than necessary. By the time we finished the bed of green leaf lettuce, there were far more discarded starts on either side of the row than were set into the ground.


A couple weeks ago, a customer who recently started a garden of her own came through my check-out line. As I weighed and totaled her purchase, she asked me a series of questions about different aspects of growing. Her final inquiry was about seeding – she wanted me to tell her how we’re able to control how many seeds we plant.

She assumed she was asking an authority on the subject. We’ve been doing this for almost eleven years, after all. I stared at her for a second, deciding whether I should fake my expertise, or tell her the truth….

***Here’s what we’ll have for you at the farm stand this Wednesday:


The first of the Snow Crown cauliflower; head lettuces (green leaf, red leaf and butterhead); “ugly” butternut squash (a bit scarred from sitting on wet ground back in September, but delicious!); arugula; bunches of chard; bunches of Asian greens (great for cooking – add sauteed greens to an omelette, yum – or tender enough for salad); bunches of Brussels greens; a kale/collards mix; radishes; bell peppers; Cubanelle peppers; eggplant; Provencal lettuce/chicory salad mix; the last of this crop of broccoli (more coming a little later in the season); and some of this and that.


**Interested in learning how to build a greenhouse? David Pitre from Tecolote Farm is leading a two-day workshop on greenhouse construction with Max Elliott from Urban Roots on Nov 14 and 21, from 9 a.m. through 1 p.m. each day. For more information, email tecolotefarm@juno.com or max@youthlaunch.org.**

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm
Farm stands:
In Jonestown on FM1431 at the blinking yellow light, Saturdays beginning at 10 a.m.;
In NW Austin on Jollyville Road between Oak Knoll and Duval (at the Asian American Cultural Center), Wednesdays beginning at 10 a.m.