Seed Starting

A brief description from

Potting Blocks, also known as soil blocks, are free-standing compressed cubes of potting soil which hold their shape without any container. Potting Blocks are made from a zinc coated stainless steel Soil Block Maker, much like an ejection mold. The block maker metal form is packed into a tub of pre-moistened potting soil and then discharged into nice, firm, blocks with a pre-drilled seed or transplant holes formed right into the top. Potting Blocks are used for seed starting or germination, and transplanting. They have an amazing success rate due to the volume of soil compressed in the cube. The roots are naturally “air pruned” due to the air barrier of the “container-less” cube. They become the growing medium and the container! They are used for everything; herbs, flowers, vegetables, cuttings, and other transplants.

Potting Blocks have many advantages over traditional potting methods. First, they eliminate transplant shock! The
seedling and root system stays intact and protected, a “home away from home”. They will not become “‘root-bound”. They eliminate root circling. They replace plastic pots, trays, inserts,etc. They contain more cubic volume of soil than pots of the same top dimensions. They promote great air circulation. They have a major increase in space utilization than round pots. And, studies in Europe have shown that Potting Block transplants are superior in performance than container-bound transplants.

I’m definitely going this route next year. I love the idea of not having to sterilize and reuse old pots, or buy new ones each year. Use this with a capillary mat to provide water when needed and you’ve got a great compact arrangement without dealing with actual pots. I especially love that you can get a 5/8″ blocker to start small seeds and then a 2″ blocker that will make an indentation large enough to slide your pre-germinated 5/8″ block right in!

In the image below, the top square is the 5/8″ block made with the small blocker, slid into the middle block, which is made with the medium size blocker, and that one is slid into at 4″ block, made with the largest size blocker.

I’d be able to fit so much more under my grow lights this way, and I can keep an eye on the moistness of the soil, which I’m having a problem with monitoring in my seed starting tray.

I’ve seen some people have made their own, however I am not that crafty. So hopefully someone will buy me a couple sizes for my birthday. 🙂


I have been very busy outside over the last week, not just in the garden but around the yard. I took a vacation day today to give me a four day weekend and really focus on cleaning up and preparing for the garden to take off. OK, so maybe my busiest week can’t hold a candle to my friend EG’s slowest, but I feel pretty accomplished!

Let’s start with last weekend. I planted the first round of broccoli plants outside; two Packman and two Fiesta. Those yellow leaves are dying off, but the plants seem to be okay otherwise.


I’ve got two more younger plants of each under the lights for second planting next week, along with Snow Crown and Cassius cauliflower plants.

I’m happy to say that I see most of my seeds sprouting out there. I was concerned about the possibility of the squirrels having moved them around, but they seem to be coming up where I planted them for the most part. Here are some Harmony spinach seedlings:


I can also see seedlings emerging of Space spinach, and Valmaine, Little Caesar, Victoria, and Buttercrunch lettuce. I’m still waiting for American Flag leeks, Evergreen Scallions, and Sweet Salad and Sugar Snax carrots to emerge.

The Sugar Snap and Blizard Snow peas have set deep roots and are starting to break the surface. I expect they’ll really start taking off this week.


After getting all of these things in the ground we set our sights on setting up the PVC/string trellises for the peas and beans, and the metal trellises for the vining plants that will go in later. We also *borrowed* the idea to construct a PVC frame to hold bird netting and anything else we need to prop up over the plants. It looks like a boot camp training course out there now, but everything will eventually serve a purpose.


Now on to this weekend. I started some zucchini seeds, and I have to high tail it to the store to get some yellow squash seeds, since I seem to have missed them when I placed my seed orders. I’ve potted up some more tomatoes and peppers, and now the only seedlings left to pot up are some small Orient Express eggplants and a couple Black Cherry Tomatoes that I had to start over after poor germination. There is absolutely no more room under the lights right now, so I’ll have to wait until I get the second batch of broccoli and cauliflower out into the garden to make room for the others.
I hate having to throw away perfectly good plants but I had too many tomatoes that germinated, so I had to thin things out. They all looked healthy too. It’s a shame.

The crappy plastic two tier 4×8 bed that I bought last year has 40 garlic plants in traditional soil on one side which are doing extremely well. I hit them with some liquid seaweed fertilizer today.



Today, I cleared out the other side that I used last year for zucchini. I amended the soil with compost, and it is now waiting for the onslaught of onion plants I should be getting next week from Dixondale Farms.


It’s hard to do much during the week after work, so next weekend the plan is to do some more yard maintenance and fine tune the bird netting setup, as right now it’s pretty hard to get access to the plants. I think what we’ll do is attach the netting on the long sides to 8′ 1×2 boards so we can easily lift up an entire side all at once. I also plan on planting the second round of broccoli, all the cauliflower, more carrot and spinach seeds.

Spring is in swing!!!

