Seeders, potting machines, transplanters and other kit to help mechanise plant production processes are in big demand. Across the board, making savings on labour or making better use of existing labour is the mantra. Efficiency is the buzzword.
As a result, companies supplying nursery machinery and equipment are looking at systems to see where efficiency can be improved, where needless operations can be deleted and where machinery can help streamline whole processes.
"This is where our experience is very useful," says Hortec Growing with Technology managing director Ian Thornhill. "A lot of the mechanisation available is built for the Dutch market, which tends to be almost mono-crop operation - few varieties, standardised pot size, large volumes going into few customers. Having a wide range of machines, we can find the best fit for the UK customer and modify machines to meet particular requirements."
Citing an example, Thornhill adds that some machines can now be specified as "single" pot, handling pots up to 32cm, and can then be changed over in a relatively short time to "twin" machines handling up to 14cm (1.5-litre) pots with speeds of up to 6,000 pots per hour.
Hortec, based in Warwickshire, specialises in the supply and hire of Javo potting, tray-filling and compost-handling machinery as well as transport systems including conveyors and robots.
Thornhill understands that recognising where there is a problem or holdup is important if delays are to be avoided and efficiency improved. Guesswork does not help. So, increasingly, Hortec is asked for timers to be fitted or supplied on machinery, along with pot counters and other systems, to gather accurate knowledge in terms of output per hour or per day.
Potting speeds are particularly important for nursery stock growers. A recent development in this field has been the mechanisation of bare-root potting, and this is where the Javo Plus M2.0, Javo's most advanced machine, can help. It is mobile, has 16 potting stations, electrically controlled elevator and pot-track speed and is capable of filling and drilling potted plants. Described by Thornhill as a "champion" with bare-root stock, it uses a fast, central, tool-free adjustment for quick changes between pot sizes, saving time and money, and is suitable for round or square pots.
Coles Nursery is one of several growers to have hired or purchased a Javo Plus M2.0 to pot bare-root plants while still maintaining a facility to pot normally into pots from 9cm to 32cm or 32 litres.
While the speed of the machine is very easy to adjust, one of the options that Hortec regularly fits to it is a timer. "This enables the speed of the machine to be set to the job in hand," Thornhill explains. "If the minimum speed of 1,100 per hour is still too fast for the potting to be done properly, the timer is switched on. The machine then drops a pot and then 'waits' for the duration that the timer is set for before dropping another. That pause can be set for up to 10 seconds, enabling the machine to act as a pacesetter rather than being started and stopped all the time - with the loss of output and efficiency that can cause."
In the bedding plant industry, Rotomation designer/engineer James Ashton reports increased sales of the Urbinati RW16 transplanting machine into nurseries looking to replace older, more mechanical types of kit.
"Older machines that plant across the bed are limited to the number of heads that can be used," he says. "The RW16 plants along the bed. It means a machine can be ordered initially with three heads, for example, and if extra capacity is required in the future the user simply slides extra heads onto the machine at a fraction of the cost of a new machine. With the heads running along the conveyor belts rather than across, the machine can accommodate up to 16 heads."
The RW range of Urbinati transplanters offers flexibility of planting combinations between plug trays and end trays. There is no need for a combination between rows in the plug trays and rows in the end tray. The machine will plant into any combination and can also pick from or plant into staggered trays. Patio containers and hanging pots can also be handled in planting patterns.
"The large touchscreen is easy to navigate and the machine does not require a mechanically minded person to operate it as there are no longer any mechanical settings for the heads, so freeing up time for key personnel." Ashton adds.
The unit can be used with any tray filler and will pause all machines in the line automatically as and when required. Ashton reports several RW16 transplanters on order, destined for grower/retail nurseries this autumn.
Harry Brennand, owner of Pole Green Nurseries in Charnock Richard, Lancashire, recently purchased one. "While we have the potential to get more money for our plants by retailing, we still need to produce them efficiently for it to be a viable proposition as opposed to buying in," he says. "In recent years we have updated our production facilities to include boom irrigation, a drum seeding line and an RW16 transplanting line comprising tray and pot de-nester, tray-filling machine and 12-head transplanter.
"Being a retail nursery we produce many different varieties in relatively small runs. We need machines that can be quickly and easily adjusted when changing tray sizes. We can go from planting basket plants in pots to planting packs with very few adjustments. The RW16 supplied by Rotomation has proven to be the ideal machine."
The drum seeding line at Pole Green Nurseries has also proved sufficiently flexible for the business. Not only does it sow plugs but it also sows sweet peas and vegetables directly into pots and packs.
Thornhill has noticed a swing towards pot bedding with bigger plugs going into pots, requiring potting rather than transplanting. "This has moved the production back towards potting machines. Any plug bigger than a 104 benefits from a drilled hole in the pot. The various dibbing units are alright for smaller plugs but a drill that removes material from the pot is the most beneficial for rapid establishment."
Hortec recently installed a twin pot system with a potential output of 6,000 pots per hour, with the long-term view that a transplanter can be installed over the potting machine to save labour. "The Javo machine, properly set up, is as useful with smaller plugs as even a small hole drilled centrally in the pot helps with the end quality," says Thornhill.
We may be facing a labour crisis with Brexit potentially making it harder to find the workforce required and the rising cost of wages adding pressure to already narrow margins. Mechanisation has to be the way forward but equipment must be flexible and efficient. With the ingenuity and creativity shown by prominent suppliers in the UK, there are lots of options.
G100 Pot Topper: speedy and accurate system
A new bark topping machine was shown by GAL Systems at Four Oaks Trade Show in Cheshire last September. The G100 Pot Topper is a fast and accurate filling system for topping and settling oneto 10-litre pots.
"The main feature is that it distributes bark across the pot and then vibrates it to give a settled and level finish," says GAL Systems managing director Gary Leeder. "This reduces the chances of losing the bark topping when the pot is transported around the nursery."
There are few adjustments to make when changing pot sizes and the machine is available with several different hopper sizes and in various configurations. Input direction can be handled either way to suit the layout of the potting shed. The unit also features variable speed control and has a speed-controlled floor belt.
Keeping outdoors containers upright in the wind
Plants growing or displayed outside in pots or containers are exposed to wind. All too often a good breeze will result in plants toppling over - and then they have to be stood up again.
Something that growers have begun using this year is pot-support system VFleet Racks, built by Floor van Schalk and available in the UK from PG Horticulture.
Available as standard in three, four, five, 7.5, 10 and 12-15 litre sizes, and in bespoke sizes, they can be used on the ground in the nursery or in benched areas of the garden centre.
For larger containers or areas of mixed container sizes, FlatFloor Racks use a hook system to stop containers from falling over.
Vibrating plate seeder
New from Mechanical Botanical is the MB vibrating plate seeder. Designed for when a lot of seed is required on the tray, it is made in stainless steel and has an adjustable weir gate, adjustable vibration and tray trigger switch.
The seeder is pictured below being fed by the Mayer Perfection Trayfiller and has a Mosa Watering Unit on the right to gently water via four fine bars spread across a 1m length to allow capillary action to work in every cell of the tray as it moves under the bar.