Powerplanter – reflections on using a new gadget to try and ease the hard work of planting bulbs

Each year we plant literally thousands of bulbs around the garden and if you suffer from any kind of wrist or hand problems it can be very difficult and somewhat painful. To date we have got on best using a standard sturdy trowel but it is hard work especially when planting into turf or uncultivated ground. Over the years we have also tried the stand-up bulb planters but found these very tedious. The plug of soil in the planter never comes out again as easily as it should to refill the hole.

When we saw the adverts for Powerplanter we were intrigued. It seemed like a simple and obvious solution. It is basically a large soil drill that fits into a cordless hand drill and digs you a hole for your bulbs, plug plants or larger plants grown in 9cm pots.

At the time of writing there are four types in the range (www.powerplanter.co.uk) in various sizes ranging from one for planting seeds through to a longer one for ‘stand-up’ digging. The one we chose was the mid-range planter, the 307 model (7 inches long x 3 inches wide). It describes itself as being suitable for ‘potted colour and bulbs’ and cost just under £40.

We have used it for planting autumn bulbs over a number of weeks now and in a nutshell it works! Here are some of our observations:

  • If you are going to use if for any length of time you do need a good quality cordless drill. I found my old drill battery was just not up to the job so treated myself to a new DeWalt DCD776S2T-GB 18V 1.5Ah Li-Ion Cordless Combi Drill. This comes with 2 rechargeable battery packs and is certainly able to keep going longer than I can!
  • The planter works well in moist soil in the cultivated flower beds. It also made light work of creating planting holes in previously uncultivated turf that we had killed off over the summer and had never been dug over. It did begin to struggle cutting into hard dry soil under a large oak tree but I was having difficulty getting a garden fork into that anyway.
  • You do need to be quite organised to avoid your drill getting covered in mud or wet. At this time of year the grass can be damp with dew in the morning and you need somewhere to put your drill down as you move around. I just use an old dog towel which keeps everything dry and clean.
  • When planting the bulbs I have got into the habit of working with one gloved ‘dirty hand’ and one ‘dry clean hand’. The dry clean hand operates the drill whilst the gloved ‘dirty’ hand plants the bulbs and covers over the hole with the loose soil. You can work very fast this way.
  • I have found that the planter is quite accurate and you can easily plant bulbs between other plants without damaging them. For example we have been planting bulbs amongst wall flowers that were set out about 9 inches apart in September.
  • If you are using someone else’s drill you might like to get their permission first. You do have to be quite careful not to get mud into the chuck which certainly could be a pain if the drill is normally used for indoor jobs. The 7 inch planter is only just long enough for digging holes for tulip bulbs and in hind site the longer 12 inch planter might have been better.
  • Finally do read the safety instructions and wear appropriate eye protection. Running on a slow speed it does not throw much soil up towards your face but it could.

Finally for the action movie 😉

For some reason my niece dissolved into fits of laughter seeing me drilling holes in the garden! The youngsters of today have no imagination!

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Soil blockers – reflections on using them for a season

I have to admit we are sometimes tempted by the odd gadget or two and last year at the Flowers from the Farm conference in Birmingham we were tempted to buy some ‘Soil blockers’.

One of the reasons for purchasing these was an ambition to try and reduce the amount of plastic, particularly plastic pots, we use for propagation. The ‘Soil Blockers’ allow you to create individual blocks of compost which you can sow your seeds into directly.

The Ladbrooke ‘Soil Blockers’ we bought come in three sizes; a ¾ inch mini block, a 2 inch medium block and a 4 inch large block. One very interesting feature is that using a special indent the mini block can be neatly slotted into the medium block and the medium block can be slotted into the large block when you want to transplant your developing plants. We purchased the mini and the medium sized blockers.

Mini Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed
Mini Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed

In theory the air around each block stops the roots of different plants tangling together and they are therefore less prone to damage when you come to plant out in the garden.

Medium Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed
Medium Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed

So how did we get on.

Creating the compost blocks works very well. Each block comes neatly out of the blocker and has a small dibble (technical term!) in the top to allow you to place your seed in. The down side is that loading the blocker with damp compost can be a rather messy business. We tend to start sowing early in the season to give our plants a good head start. Because it is cold and miserable outside we often work in the snug kitchen sowing seeds and pricking out. It is quite easy to sow seeds indoors with dry compost in small seed trays which you can carefully water but really not practical using large buckets of damp wet compost and a soil blocker. Really a job for the greenhouse only.

Compost blocks
Moist compost blocks in standard seed tray ready to receive the seeds

Being able to sow individual seeds in separate blocks made good use of expensive F1 seed in particular and the seeds did seem to germinate very well.

One seed (in this case garden peas) is placed in each indent ready for germination
One seed (in this case garden peas) is placed in each indent ready for germination
Indent filled with fine vermiculite to cover the seed keep the soil and seed moist
Indent filled with fine vermiculite to cover the seed keep the soil and seed moist

Our main problems began to emerge once the plants had started to grow. We found it quite difficult to keep the blocks moist enough. This was particularly the case for the smallest mini blocks. Watering from above tended to break down the compost blocks we had carefully created so the only satisfactory way to keep them adequately moist was to place the trays in a shallow bath of water and leave them to soak. This worked well but was extremely time consuming and was not really practical for the large number of seed trays we have to deal with each year.

The idea of being able to slot a mini block into the larger medium block also appealed but we found this to be very time consuming and we soon lost patience with this approach.

Over time we stopped using the mini block and sowed our seeds directly into the medium block. When the plants were large enough we either planted the blocks directly out into the garden or potted them up into larger plastic pots as appropriate. The roots held the blocks together very well and we did find them extremely easy to plant out or pot up at speed.

We found that some plants thrive better than others in the blocks – probably because we were struggling to keep them all watered well in the greenhouse and polytunnels as the weather warmed up. I was quite surprised to find that the medium blocks worked very well for podding peas for the vegetable garden. Because I loose a lot of seeds to mice and voles if I sow directly into the ground I have for a number of years started my peas off in modules and then planted these into the ground when they are big enough to look after themselves. Sowing individual seeds into the medium blocks created strong robust plants which then grew away wonderfully well when planted out. There was little or no disturbance to the roots and I think they appreciated this.

The fact that we have brought the ‘Soil blockers’ out to use again for a second year I think shows they are a valuable addition to our gardening equipment. I don’t think they actually saved us much time or reduce the number of pots we use but for some plants they worked very well indeed. In reality we use our plastic pots again and again, year after year. The watering was a real problem and so I suspect we will only use the ‘Soil Blockers’ this year for seedlings that really hate root disturbance and worked well with this approach.

Further information

Ladbrooke Soil Blockers are available from www.soilblockers.com