I was pretty tired after work tonight and was going to wait until tomorrow to repot some plants. Nothing will wake you up more quickly than seeing that half your seedlings are wilted over and appear to be dying. The peppers were the worst. At first I thought maybe aphids had invaded. But when I investigated further I realized that even though they aren’t very big above ground, the roots had grown down to the bottom of the seed tray and weren’t getting the water they needed. The surface of the mix was damp but underneath was dry as a bone. Time for emergency surgery. I planted the peppers that weren’t too far gone into peat pots. Hopefully they’ll survive.




I decided to do the same for my tomatoes. They don’t all have their first true leaves yet, but I really don’t want to be caught short again like I was with the peppers. I left the really small seedlings in the tray, but anything that looked strong enough was transplanted into cups.


That’s Sun Gold on the left and Black Cherry on the right. I did at least two of the strongest of each variety. I’ve got the tiny backups in the seed tray just in case the transplanted seedlings run into trouble.

I’ve got another mystery to solve as well. A few of my broccoli plants have dying leaves. The plants themselves feel strong and hardy, but one or two leaves went soft and then turned yellow. I’m planning on getting these plants out to the beds on Sunday, and I’m not giving up on the sick ones yet. I’ll wait to see how they fare outside. I have younger plants planned for succession planting, so it won’t be horrible if I have a couple casualties.


See the yellow leaf in the back? I’ve encountered this with three plants, of two different varieties.

Here is the seed starting area, jam packed with plants.


On to the next potential problem I’m dealing with. We’ve had very heavy rains off and on over the last couple days, and none of the squirrel-tampered seeds have sprouted yet. So, either the squirrels ate them last weekend and they’re all gone, or they’re slow to germinate, or they’re rotted from the rain. Now, the peas that I planted are still there, and are germinating under the surface (I dug one up out of curiosity). So I think the lettuce planted at the same time should be doing something by now. The beds are draining very nicely and no water has been pooling. How long should I wait before I come to the conclusion that I need to replant the squares?

Even with these issues I’m encountering, I have to say that I find these learning experiences very rewarding. I did SO MUCH reading before I ever ordered a seed, trying to learn as much as I could about the process and the potential problems that might present themselves. But it wasn’t until I actually got my hands in the dirt that I saw first hand how different plants have different needs. There really isn’t any better way to learn than through trial and error.

Well, this has been, hands down, the busiest couple of work weeks I’ve ever had. I’ve barely had the time or energy to look at my plants, let alone play with them. They managed to survive, despite my neglect, and now that things have calmed down (at least temporarily), I had the time this weekend to pot up and start some new seeds. I’m about two weeks behind the schedule I created earlier this year, but at least I won’t be pushing the envelope as much as I was going to. It’s tough to say whether the worst of winter is over here, and it’s probably better to put things out a little later instead of taking the risk with the cold.

I potted up the oldest broccoli, cauliflower, and onion plants, all of which are about 5 weeks old. I moved them from the seedling tray into 3″ peat pots to make some more room for the plethora of tomato seeds I was starting today. I’m going to need to fertilize them….forgot about that! I’ll use a liquid seaweed fertilizer at 1/4 strenth. Maybe tonight.



All of my pepper seeds have sprouted…including a 3-leaved Jimmy Nardello! I think someone on Garden Web brought up this phenomenon recently, but I haven’t checked in over there for quite a while, so I’m not sure what the verdict is…is this very a common occurrence?


I started some more eggplant seeds today, after 0% germination of the last round. I know it was because I didn’t cover the cells with plastic to warm the starting mix properly. At least, that’s what I think happened. I got a little haphazard with the plantings in the seedling tray and put them in a precarious spot. This time I’ve got all new seeds on the bottom half of the tray so I could easily cover them all over at once. Hopefully it was user error and not a bad batch of seeds.

Along with the new eggplant seeds, I also started my tomatoes. Black Cherry, Sun Gold Cherry, Pink Grapefruit, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Bloody Butcher, Paul Robeson, and Brandywine Red. I chose the Pink Grapefruit just because I think they look cool. We’ll see how they taste! I added Paul Robeson because he used to live in my hometown. I feel like I’m supposed to grow them. 🙂

Doesnt it look like a pink grapefruit with its yellow skin and pink center?

Doesn't it look like a pink grapefruit with its yellow skin and pink center?

I also got a third light last week. I think I have finally optimized my planting space. I could use a second heat mat, but with some finagling I may be able to fit everything onto the one.

Finally, I didn’t have a chance to report that last week I took most of the mulch off the garlic bed, and to my surprise they were already growing under there!


Since then, the cold nights have yellowed them a bit, but I have read in numerous places that it’s better to lose the top growth in the early months than to keep them smothered with mulch for too long. I’m trusting the people who know what they’re doing! Ah, isn’t experimenting fun?

