As much as I anticipate working the soil each spring and planting the garden, when it comes time to actually set seed in the ground, I’m glad I now have a collection of sowing tools that makes the work easier and helps save precious seed. Our gardens are fairly large, and when it comes to sowing a quarter-acre or more of corn or fodder peas, a heavy-duty walk-behind plate planter fills the bill. When sowing smaller seed in the vegetable garden, we have a couple of light-duty and inexpensive planters to choose from. And for sowing corn, beans or squash in hills, we have antique and modern versions of the stab-style single-seed planters.
Talk the talk
Early sowing tools included sharpened sticks, antler tines, and even flaked rocks that were used much like we use a modern dibble (dibber in some references) to open holes in the soil to a particular depth, into which we drop a seed – or several seeds, planter style. For some crops, those sticks or antler tines were used to open up shallow furrows (drills) into which seed was dispensed more hastily and heavily to yield thick stands.
In today’s terms, a garden seed planter is a precision machine that places individual seeds at a specific spacing along a row. As the planter moves along the row, it opens the soil to a specific depth, places the seed, covers the seed and provides some means for pressing the soil into contact with the seed. Walk-behind planters generally have a wheel in front that drives the seed-metering mechanism, an often-hollow wedgelike structure called the shoe that opens the soil and helps convey the seed to the soil, a closing device that pulls the soil back over the seed – chains, discs, etc. – and a press wheel at the rear that ensures good seed-soil contact, which is needed for efficient germination.
The stab planter is quite a bit simpler than the walk-behind unit in that it consists of an opener/seed delivery tube and some kind of seed metering capability (sometimes as simple as the operator dropping the individual seeds into the tube). Closing and pressing are generally taken care of by the operator’s foot. Simple as it sounds, much of corn country was planted with such devices shortly after the sod was broken.
The modern drill, like the garden seed planter, can be a precision machine, but early drills were much less so. The drill is so-named because it opened small, shallow furrows (called drills) in the soil and placed a fairly continuous flow of seed into that furrow through tubes that terminated just behind the openers. Early drills offered precision seed placement when compared with simply broadcasting seed over the soil and initially became popular for planting small grains because it was easy to plant those seeds in drills spaced very close to one another, creating a solid stand of grain that required no cultivating under ideal conditions. Today’s drills are really every bit as precise with seed placement as a planter and can be outfitted for use with most crops.
For the homesteader, gardener and micro-scale small-grains grower, hand planters will likely be used to more advantage than old-style hand drills (if you can find one) under most conditions. (Some may argue with this statement, but the planter can be more readily adapted to sow small grains than the other way around.)
Walk the walk
Working with hand planters can be joyous or frustrating, depending on your soil type, soil conditions, garden size and your physical condition. Lighter-duty planters tend to work better in lighter soils or heavy soils under ideal conditions (perfect moisture content, completely mellow, friable crumb, etc.). If soil gums up on the planter’s parts or is so tight that the openers can’t do their job, then it might be best to put off planting to another day and instead work on conditioning the soil or waiting for it to dry out a bit before proceeding.
Earthway’s 1001-B Precision Garden Seeder (about $125, well-equipped) is one of the best starter planters available new today. This garden seed planter has been on the market (in various iterations) for decades; I’ve worn out one over the years and am well into my second. The Earthway is made with lightweight aluminum and plastic components that prove durable in my hands. I have taken the liberty of reinforcing the handle structure when rivets loosen up over the years, but overall the planter is simple to adjust, simple to use, and can be had with seed-metering plates that work for just about anything you would direct-sow in rows in the garden. Sometimes I want to change the spacing, which I do by taping over some of the holes on the plates. These days, you also can order blank plates from the company to create your own custom sizes/spacing. Although we’ve planted acres over the years with the Earthway, you might choose this planter for gardens up to about a quarter-acre in size. Another seeder in this beginner or small-garden sized category would include the Precision Products Garden Seeder.
For gardeners with more ground to plant, I am particularly fond of the Cole Planet Jr. push seeder (about $600, well-equipped). This plate-type planter is constructed of steel, cast iron and wood (the seed box is plastic) and is based on a venerable old unit-planter design that is sufficiently stout to mount on a tractor’s toolbar for multirow medium-scale planting. This planter isn’t ideal for the smallest gardens – you really need to load its hopper with more than a packet of seed for best results, but if you have an eighth of an acre of corn to plant along with mangels, beans and many other crops, this tool has the heft to get it all done today and come back for more tomorrow. And then you can hand it down to your gardening grandchildren. I’ve used the Cole Planet Jr. extensively to sow corn, fodder beets, okra and a number of other crops. The machine is sized nicely for my 6-foot-4-inch frame, and its weight offers great momentum once you get it rolling. As you would expect with a professional-grade tool, this planter tracks well, and its row marker doesn’t skip. Plates are a little cumbersome to change, but not sufficiently so to ever make me consider leaving it in the barn. Other seeders in this category include Jang’s Model JP-1 (about $500, well-equipped) and the European Push Seeder offered by Johnny’s Selected Seeds (about $300, well-equipped).
Although I haven’t yet had my hands on a production model, I am privy to a prototype plate planter (about $160) that’s scheduled to be available from Hoss Tools by March. This planter is actually an attachment for the company’s line of wheel hoes. The Hoss planter attaches to the wheel hoe using the same mounting holes as the cultivator tines and includes a rear press wheel that also drives the seed-metering plate. The machine will come with a number of predrilled seed plates. Blank plates also will be available for those with custom seed-size and spacing needs. This looks like a perfect planter option for folks who already own a Hoss wheel hoe, or who intend to add that tool to their shed in the future.
For gardeners interested in planting in hills, or with less square footage to plant, a stab-style planter will save some wear and tear on your knees and back, save seed, and reduce the need for thinning. I’ve used a semiautomatic antique model to plant hill corn. The device consists of a hinged tube made out of wood and metal with a seed box on one side and a perforated slider that takes two to three seeds from the box and drops them down the tube and into the ground. You basically grab the two handles, pull them apart, stab the planter into worked ground, push the handles together and pull it out of the ground. A light brush and step with your foot seals the deal. New versions of this planter include the Stand ’N Plant Standard Seeder (less than $50 shipped). I’ve used this device over the years to plant individual seeds and small plants like onions to good advantage. You meter the seed or onion plants by hand, but you just need to walk down the row to get them into the ground. This seeder also is capable of planting in plastic covered beds with infinite variation in row and seed spacing.
Editor in Chief Hank Will grows a large garden and manages several corn and forage patches for his hogs with the help of several garden seed planters.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.