Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Container gardening, only better

It is spring, so I must take a break from cooking and eating and show something we do to grow some of our food.

A bucket of mint.  Baby mint.  Look closely, it is in there.

We do have plenty of garden space here, but when we lived in an apartment, we were introduced to Earthboxes.  Being frugal, we made our own.  Here is how....but first, the what and the why.

One of the problems with container gardens is the need to keep the plants well watered.  Many vegetables, notably tomatoes, need a steady supply of water and should not be allowed to dry out.  This type of container solves this problem by having a well full of water at the bottom of the container, and a soil "wick" to draw the water up to the plant's roots.

The above pail has four inches of water at the bottom, with the soil suspended above it.  The trick is to keep the soil out of the water, but to still wick the water up into the soil.  The other trick is to keep the pail from over-filling with water, making a swampy pail suitable only for growing cattails.  Here is how it is done.

You need a saw, some pipe in two sizes, a pail, and a drill.

The four inch drain pipe (regular pvc pipe would work just fine if you have scraps) is cut into four 4" pieces and placed in the bucket.  You will need a fill pipe for getting water past the soil and into the well.  A length of 1" pvc pipe, just a little taller than your bucket, is perfect for this.

You will need to drill a drain hole now, before proceeding any further.  See the drill bit sticking into the pail in the above photo?  You will drill a drain hole (size doesn't matter....maybe 1/4"?) slightly below the height of your sections of pipe.  Drill it next to your fill pipe.  You will thank me want to be able to easily see the water coming out as you run your hose into the fill pipe, and not have to lean over the pail looking for signs that the well is full.  

Hardware cloth.

Next, cut a piece of hardware cloth just slightly bigger than the diameter of your pail.  Set it on top to mark where to cut an opening for the fill pipe.  Be sure to wear leather gloves when cutting hardware cloth.

Press it in place, cutting a corner for the "wick."

This is the only tricky part, and it is only tricky the very first time you make one of these.  The hardware cloth is what will hold the soil up and out of the water, while allowing some soil to drop down into the water to act as a wick.  But you don't want all the soil to gradually fill up the well, so take some care with this step.

Can you see in the photo above that there is a section of hardware cloth, opposite from the fill pipe, that is cut and bent towards the bottom of the pail?  All the other edges of the wire are bent up.  Use a stick or a bit of pipe to press the wire into the edges and corners for as close a fit as you can.

Now can you see the space for the wick?

Wet some layers of newspaper and place them on the wire.  Make a tube with a piece of folded paper, a few layers, and put it into the space created for the soil to drop down into the water.  There is a small spot next to the fill pipe in the above picture that needs more newspaper.  Otherwise, a lot of soil will be lost, filling and clogging the well.

Filled pail, ready to cover and plant.

Now it gets fun.  Fill the pail with soil, packing it a bit as you add layers.  Purchased potting soil will do, but I use finished compost from our pile and mix it half and half with peat moss.  Yes, we had a couple of compost piles at that apartment, held in rings of fence wire.  We had a cool landlord.

Plants in these buckets will grow very fast and will need feeding, so a good handful of fertilizer is put into a trench in the top of the soil, and left uncovered.  The above design is for a single plant placed in the center of the pail.  For smaller, leafy plants, put the fertilizer in the center and put 3-6 plants around the edges, such as 3 chard plants or 6 leaf lettuce plants.  Use a 10-10-10 or lower fertilizer for this project.

Lastly, cover the top with black plastic to hold moisture and soil and eliminate weeding.  I use heavy garbage bags, trimmed and held in place with duct tape.  Cut x's in the bag where you want to place your plants.  Water from the top just once, to get the soil moist so it will wick up the water.  Oh, yes, fill the bottom with water through the fill pipe, stopping when it starts to come out of the drainage hole on the side.

We still use this method for our leafy greens.  It is virtually slug-free and is the best way to plant lettuce, in my opinion.  You can even extend your harvest of greens such as Swiss Chard by moving the pails to a protected garage at night, and keep lettuce from bolting on sudden hot days by moving them into a shady spot north of a building until the weather calms down.

When we were at the apartment, we planted many things in these containers.  Tomatoes will be amazing, but be sure to put the stake into the ground next to the pail.  The plants will be HUGE and will topple the whole thing over if not properly staked.  Only one plant per pail, trust me.

My folks planted a small garden this way when they were still working and had little time for gardening.  The yield is rather prolific, so be prepared!  They had summer squashes, chard, tomatoes,  herbs, etc, all in pails.  My father set up a series of drip lines from the hose and tested it for a few days so they could go on vacation for a couple of weeks and leave their garden unattended.  Genius.

You will want to change the soil in the pails about every other planting, except for heavy feeders like soil each time.  For leafy greens, I often just scrape out the top of the soil and add more compost.

You won't need to water the pails to often at first.  Maybe every week or two.  As the plants grow, and also depending on weather conditions, you will have to water more often.  A mature tomato plant, ripening a lot of tomatoes, may need water once or even twice a day, but the yeild and perfection of the fruits will make it worthwhile.

I may experiment with putting something in a pail that can be brought into the cellar for the winter, or at least for the first part of the winter, to extend the harvest...maybe kale?  Any ideas?

No comments:

Post a Comment