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Where the Greenfields Grow

A Do-It-Yourself Soil Blocker

Cabin fever is real, and I had it BAD this winter. To combat my restlessness, I devoted my spare time to starting my vegetable seeds indoors. I had the essentials: a heating mat, lights, seeds, and a good recipe for a seed-starting soil blend. I was almost ready to start my seeds and watch them flourish into strong, healthy seedlings, but, this year, I tried something new. I abandoned the peat pots and plastic seed trays in favor of soil blocks. In addition to leaving a smaller ecological footprint, planting seeds in soil blocks reduces shock to the roots when the seedlings are transplanted to the garden.

I shopped around online and found a reasonably priced 2-inch soil blocker, but when my seedlings started outgrowing their 2-inch blocks, I needed to upsize. I found several great options online for 4-inch blockers but found myself sticker-shocked. My only option was to build one myself (read: build one with the help of my husband). Here’s how we did it and how we would improve our next DIY soil blocker:


• Stainless steel sheet metal, 6x18’’
• Galvanized steel bar, at least 12’’ long, 1/8'' thick (Width determined by the diameter of the bolt)
• Bolt with a smooth round head, 7’’+
• 3 nuts & washers
• Rot-resistant, non-chemically treated plywood, at least 4’’x4’’
• 2’’x2’’x2’’ wooden cube
• 4 screws (Length determined by thickness of the plywood)
• Rivet gun and rivets (Length determined by thickness of sheet metal)



Starting with a piece of sheet metal that is 18 inches long and 6 inches wide, bend the sheet metal, so that it forms a cube frame with approximately 4-inch wide sides. (The top and bottom are open.) 




This should leave at least 1 inch of overlap on one side. Pop rivet the overlapping area to the cube from the inside. The frame of the soil blocker has now been created. 



Starting with an 1/8” thick metal bar, at least 8 inches long, bend the two ends, so that they are parallel to each other and 4 inches apart. It should be able to slide down over the frame of the soil blocker.

Next, drill a hole in the center of the bar. The hole should be slightly larger than the bolt, so that the bolt can pass through the hole smoothly.

Cut an approximate 4x4 inch piece of rot-resistant plywood (not chemically green-treated) that will fit inside of the soil blocker. Note that we used a 1-inch thick piece of wood. I would recommend using at least a ½-inch thick piece of wood for strength.

Cut a 2x2x2-inch wooden cube. (This is the size of my starting soil blocks.) 



Now that the wooden pieces are created, you need to drill a hole in the center of the 4x4 inch piece of plywood, so that the bolt can pass through. 



Counterbore the center of the 2x2x2 inch wooden cube.



Insert the bolt through the 4x4 inch piece of plywood, and cover the head of the bolt with the 2x2x2 inch wooden cube. Screw the two wood pieces together to capture the bolt in place. We’ll call this piece the “push plate.” (It was helpful to use a nut and washer to clamp the bolt in place on the plywood during this step.) 



Rivet the metal bar (from steps 3-4) to the soil blocker, so that the bolt and the push plate can travel a full 4 inches from the top of the cube to the bottom of the frame once assembled.

Insert the push plate into the soil blocker frame and the bolt through the hole of the metal bar.

Use the nuts and washers to set the travel limits of the push plate, so that it will not completely slide out of the soil blocker frame.




• The left-over metal bar can be used to create a small handle, which is held in place by 2 nuts.
• Springs can also be added to keep the push block in an “open state” if desired.

What we learned:

• Once tightly packed into the soil blocker, the soil blend slides much more smoothly off the sheet metal than the wood. The wood needs frequent rinsing to avoid the soil sticking to the push plate. Our next DIY soil blocker would likely have a metal push plate instead of a wooden one.
• We underestimated the length of the bolt needed, so we ended up cutting the frame down from 6 inches tall to 4 inches, so that the push plate would extend clear to the bottom of the frame. For a 6-inch tall frame, we suggest a 7-inch long bolt or longer.
• We spent about 60% less on materials than what we would have spent to purchase a manufactured, store-bought 4-inch soil blocker. Our version is not perfect, but it does exactly what we intended, which is to make a big cube of dirt where my 2-inch soil blocks fit in perfectly like a three-dimensional puzzle piece, so that my seedlings have room to grow.


My Grandmother's Heirloom Tomato Pasta Sauce

As a child, I lived as close to my grandparents as one could without living under the same roof. I grew up on a small acreage in rural Iowa next door to my paternal grandparents and across the street from my maternal grandparents. Our proximity meant that I could bake chocolate chip cookies and deliver them to Grandpa Richard whenever the mood struck. It also meant that I could explore Grandma Judy’s flower beds as she taught me their names without the hassle of traveling. Often, I would show up unannounced and wake Grandma Rita from a nap. We would go out to the kitchen table and just talk. Other times, I would sit in Grandpa Larry’s swivel chair and watch him work in the shop.  

Today, out of those four, I have one grandma who is alive and doing well. Grandma Judy is more than just a grandma to me. She is my friend and source of gardening knowledge. She was my “what to do and not to do” guide when I first began gardening on my own. She encouraged me to stick to heirloom varieties, have my soil tested, and to build my own tomato cages. More than just a source of information, she takes the time to teach me important skills, like canning.

Although it is not currently the typical canning season, I enjoy this pasta sauce recipe of hers, especially this time of year when I crave the comfort of pasta. It beats store-bought products because her heirloom tomatoes are more flavorful, homegrown, and canned when they are perfectly ripe. When I asked her where the recipe originated, she said it most likely came from a canning recipe book and was customized to her and Grandpa Larry’s preferences over time.

Grandpa Larry was notorious for throwing ingredients into a pot and taste-testing what he had done while Grandma Judy was behind him trying to take down measurements. Like many recipes that come from anyone’s grandparents, its measurements are not always exact because the recipe evolves over the years and, eventually, becomes something they feel rather than read from a recipe card. I encourage you to save this recipe for later in the year when your own tomatoes are ripe and adjust it to your own taste. In the dead of winter, tasting the food that you grew yourself in your own garden makes all the work involved with canning worth it.

canning jars

Grandma Judy’s Pasta Sauce Recipe

Yield: 14 to 16 quarts


  • 4 large white onions, diced
  • 8 cloves of garlic, diced
  • 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 large bowls/approximately 48 heirloom tomatoes, peeled and quartered (such as the ‘Mortgage Lifter’ or ‘German Johnson’)
  • 58 ounces of beef broth
  • 8 beef bouillon cubes
  • 8 to 12 ounces of (preferably homemade) tomato paste
  • 1 – 3.5 ounce jar of dried basil
  • 8 bay leaves
  • 8 tsp. salt
  • 4 tsp oregano

Directions: Caramelize the diced onions and garlic in the olive oil in a large pot, one meant for canning large batches. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot. Simmer for 3 hours. Remove the bay leaves. Allow the sauce to cool enough to jar. Bring a pot of water to a boil and allow the jars of sauce to cook in the hot water bath for 25 minutes.