“Based on our experience over two seasons we have found we will never go back to hand transplanting. The paper pot improved our overall farm efficiency by as much as a full day per week, but our quality of life has improved tremendously by taking one of the most challenging parts of farming and alleviating the physical stress almost entirely.” Benny Pino of Loblolly Farm
How many beds do you transplant on your farm each year?
Do you do it by hand, and if so, how does your body feel when you go to bed at night or on the following days?
These questions might seem rudimentary, but when you take the time to think about how many hours every farm dedicates to transplanting, you can see how quickly they become paramount.
At Loblolly Flower Farm we’ve come to use the paper pot transplanter to answer these questions. We transplant a hundred plus flower varieties each year, with a few direct-seeded exceptions. Because of the paper pot we only need to send one person to the field at a time to transplant and are 5-10 times more efficient than we were hand transplanting. This essential part of farming is now no longer hard on our bodies, and we are willing to tackle as many beds in a day as needed, even if it is 10 or more, without getting tired.
Read on to get an in-depth picture of how we’ve accomplished this at Loblolly Farm, and how you might do just the same on yours.
First, the Paper Chain Pots
The paper pot transplanter has the advantage of having little to no moving or mechanically driven parts. It is truly a hand-tool. This has a lot of implications, meaning practically no maintenance, minimal failure points, and best of all, requires no fuel.
However, if you were to say the paper pot transplanter had a “fuel”, it would be the paper pots from which it takes its namesake. The transplanter can’t be run without them, and it’s important to become familiar with them to optimize their use.
The pots come in 2”, 4” and 6” spacing. The length of these pots after being unraveled is 49.5’, 93’, and 139’ respectively. When it comes to flowers the vast majority are transplanted at 6-12” in row. This means we only purchase 6” pots, planting roughly half of our flowers at 6” apart and the other half we plant at 12” by skipping half of the cells in the 6” pots. We transplant each of our 30”-wide and 45’-long beds with one tray per bed at 3 rows.
This is an incredibly simple system!
One tray translates to one bed of flowers, every time. While every farmer finds ways to optimize their operations to suit their purposes and observations, we advocate anyone planting flowers to give this technique a try. Not only do 45’ x 30” beds work well on a small scale operation, but the 6” pots are the most affordable, and leave less room for confusion and operator error.
The main concern for small scale growers here might be that 3 rows per bed is less than the 6 than some people would plant to a bed of, for example, snapdragons. This can be corrected for by overseeding, or putting 3 or more seeds in each cell.
Since flowers put on most of their growth vertically the crops do not suffer much from being close together in clumps as long as they have room around them to stretch into. By seeding multiple seeds per cell you are also correcting for the biggest set back of paper pots – cells that don’t germinate. If you have an empty cell this means a gap in the bed, unless you want to go through considerable effort to find a way to fill a plant in. While you shouldn’t overseed too much, roughly 3-4 per cell works well the majority of the time.
Using the Transplanter with Flowers
Once you have grown a healthy tray of transplants, now it’s time to see the paperpot in action. This is where the trial and error of getting used to your transplanter comes in, as we alluded to earlier. First, consider your tray of seedlings. Are they leggy? Is there a large mat of intertwined roots coming out of the bottom of the cells?
Leggy transplants can get caught on each other up top, and tangled roots cause the paper pots to get stuck and rip at the connection. This can cause your transplanting time to go up considerably. If you have a tray like this you don’t have to throw it out, we often find getting a second person to walk along next to the transplanter who will tease the chain apart is all that’s needed. This is still ultimately much faster than hand transplanting.
Most of the time, you can avoid this issue by growing flowers to just the right stage, and giving them adequate light. While some flowers that are small and compact like snapdragons allow for more of a transplanting window, others like sunflowers and sweet peas should be only left in the tray for two weeks before going out. We have a chart that lets you know how long we recommend growing transplants for which can be found here.
Bed Preparation for the Paper Pot Transplanter
The second important consideration when it comes to using the transplanter is your soil and bed prep. A stoney soil, especially with large rocks often proves too difficult to navigate and when it comes down to it, the less rocks the better. Otherwise, the tilth of the soil can be fairly forgiving, as long as the bed top is uniform. A bed that has been chisel plowed or worked with a broad fork only will be too rough, the top few inches where the transplanter will be run should be tilled or at least raked or rolled flat.
It’s All About Technique
The last step is adjusting the depth of the transplanter and pulling it along correctly. Just above the set of wheels underneath the handles is a depth setting pin, which if raised will cause the furrower to run deeper. It is best to adjust this until you find a good depth where the crown, or where the roots of the transplant meet the stem, are buried given your soil, and then leave it be. While you will be tempted to adjust this to correct for some more basilar growing plants like statice, when you see them getting buried by soil sometimes, you’re better off getting used to lifting or pushing down on the handle bars.
While it might be possible to move quickly for some robust flowers like sunflowers and zinnia, almost jogging down the row, there will also be times when transplants need more finesse. This means paying close attention to the end of the transplanter where the furrow is being zipped up or filled back in by the machine and taking the time to raise or lower the handlebars slightly to bury it at the right depth. This is trial by error, as every soil and situation has a number of subtleties, but the skill can be learned so that the majority of the time most plants are planted perfectly. It is more efficient to not worry about plants that need to be corrected until the whole bed is done, and take a few minutes to bury or unbury them as needed.
Conclusion – Better Than Hand Transplanting!
Based on our experience over two seasons we have found we will never go back to hand transplanting.
Call us spoiled, but not only has the paperpot improved our overall farm efficiency by as much as a full day per week, but our quality of life has improved tremendously by taking one of the most challenging parts of farming and alleviating the physical stress almost entirely. At first we were worried it might not work as well with flowers, but turns out it might even work better than with vegetables. So, give it a try using some of the guidelines above. We bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and maybe just like us, downright relieved!
This primer is not meant to replace how-to videos that do a much better job at showing detailed introductory step-by-step instructions on the paperpot system, which can be found here.
This article was written by farmer Benny Pino of Loblolly Farm. Loblolly Farm is a small scale flower farm on two acres, located in Southern Maryland. They sell their flowers to local Washington D.C. farmers’ markets and through the weddings they design. Follow them on Instagram @loblollyfarm.