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. My 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.
Types of Seed Planters
Sharpened sticks, antler tines, and even flaked rocks were among the earliest sowing tools 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 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 (a wedge-like structure called the shoe) that opens a furrow and helps convey the seed to the soil. This style of planter also often features 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 planter, can be a precision machine, but early drills were much less so. The drill is so-named because it opens small, shallow furrows (called drills) in the soil and places a fairly continuous flow of seed into that furrow through tubes that terminate just behind the openers. Early drills offered precision seed placement when compared with simply broadcasting seed over the soil, and they 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.)
The Cream of the Crop
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 until 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 $100, well-equipped) is one of the best starter planters available new today. This 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 have proven durable in my hands. I’ve taken the liberty of reinforcing the handle structure when rivets loosen up over the years, but overall, the planter is simple to adjust and simple to use with Earthway’s seed-metering plates. The plates offered will 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 can also order blank plates from the company so you can create your own custom plate for a particular seed or seed spacing requirement. 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.
For gardeners with more ground to plant, I’m particularly fond of the Cole Planet Jr. push seeder (about $775, 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 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. Another seeder in this category is Jang’s Model JP-1 (about $530, well-equipped).
For gardeners looking for something between the Cole Planet Jr. and the Earthway, Hoss Tools has a couple of great options, both of which are my current go-to planters. I particularly like the Seeder Attachment (about $190), which is simply bolted to a wheel hoe of the old Planet Jr. pattern (including the currently manufactured version by Hoss Tools). This planter is nearly as robust and versatile as the Cole Planet Jr. in a lighter and smaller package. It’s a little more finicky with regard to soil preparation, but I have used it successfully in light and heavy soils without much debris in the planting row. Want to plant some crops in closely spaced rows? You can mount two or more Hoss Seeder Attachments on a single toolbar to get the job done. The Seeder Attachment comes with six seed plates; blank seed plates are also available so that you can drill them yourself for custom sizing and spacing. If you don’t already own a wheel hoe and don’t plan to add one to your toolkit, the Hoss Garden Seeder might fit the bill. This dedicated seeder uses the same planting mechanism as the Seeder Attachment, but in a frame specifically designed for it and with a larger-diameter rear drive wheel (about $320 complete). I find the Garden Seeder to be a little more forgiving of tougher soils due to the large-diameter drive wheel, and it’s super handy because I can follow my wheel hoe directly with it; no need to swap out the tines for the planter attachment.
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 semi-automatic antique model to plant hill corn. The device consists of a hinged tube made of wood and metal with a seed box on one side and a perforated slider that takes 2 to 3 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. 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. New versions of this planter include the Stand ’N Plant Standard Seeder ($50). This seeder is also capable of planting in plastic covered beds with infinite variation in row and seed spacing.
Bio: Editorial Director Hank Will grows a large garden and manages several corn and forage patches for his sheep and cattle with the help of several hand-planters.