When doing a task on the farm that can require long hours and repetitive motions, it’s essential to factor in the toll it will take on your body, and also how you can eliminate unnecessary steps or movements in your system.
When designing my nursery space back at Winding Road Farms in Petaluma, California, I made it a personal goal to think of a more ergonomic and efficient system for filling countless trays when seeding.
I had spent too many hours slumped over a wheelbarrow scooping potting mix into trays. I had also used a system that was comprised of a box or container to hold the potting mix, with an adjacent solid wood benchtop for filling trays, but I didn’t like the way I would have to brush off all of the excess potting mix from the benchtop after filling each tray.
This got me thinking. How could I design a station that combined the container for holding the potting mix with the work surface for filling the trays, that wouldn’t require constantly brushing the mix back into the container after filling each tray?
When I finished installing the second-hand expanded metal greenhouse benches in my nursery greenhouse, I was left with one extra 2’ by 4’ segment of expanded metal, with a rigid metal frame to support it. I knew it could be repurposed for something, but I didn’t initially know what that would be. I set it aside, knowing that it would surely come in handy for something in the future.
Flash forward, as I was pondering how I wanted to set up my tray filling station, the remnant piece of expanded metal bench top caught my eye. It dawned on me that the solution to skipping the step of constantly brushing off excess potting mix was by having a permeable work surface…like expanded metal.
By having the storage container for the potting mix located directly below the work surface, any excess mix would fall straight through back into the container. Not only would this accomplish the goal of eliminating extra motions, but it would also save valuable real estate in the nursery greenhouse by stacking these two functions.
Typically, the tote or box holding the potting mix would be sitting to the left of the workbench where the trays are filled. By designing a storage box to be directly below a permeable work surface, you are reclaiming valuable square feet in your nursery. This means more space for trays, which means more crops, and ultimately more potential profit for your farm.
Once the idea was conceived, it was time to hit the drawing board. With my lower back in mind, I decided to design a box that angled up in the back, sloping down to the front. This would reduce hyper-extending the back when reaching over the work surface. Using ½” plywood, I designed a wooden box with a base measuring approximately 4’ wide and 3’ deep. It had a 12” high back wall, and a 9” front wall (with the sides sloping down).
I then mounted the 2’ x 4’ piece of framed expanded metal to the upper portion of the box, with two hinges along the back ridge. This allowed for easy opening of the top when needing to replenish the box with potting mix. It also left 12” of open space in the front of the box for access to scoop out the mix when filling trays (see illustration above).
The design performed exactly how I hoped it would! With the greenhouse tables being about waist high, and the front edge of the box being about 9” high, the workflow was extremely comfortable and easy on the back. The ergonomic design of the angled work surface also definitely helped when filling trays for long periods of time.
If you prefer some moisture in your potting mix, there is the potential of the plywood rotting out over time. However, the wood should provide multiple years of use before wearing out. A heavy-duty moisture-resistant plastic box would be nice for the long term. I’ve considered using a large black plastic cement mixing container for a future design, but having the custom angle is very nice for the aforementioned reasons.
With ergonomics and efficiency as your guiding principles for the systems on your farm, there are endless possibilities for innovative designs to help you save your time and your back! I think constantly thinking of creative solutions like this is one of my favorite aspects of farming. There will always be ways to improve and refine. It’s good to stay intentional about not getting stuck in our ways just because that’s “the way we’ve always done it.” Winter is a great time to re-examine our systems and dream up new ways of doing things in the coming spring. Hopefully, this design can be implemented in your own nursery greenhouse–or even improved upon!
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