Last night I was out in the fields literally until I couldn’t see anymore! Fortunately the task at hand was tilling with the tractor and good light was not a necessity. Even so, I didn’t quite get everything done and first thing this morning I went out and finished up. Now, for some of the fields this first pass with the tiller was simply to turn under weeds and cover crops that had been growing since late fall/early spring, but over half of our four acres are pretty much ready to plant (i.e., most of the previous year’s crop residue is broken down and the ground is worked 6-8 inches deep). Of course this happens every year, but you see, it is still April. And last year at this time we had done NONE (as in we hadn’t even been able to mow, which can be done well ahead of tillage, in the fields) of our field preparation. In fact it wasn’t until mid-July that we had prepped as much as we have prepped by mid-April this season. What a difference a year makes, and what a difference a dry spring makes for our field preparation.
Of course as we are used to doing, we are tempering our enthusiasm and not letting ourselves get too excited that this will be the perfect weather year…but it sure has started off nicely.
I’ve been meaning to post this description of how we made our vacuum seeder for a while now, but the weather has been so summer-like that we’ve been outside and I haven’t gotten to opportunity to type it up…anyway, not a bad problem to run into in early spring! If you’re not familiar with the basic principle behind the vacuum seeder you can google it to see professional ones in action.
So, other farmers have told us how much use they have gotten out of their vacuum seeders and we wanted to try inserting one into our operation, but we didn’t want to pay the $2500 dollars for a brand new professional quality seeder at this time. I found some plans for homemade seeders online, but they seemed a bit complicated so I simplified them a bit and have come up with this design that has worked well so far, cost under $20 for materials, and took only a couple hours to put together.
The basic idea is to create a box with two chambers – one that will fit snugly around your plug flat and another that the vacuum attaches to in order to suck the seeds onto the holes – that are separated by a piece of plexiglass with holes drilled in it.I made the sides of my box with a 2×8. For a standard 1020 flat size you’ll be able to get all the sides out of one 8′ board. Before cutting that 2×8 into pieces you will want to cut the groove where the plexiglass will fit. If you use a thin piece of plexiglass one pass with a circular saw or table saw will do the trick.
Make sure you cut the groove so that you have at least a 1/4″ of space above the top of your plug flat. You don’t want the seeds dislodged by accidental contact with your flat. Also, make sure that your line and cut are straight.
After cutting the groove, measure and cut the four sides of your box. Remember that you want the box to fit snugly around your plug flat without touching it. Also when assembling the box make sure that the groove lines up all the way around the edge so that your piece of plexiglass will fit in without any issues. You will either need to cut the plexiglass or measure very carefully and have the hardware store cut it for you.
Before attaching the fourth side of the box slip your plexiglass and plug flat in and mark where you want the holes that will hold and drop the seeds into place.
Next you will need to drill the holes in the plexiglass. For pelleted lettuce seed and other large round seed, you can use the smallest bit in a standard drill bit set, but for smaller seed you will need very small bits that are available in a drill index. You won’t be able to find a drill index at one of the big box stores, but anyone with a well outfitted shop may have a set and they are available online. Also, with the really small bits you’re standard drill won’t grip them. I just wrapped the bit in masking tape and then tightened it up. In the course of drilling the holes I just had to re-wrap the bit once. Once the box is assembled caulk the edges of plexiglass so that the vacuum doesn’t suck any air around the edges of the plexiglass. Then drill a hole where you will attach your shopvac. Ideally you want the shopvac to fit snugly in the hole so that it does not fall out when handling the vacuum seeder. Finally cut a piece of plywood or OSB to fit on top of the vacuum chamber. Once the caulk dries – you don’t want all your seeds sticking to the caulk! – you should be ready to test out your seeder.
A couple tips:
1. It helps to make dibbles in the plug flat before seeding.
2. Sometimes you’ll get more than one seed sticking to a hole. Banging on the back of the seeder will usually dislodge the extra seeds.
3. Lower the seeder slowly onto the plug flat so that you don’t accidentally dislodge seeds before you turn off the vacuum.
4. It helps to pour the excess seeds into something like a measuring cup and then back into the seed packet.
Certified organic. It sounds very official, and it requires a lot of paperwork and record keeping to legally get to call our produce “organic,” but what does that organic label really mean? At the most basic level it means that we don’t use any synthetic chemicals. But this simple definition misses how much we do in order to insure that our plants remain healthy through all of the environmental stresses present during your average growing season.
For example, take potting mix, which we’ve been working a lot with recently. When we started farming we went out and bought a pallet of commercially produced certified organic potting mix. Unfortunately just because this mix did not have any synthetic products and was thus certifiable, did not mean that it provided a healthy growing medium for starting our plants. We tried two or three other brands of organic potting mix, and were similarly unimpressed by the results. So we decided that we would have to make our own. Fortunately we knew a more experienced grower who was making high quality potting mix and who very generously shared his sources for some of the materials that we needed. Today we make a mix that contains really high quality locally produced compost, peat, vermiculite, perlite, an innoculant and some high quality balanced organic fertilizer. The innoculant is a package of beneficial bacteria that help the plant take up nutrients. Just as we know the role that good bacteria play in our health so we also have to make sure that our plants have the healthiest environment possible from the moment of germination. Finally the organic fertilizer is a blend that has the full complement of macro and micronutrients that plants need to thrive.
All in all it took us many batches of potting mix to get a blend that really got our plants off to a good start. And while both our mix and the commercial mixes that we experimented with initially are allowed in organic agriculture we know that our mix produces healthier plants! OK enough writing about potting mix…time to go start more seeds! Be sure to check back in with us throughout the season. We’ll try to show you what goes into producing healthy, organic food.
Things are always changing around the farm. Last year we put up a big, new hoop house. The previous year we added chickens to the farm. And, for the third year in a row we are changing our website before the season begins.
We promise that this is for the better! We’ve gone mobile here at the farm (I know a little behind everyone else, but pretty advanced among our farmer friends…) and we need a website that we’ll be able to maintain and post to while we’re in the middle of fieldwork, or when market hits a lull, or when we’re chasing after chickens or our kids.
We hope to post regularly, but the tomatoes come first!