Monthly Archives: January 2009

planting technology – a tale of two seeders


Okay, first take a look at the image above, and then the one below. I couldn’t help comparing the two.


In the top photo, Lynda is taking a turn on the diesel crawler–cultivating the new patch where we’ll be growing this coming Spring (the tractor was on loan from my father, who uses it regularly for vineyard work). The disc behind the tractor slices and crushes the top several inches of soil, turning under weeds, mixing in cow manure, and converting large clods into finer soil. After two passes with the disc, we made a third pass with a tractor-pulled seeder. The seeder sowed thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of cover crop seeds that will help enrich and loosen the soil for Spring planting. This machine-aided approach allowed us to prepare a 40,000 square foot field with only two or three hours of work–just in time to beat the first big rain of the year that would have made the ground much less workable. BUT of course the tractor requires burning of fossil fuels, which we do our best to avoid. It’s a trade-off. I would say that 95% of our work is done by hand, but that 5% of machine work–mostly preparing a large field with a tractor, or preparing individual beds with a rototiller–is extremely helpful in making our operation sustainable for the two of us to manage without much help. And when we ask what the alternative is–i.e. how to cultivate and seed a large field without a tractor–what immediately springs to mind is a team of work animals. They would provide side benefits–fertilizer, fire control–but they would also require feed, which requires energy and/or more land…you get the picture. Sometimes a small dose of fossil fuels can go a long way, even if it’s painful. (Note: If you have any clever solutions for cultivating and seeding without a tractor, please share them! eally, write a post.)

Okay, now on to photo number 2–the one with Lynda working a much smaller, less noisy piece of seeding technology. This is our Earthway seeder, entirely mechanical–no fossil fuels required. In this photo Lynda is sowing onion seeds.


The Earthway seeder is a great example of technology that can make work SOOOO much simpler without requiring any fossil fuels. Before we bought the seeder (80-some dollars online) we used to hand prepare all our beds and hand sow all our seeds. Sowing by hand required one pass with a hoe to make a furrow, a second (hunched) pass to sow the seeds, and a third (kneeling/hunched) pass to cover the seeds. Talk about back-breaking! Now that we have the Earthway seeder, though, it’s a world of difference. Once we’ve prepared the soil with the rototiller, we simply load a “seed plate” onto the seeder, fill the bucket with seeds, and take one walk along the row. This single pass simultaneously opens a furrow, plants a seed, covers the seed with soil and tamps it down. Indeed, a technology that would now be sorely missed if we were to lose it. My back is ecstatic about it.

The photo below shows the seeder from above. You place the seeds in the black bucket. The grey seed plate then scoops seeds up as you move the wheels and feeds the seeds down through the furrowing tool. (The seeder comes with 5 or 6 seed plates that cover most of your basic veggie seeds, and extras can be bought if needed.)


In the view below you can see the furrowing tool–a wedge with a hollow core where the seeds fall through. The wedge opens the soil, the seed falls in, and then the chain behind covers it over with soil. Finally, the rear wheel tamps it down.


We’ve had good germination rates with the seeder so far. The one complaint is that it can be tricky to get the desired distance between seeds. The plates are set to sow with certain spacings, but you can cover every other hole with tape or bees wax to modify spacing; it will just take some trial and error to figure out which plates need modification. This challenge is far outweighed by the positives of time saved (and muscle strain avoided) because of the seeder.

All in all, it’s a clever technology that makes life easier without burning any oil. Now, we just need to get back to that problem of preparing the big field and look at it through the prism of this simpler, yet intricate technology. Hopefully one day we’ll learn to get the (oil-burning) tractors out of our lives.


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