Saturday, December 13, 2008

Temper Tantrum Turnips

Last season I started out planting most of my seeds with an Earthway seeder (see photo below). My initial impression of this inexpensive seeder is that it looked like a big wheels. Its brightly colored plastic, with those big plastic wheels reminded me of that kids toy which, no matter how fast you pedal, is a completely impractical mode of transportation. However, at least with a kid’s big wheel, you’re moving forward. It may be faster to walk, but there’s still progress. Not only did the Earthway seeder not drop most seeds with the consistent spacing necessary to actually grow crops, it often wouldn’t drop any damn seeds. Instead, it would grind them up in the hopper.

The way these walk-behind seeders work is, there’s a hopper where you dump the seeds which pass through a plate that has holes sized for specific crops. These holes are spaced a distance that allows the seeder to sow in a relatively consistent manner and at an optimal spacing. You then walk behind the seeder, pushing it forward while it digs a trench, drops the seeds and then buries them. It’s difficult to see how many seeds are actually falling, and it needs to be a somewhat exact science, so one must have faith in his or her seeder. For example, when I plant the lettuce for my salad mix, I like there to be at least three seeds per inch. Radishes and sugar snap peas, on the other hand, should be spaced about one seed per inch. My Earthway seeder dumped however many seeds it wanted wherever it wanted, but, like I said, mostly it just ground them up.

I haven’t actually started ranting full speed yet. I first want to make it clear what a disaster this was. In order to grow food one must till up the soil, make sure the soil has the correct organic nutrients for a given crop—often an expensive and time consuming factor—then seeds are planted and irrigated. One then waits anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for germination. When the seeds don’t germinate, one waits longer because plants sprout inconsistently. So…potentially weeks have passed before a grower realizes that, hey, nothing is GROWING. In the meantime, if nothing’s growing, there’s nothing to sell. In my case, I then go to the farmer’s market with NOTHING and I have to explain to EVERY CUSTOMER ALL DAY why I came to market, set up a tent and tables with NOTHING ON THEM!

Okay, I’m being dramatic. That never happened. But, I guarantee you, I stayed up many nights worrying that would happen. Fortunately, I start a lot of my crops in the greenhouse and transplant them out in the field. Also, I had no faith in my stupid Earthway seeder from the get go, so I always planted extra, sometimes by hand.

Some people swear by Earthway seeders, others don’t, but most people have experienced the seed-grinding phenomenon. So, I went online to figure out how suckers who use this implement fix it. Remedies ranged from soaking the seed plates in soapy water and then letting them dry with the soap on, to soaking it in soapy water and then rinsing it off, to walking at a slower or faster speed. There were many other remedies and I tried all of them. The final straw was when I oiled the rubber belt on the seeder, which was recommended by more than one farmer. This last attempt definitely didn’t stop the grinding, which was surprising, because the seed plate barely turned anymore. Apparently, oiling the belt takes away the friction needed to turn the seed plate consistently, which is the action that drops the seeds. So, what happened was, I was trying to plant purple top turnips, and the seed plate wouldn’t turn for a while and then it would LURCH, crushing every seed it could. Then I’d push the seeder further and the plate wouldn’t turn again. After a while of this, and after having spent hours and hours trying to fix this and many more hours replanting crops and explaining to customers why I didn’t have certain crops on certain weeks, and after having wasted way too much soybean and alfalfa meal fertilizer, I finally started just smashing the stupid seeder on the ground, seeds spraying everywhere. I then stormed off, throwing the seeder ahead of me, picking it up and throwing it further and further and further until I made it to the barn, where I threw it and where it rests still, five months later.

Unbeknownst to me, I had, for the first time all season, planted mass quantities of perfectly spaced purple topped turnips. Granted, they were dispersed in a circle instead of neatly lined rows, but they all germinated in half a week and I tilled around them for the next couple months, leaving this incredibly productive crop circle which probably accounted for a quarter of all the turnips I had all season. That may not sound like a lot, but it was. I planted turnips every three weeks for about four months. I’m telling you, there were so many turnips jammed in this space that no weeds could grow, and they weren’t spaced too closely because I didn’t have to do much thinning.

So, to any Earthway seeder owners out there, if you want the seeder to be functional, fill the desired seeds in the hopper, go out to the general vicinity of where you’d like the seeds and smash the seeder on the ground while swearing.

If you’d like a bit more consistency, I recommend the Planet Junior Seeder or the one I bought from Johnny’s, which they call a European Push Seeder (see photo below). While this tool costs almost three times as much as the Earthway, it was the best investment of the season. Not only does it have 39 different seed holes, which accounts for just about any crop imaginable, it also has an arm that marks the next row. For me, this added feature is THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD! With this new seeder, not only am I able to plant seeds with relative accuracy and consistency, I can also space each row evenly. The beauty of this is that I space my rows based on the needs of the plant and also the sized hoes I have for weeding. For example, I space my beets and salad greens in rows that are seven inches apart. This allows me to use my wheel hoe (see photo below)—with its 5 inch oscillating hoe—and go in between the plants, weeding entire 200 or 300 foot rows in a few minutes. Trust me, weeding is the bane of all organic farms and the key to having even a chance of overcoming at least SOME of the weeds, is to space rows evenly.

Disastrous Earthway seeder with a Delaware hen strolling by.
Miraculous European Push Seeder (it has another name, but that's what Johnny's Select Seeds--which is where I bought it from--calls it). Note the green arm sticking out, which is what I use to mark the next row. Also note that the barred rock hen did not trip on the arm. Below is the wheel hoe that I use to weed between the rows that I plant with the seeder.

Mr. Chili