August always seems to sneak up too soon while I’m still distracted watching my tomatoes and peppers ripen, but this year I’m determined to give my fall garden crops a head start before the first frost hits. I was jolted into action after reading Becky Striepe’s blog on starting her seeds for fall planting.

A soil blocker makes nice blocks of moist potting soil ready for planting seeds

Luckily, I’m prepared to be a seed-sowing-machine thanks to my niece and awesome food blogger, Janina Larenas. She gave me a soil blocker, a clever device that will extrude blocks of moist potting soil ready for planting seeds; make as many as you need, when you need them. My soil blocker forms four blocks at a time, with small dimples on the top for placing the seed.

There is no need for plastic six-packs or other individual containers. I used some old flats I got free from my local nursery to set up the soil blocks and used damp newspaper to line the flats and help keep the soil moist.

To make the blocks just wet some potting soil so that it holds together but is not soggy, press the soil blocker into the damp soil to load it. Check to see that all of the squares are firmly packed (use your fingers to firm them up and add more soil).

Then set it down into the flat on the damp newspaper and squeeze the handle to push out the blocks. Put rows of soil blocks next to each other and fill your flat. Put the seeds in the small dimple on top of each block and cover with more moist soil. Done!

A flat of soil blocks planted with Rainbow Chard and America Spinach

The photo above shows seedlings beginning to sprout one side of the flat (planted 2 weeks ago with Rainbow Chard) while the other side was recently planted with America Spinach and covered with moist newspaper.  The paper keeps the moisture from evaporating too quickly so that the seeds won’t dry out while they’re germinating, which is a critical time.

Once they’ve sprouted the paper comes off so that they get lots of morning sunlight outside (I protect them from afternoon sun which is too strong for them and may dry them out).

You have to be careful to water the soil blocks very gently so they don’t dissolve: add water to the bottom so that it wicks up into the blocks, and mist the surface with a spray bottle when the seedlings begin to peek out from the soil.

Heirloom lettuce and basil: use your extra seedlings make a container garden

When your seedlings have at least two sets of leaves or more transplant them by separating each block and planting it into your garden. By planting the block intact you’ll avoid disturbing the roots of the seedling- that’s another big advantage of using this method.

And if  you have more seedlings than you need for your garden, try potting some into containers for your porch, or surprise a friend with a beautiful potted vegetable garden!

Photos: Urban Artichoke