Paper Pot Transplanter
PLEASE NOTE: SINCE THE ORIGINAL PUBLICATION DATE OF THIS BLOG POST THERE HAS BEEN A MATERIALS UPDATE ON THE NATIONAL ORGANIC PROGRAM (NOP) STANDARDS. There was some concern that because paper chain transplanting pots contain a synthetic substance they should not be approved for use in organic production. As of January 2019, the NOP has reversed their decision to put paper pots on the prohibited substances list and are allowing certifiers to approve the use of paper pots on certified organic farms until further notice.
As a small-scale organic grower, transplanting can be one of those back-breaking, knee-scabbing tasks that makes you grudgingly buckle down to get those onions, brassicas, lettuces in the ground. There have been a number of innovations to try and make the job simpler and save your fingers, back and knees, but unless you buy a direct or water wheel transplanter for your tractor, you’ll likely spend onion-planting time on your knees.
However, there is another tool out there, and it is one of the most efficient and intelligently-designed transplanters I’ve seen: the Japanese paper pot transplanter. Pulled by hand, with no motor, it's a Japanese tool that was developed for the sugar beet industry. An organic farmer from Wisconsin, John Hendrickson, learned about the tool while visiting Japan. He started Small Farm Works, LLC so he could import the tool to North America, and it has been gaining popularity on small farms ever since.
What is a Paper Pot Transplanter?
The paper pot transplanter works similarly to a direct seeder in design. There is a furrower in the front that makes a trough, the plants are fed through a channel to drop into the trough, and there are two wings that push the soil back around the plants. Two wheels at the tail end lightly compact the soil around the plants. Instead of a seed hopper, there is a large tray space for the tray of transplants to feed out of. The key part, and namesake, of this design is the paper pot tray that the seeds are planted into. These little paper “pots” are actually loops of paper attached into a chain that looks similar to a honeycomb. The paper pots unchain as you move the transplanter, feeding themselves through the transplanter.
How the Paper Pots Work
The paper pots come in flats, and are spread apart with two metal tongs, then stretched onto a metal frame. The paper pots and metal frame are flipped into your transplant tray, and then the pots are gently filled with dirt. The tray is dibbled with a plastic dibbler you can purchase, or with your fingers. You can then seed by hand or buy the tray seeder, also sold through Small Farm Works. Finally a light layer of dirt is sprinkled over the seeds, the metal frame can then be removed, and your seeding is complete.
Here’s a great video showing the process of seeding a paper pot “flat”:
When you are ready to plant, minimal preparation is needed, though some folks prefer to rake the bed smooth. You bring your transplanter to the top of a row and place a tray of plants on the transplanter. On one end of the paper pot chain there is a white piece of paper that you pull loose to start the unchaining action of the pots. After feeding the chain of pots through the trough, the tail end and first transplant are anchored down into the ground with a screwdriver or ground staple. Then you simply start walking backwards down your row, pulling the transplanter with you, watching the pots chain out and keeping an eye on the straightness of your line. The pots chain out and drop into the trough, are gently covered with soil and lightly tamped down with the tail end of the transplanter implement.
Occasionally a chain will break or detritus will get stuck under your furrower and slow you down. For the most part, however, your time is spent setting up the transplanter and walking back to get another tray. Using the transplanter, one tray can be planted out by one person in less then a minute.
The Paper Pot Transplanter in Action
In action, the paper pot transplanter is incredible to watch. You can feasibly plant over 200 transplants in the time it takes to walk 150’, less then a minute. My first experience with the paper pot transplanter was at Hurricane Flats. Geo Honigford, owner and farmer, first found out about the paper pot transplanter and decided to make the investment in 2011. Hurricane Flats farms about 9 acres, with just Geo and one other employee. Getting a tractor transplanter doesn’t make sense for him, since he doesn’t have enough bodies to make it work. And planting by hand can be grueling, time consuming work. The paper pot transplanter afforded him a new method of transplanting that would be quicker, less harsh on the body and could easily be operated by just one or two people. Conceivably, it goes faster with two people - one running the paper pot transplanter, the other running new transplants trays, screwdrivers, and watering the transplants in as you go.
Check out this video to see the transplanter in action:
Limitations of the Transplanter
One spring day Geo left me alone in the field with a daunting number of onion trays. It was an intimidating task, but with the transplanter, I was able to get more than 5,000 row feet of onions transplanted by myself in one day. It was incredible to witness when the transplanter was working smoothly. The paper pot transplanter works best in loose soil that doesn’t have too many rocks or detritus, and as Hurricane Flats is a river bottom farm, there isn’t too much to get hung up on. However, because Hurricane Flats had been flooded the previous year by Tropical Storm Irene, a good amount of our popcorn and sweet corn had been tilled in, and whole cobs remained in the soil. These got caught up in the furrower and slowed the transplanting process. In areas with no detritus, it was all smooth sailing and I quickly worked my way through the trays of transplants. Geo loaned the paper pot transplanter to another farmer in the area who was up higher on the hill and had a lot more rocks in his soil. The transplanter was not as smooth for him, but still quicker then transplanting by hand. Certainly, the advantages of a paper pot transplanter are offset if your soil is not well-suited to the furrower.
A Versatile Tool
One of the really neat things about the paper pot transplanter is that you can use it for many different crops. The paper chain pots are available in 2, 4 or 6 inch in-row spacing. The length of in-row spacing is determined by the amount of paper chain between each cell. Each paper pot tray has 264 cells. You can also figure out your seeding rates in the cells, and further space out your seeds to more ideally suit your crops. The transplanter was originally created in Japan for sugar beet production, but is popularly used for onions, leeks, scallions and shallots. We’ve also used it for broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, early plantings of sweet corn, basil, lettuce, and herbs. The paper is allowed in certified organic production, holds up well until transplanting, then decomposes once in the ground. We’ve had varying success with the dryness of the paper pots when you plant- if they are soggy and wet, they don’t chain out as well.
Is the Paper Pot Transplanter Right For You?
A paper pot transplanter is a significant investment, as you need to purchase the trays, the paper pots, and the transplanter itself. Before trying out this system, you need to assess whether your farm would be well-suited, in soil, labor and types of transplantable crops, to make the jump and buy a paper pot transplanter. It is also worth considering the size of your operation - the transplanter does not make as much sense if you are doing short row lengths and have to move it around often. It works best when your row lengths are several hundred feet. But if you are looking for an easy-to-maintain, fuel-free, low impact transplanter that will save your knees and back when it comes to transplanting time, this might just be your new favorite tool.
For photos, videos, and more troubleshooting and advice, check out John Hendrickson’s website, http://www.smallfarmworks.com/.
Photos in the article courtesy of Small Farm Works, LLC