Archive for April, 2015

Water-wicking beds and boxes

April 27, 2015

The knowledge of what are known as ‘water-wicking beds’ seems to be growing, with more and more gardeners putting them in place.

I first came across the concept at this webpage. There’s plenty to read there. The first three articles on how water moves through the soil and using stones (not) as a base for the bed are very important.

Following that I found a site where the writer had used white polystyrene vegetable boxes as small wicking beds. Since I have heavy clay soil in the area I wanted to put my vegetable garden, back-breaking digging was out of the question, plus it was on a slope, so the idea of small individual ‘boxes’ appealed.

I couldn’t access the number of poly boxes at the size I wanted, so searched in the local hardware store for plastic crates, of which there are a huge variety. I went for black rather than clear plastic, because algae will grow in wet soil when it can get light and I didn’t want ‘green’ sides to all my boxes. I thought the black colour would be an advantage in winter (warmer soil) but might not be so good in summer, though they could be easily shielded from the sun.

I came up with these :

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They’re 60 cm long, 40 cm wide and 25 cm deep; not quite as deep as I would have liked at the time, although there are deeper ones available now, but useful for shallow-rooted plants which most vegetables are.

Water will ‘wick’ up about 30 cm against gravity so any soil depth greater than this will mean the layer above that depth will remain dry.

With the boxes I chose, at 25 cm depth, that wasn’t going to be a problem.

It’s usual, in large beds anyway, to put in some form of perforated pipe across the bottom of the bed, which opens to the surface, through which to add water. The water spreads out to fill the reservoir below the bed and this is where the water comes from to wick up into the soil above. By looking down the pipe or using a dipstick, it’s possible to see if there is water in the reservoir or not.

For a small box like I was going to use, this is unnecessary; all I did was stand a piece of pipe in one corner of the box :

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And drilled drainage holes (one at each end) about one-third of the way up from the bottom :

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Finally I filled the box with good quality compost, not bought stuff, but stuff I made myself, with plenty of organic matter.

I soon found that adding water via the vertical pipe didn’t work, as it was just too slow a method to fill the lower part of the box (I get little frogs making a home in my pipes and they get pretty annoyed if I suddenly dump a load of water into the pipe). So I started watering overhead and have done so ever since. It’s what happens when it rains anyway. I use the pipe simply to check on water levels. If I can see water in the bottom of the pipe, I know the soil at the bottom of the box is saturated and I don’t need to water until I can’t see any water. The boxes will go several days more without water if the plants are small and not sucking much up. Poking a finger into the top few cm will show how moist the soil is (I’m calling it soil because it’s quicker to type than ‘compost’ or ‘growing medium’, but you know what I mean).

So that’s essentially my method and I have about 35 wicking boxes around the garden at the moment.

I began reading other blogs where people were putting in large wicking beds and noticed that most were using sand or gravel in the water reservoir and covering it with a layer of some sort of cloth to stop soil getting into the gravel. I couldn’t see the sense in this; roots will go right through this and into the water below (making holes) and if there’s no watering from above this layer will be largely free of nutrients (of course rain will wash nutrients through so that’s really not a problem). I note that the person who developed the concept (see the link in the second paragraph above), seems to think likewise. My boxes are full of compost in which every root can access nutrients. The water-seeking roots will live in the saturated layer at the bottom and the feeder roots liking the medium just moist, will stay in the top section. Too much work and materials are required to do all that other stuff! Plus, I can lightly fork fresh material into a box to top it up, without the fork becoming snagged on anything below.

I also add worms from the worm farm (compost worms, not garden worms) and they continually aerate the soil and eventually turn it all into worm castings, which hold a phenomenal amount of water. I’m monitoring those boxes to see if growth is affected (the texture is like mud!) and will remove and replace at least half the medium with fresh compost if needed. If there’s a problem it will probably be due to low oxygen levels.

Another thing to note is that nutrients can’t leach away as they do in a non-wicking garden bed. What goes into the wicking bed or box stays there until the plants take it up, so it’s important not to over-fertilise or get the nutrient balance out of whack by adding too much of anything. That’s why a good, nutrient-balanced compost is essential. Being able to identify nutrient problems just by looking at the plant is an essential skill.

During the growth of a single crop, the soil level in the wicking box will drop a few cm, so in between crops I top up with fresh compost. I mulch the top of each box as well, so that direct sun isn’t pulling water out of the soil faster than it can wick up from below.

I’m happy with the boxes and even if I had a flat area to make wicking beds, I wouldn’t bother with all that work and extra materials. A wicking box or crate can be poked into any small space, on a deck or sunny porch or hidden amongst a collection of more traditional flower pots. They’re ideal for rental properties where you can’t do major gardening works and you can take them with you when you leave. For less than $20 and 3-4 buckets of good quality compost and a punnet of seedlings from the garden centre, you can get a veggie garden going in half an hour and build on it from there.

Once you understand the wicking process, almost anything can be turned into a wicking container. Old fridges, second-hand baths…..I’m currently growing my strawberries in plastic wicking buckets.

Here’s a line of 10 boxes I put in a few years ago :

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I put them up on polystyrene fruit boxes to prevent rabbits accessing them. I’ve since found that a large rabbit can stand on its hind legs and nibble round the edges, so I’ve put wire around the top of each box.

They can be individually covered to keep out cabbage white butterflies or whitefly :

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You can grow one type of crop per box and if necessary, adjust individual growing requirements, e.g. pH, just in that one box. This is wombok chinese cabbage in a wicking box :

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Sometimes its easier to direct-sow seed rather than go through the tedious process of sowing, potting up seedlings and transplanting. This is mizuna, another Asian green. I just clip off what I need with the scissors. The chooks get a handful every day and provided I cut above the growth point, it simply keeps on growing :

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I think individual wicking boxes are the best thing since sliced bread. I wouldn’t ever bother with the work and quantity of materials needed to make a full-sized wicking bed.