I’m going out of town this week, but the plan for next weekend is to put the strings on the boxes to divide them up into square feet, construct the string trellis, and plant lettuce and pea seeds. I’m thinking I’ll put some plastic down on the beds tomorrow before I go so the warm weather this week can heat up the beds before next weekend.

All in all, I feel pretty good about where I am at this stage!

Front to back: onions, caulifower, broccoli

Front to back: onions, caulifower, broccoli


It’s great to see some true leaves! I planted another round of cauliflower today, as well as 4 varieties of pepper. I’m looking forward to trying ‘Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Pepper’, as the story behind it takes place in Naugatuck, CT, the town next to mine.

This is the story, taken from Iowa Source Magazine’s website:

Who is Jimmy Nardello?
The Story of the Jimmy Nardello Pepper

Seeds for the Jimmy Nardello Pepper are available from Seed Savers Exchange. (Photo courtesy of SSE/David Cavagnaro)

In southern Italy, at what one might call the “instep of the boot,” is a mountainous region called Basilicata. In the subregion of Potenza, with its small coastline on the Thyrrhenian Sea, sits the tiny town of Ruoti.

For several years there, Giuseppe Nardiello and his wife, Angela, nurtured a favorite variety of sweet frying pepper. When they set sail from the port of Naples in 1887 for a new life beside the Golden Door, Angela carried her one-year-old daughter Anna and a handful of the pepper seeds with them. They settled in Naugatuck, Connecticut, where they raised the peppers, and eleven children. The fourth one was a son named Jimmy.

Jimmy’s son James, who is now 81 and still residing in Naugatuck, told me that the teachers in Jimmy’s grade school dropped the “i” from Nardiello, apparently believing that theirs was the proper spelling. It stuck to Jimmy, and to all the subsequent siblings and descendents.

James also said that his father was the only one of the Nardello children to inherit Angela’s love of the garden, and that Jimmy lovingly cared for his own throughout his life. He built them the way his mother taught him, in terraces, the way all gardens were built in the mountains of southern Italy. There he grew hundreds of peppers, but the sweet frying pepper was his favorite, and he would string up his bounty and hang them to dry in the shed, so his family could enjoy them all winter long.

Jimmy passed away in 1983. But before he did, he donated some of the heirloom pepper seeds to Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) in Decorah, Iowa. SSE specializes in protecting heirloom seeds, with more than 11,000 varieties protected in two separate climate-controlled vaults. They grow out roughly ten percent of the stock on a ten-year rotating basis, refreshing and expanding the supply each time. One of these seeds is the one that has become known as Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper.

One hundred and twenty years after the Nardellos set sail, bringing a small piece of their homeland with them, the pepper that bears the family name is becoming a favorite among chefs and home gardeners nationwide, but it is still registered as “endangered” on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Tastes. The Ark is an effort to find, catalog, and protect the world’s endangered flavors from the onslaught of the standardization of agriculture and cuisine.

Right now, though, in gardens around the country and right here in Iowa (including mine), the Nardellos are turning from their youthful kelly green to a mature fire-engine red, indicating that they are ready to be picked, sliced, fried in olive oil with garlic, and slathered over steaks alongside a generous pour of Primitivo.

They are also delicious as a sweet edge in your favorite chili or salsa recipe, and they are the best sweet pepper for drying. To dry them, string them on thread with a needle, careful to pierce them through the stem and not the fruit. Hang them near a sunny window or on the porch, and they’ll add decoration as they dry.

The best ones resemble a pig’s ear. James says that’s how his dad picked them. They grow in full sun in neutral to acidic soil, and are quite prolific as long as they are not over-watered.

Jimmy Nardello Pepper seeds are available from Seeds Savers Exchange. Learn more about Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.


I think I’ll probably plant something along with the zucchini and summer squash but I haven’t thought too much about that yet. Maybe some additional peas that will be finished before the other plants get too big.

The other 4′ light has been hung, so the seedlings are getting a better dose of the warm and cool ends of the spectrum. The onions are starting to sprout now, as well as a couple more of the broccoli seeds. I have a one or two broccoli seeds that did not germinate yet, and it has been a week now. Maybe I’ve got some duds that need to be replaced.

Both kinds of broccoli and cauliflower sprouted yesterday and have been going like gangbusters. A couple of the Dakota Tears seeds have just broken the surface today, and hopefully the Clear Dawn seeds will follow suit soon.

That's the Packman broccoli in the center row

That's the Packman broccoli in the center row and the Cassius cauliflower to its right.

Snow Crown cauliflower

Snow Crown cauliflower

I’m going out to get a second light tomorrow. I don’t know what I was thinking with just getting one.


Don’t worry, I’m not neglecting anything. Most of the slots are empty right now.

Am I right in thinking I don’t need to fertilize until the second set of true leaves develop? I can’t do much about that right now anyway, since the seaweed fertilizer is in the shed, and the doors are blocked by snow after our “surprise blizzard conditions” last night, according to the weather guy. How can a blizzard be a surprise to meteorologists???

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