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Memory plant

April 25, 2015

This is Bacopa monnieri, otherwise known as Brahmi or Water Hyssop :

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It’s a creeping perennial with small oblong leaves and purple flowers, found in warm wetlands, and native to Australia and India. The entire plant is used medicinally especially in India and it’s supposed to enhance memory, specifically the  ability to retain new information. Here’s a link to a study that was done.

My plant is in a 15 cm pot and I keep it on one of my rainwater collecting bins (a 60 litre rubbish bin, with the lid turned upside down and a hole drilled in the centre). Because we’ve had good rain, the bin is full and the level of the water has filled the lid, so the pot is sitting in water :

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The growth tends to cascade over the side and has entered the water where it’s put down roots :

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I can cut off the rooted pieces and pot them up to make new plants. Wish all plants were as easy to propagate!

I harvest Brahmi by snipping off the growth ends with scissors, chopping finely and adding to omelets or scrambled eggs, but it can be added to anything you like. I don’t know if the memory improvement bit is working or not, but it’s something else I can grow that I can eat.

Australian oil reserves substandard

April 8, 2015

So somebody’s woken up at last.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-08/australian-oil-reserves-substandard/6377160

The report prompted former Air Vice Marshall John Blackburn to warn of catastrophic consequences of an interrupted oil supply.

“You’d start to see society collapse,” he told the ABC in November.

You know, a collapse is just what we need to wake people up. No fuel at the pump, no food in the shops; that’d do it.

I’ve been trying to tell people about energy issues for the last 10 years, in particular, the peaking of global oil production. I’ve been largely ignored, with the exception of a stupid clod of a neighbour who wrote me a nasty vicious email on the subject. If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger. Is it any wonder I get angry and actually hope for a collapse?

Whether it happens overnight, as a result of a terrorist attack, or whether it happens slowly as a result of the natural decline in oil supplies, is immaterial. This way of life will come to an end and those who haven’t prepared for it will be up the proverbial creek.

Oh, but I’ve been told so many times, “they will think of something”.

Yeah, right. Don’t hold your breath. Get to and start building resilience and self-sufficiency into your lives.

 

 

Wicking beds

April 7, 2015

I was just searching through my bookmarks for the original site where I first learned about wicking beds and discovered that the link was now going to a new site,  although still written by the same person.

I checked out the wicking beds link at the site and discovered a whole lot of new information has been added since I last looked and which I’m now going to peruse with renewed interest.

If you haven’t investigated wicking beds yet, check it out. It’s a great way to grow plants using water-saving techniques.

March update

April 4, 2015

After my last update, when I showed my raspberry bed with nets over it, a reader pointed out that it didn’t look very secure because there were gaps a bird could easily get under. Well…um…I did know that; I’d hastily thrown some netting over the top in order to take the photo, hoping no-one would notice it wasn’t perfect!

I found a terrific net in Bunnings—4 m x 4m—which fitted beautifully, going right to the ground. Much better :

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It’s exciting to see the berries ripening underneath, even though there aren’t many of them this time, because it’s only their first year :

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I bought a couple of extra nets and when I create another bed for thornless blackberries, which I’m going to buy and plant this winter, I’ll make it the same size so the net will fit perfectly.

 

This year, I’m having a go at growing red cabbage in a wicking box :

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The seedlings were ready early and I wanted to plant them out, but Cabbage White butterflies were still around, so the wicking box had to be netted too. This is just cheap mosquito netting, draped over a couple of pieces of plastic pipe and tied at the ends :

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The March equinox is when I plant my garlic. I bought bulbs again this year from Yelwek Farm, because my bulbs from last year were just too small to bother with.

Ready to plant :

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And planted :

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Potato onions were also planted at the equinox. These were the ones I grew last year and were also small, but I decided to go with them rather than buy more. One is sprouting already :

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Another brassica I’m having a go at growing is wombok chinese cabbage, which I use to make kimchi. Again, the seedlings had to be netted to keep out the white butterflies :

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The New Girls finally came good at 29 weeks old and started laying and I got a dozen eggs in the first week and 16 in the second, an all-time record. This is Bonny, who made up for the late start by presenting me with a whopping 78 gm egg, which turned out to be a double yolker. The three Old Girls only ever averaged 60-65 gm between them over the three years they’d been laying and never managed a double yolker. The other two New Girls are still in the 50-55 gm range. Bonny developed the biggest comb and wattles of the three. I thought initially I’d never be able to tell them apart, but they’re quite different now. She really is a bonny girl :

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Sadly, I lost the second of the Old Girls this month. Cheeky succumbed to digestive issues, with an impacted crop, anaemia and unspecified lumps in her abdomen. I took her to an avian vet but there was nothing that could be done and she was euthanased. She was a few months short of four years old and had only laid four eggs last spring.  Molly is the only one left of my three original girls now and I feel so sad for her as she sits alone in the sunny spot where she and Cheeky usually sat together each afternoon. They always did things together, the two oldies, ignoring the three boisterous newbies.

Farewell Cheeky :

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While I’m on the subject of chickens—the Chicken Behaviour and Welfare course I wrote about in the previous post has started and already I’ve learned something about behavioural motivation (which can be either internal or external) :

“The motivation for a hen to find a secluded site, build a nest and lay eggs, is under internal control. It’s the ovulation of the follicle that results in a cascade of hormones that drives these behaviours. It’s not the sight of a nest or another hen sitting on eggs that motivates the behaviour”

So that means the common notion that if you want a hen to lay, you should put a couple of phony ceramic or plastic eggs in the nest is all bunkum! No doubt spread by the people who sell phony plastic eggs!

I’m loving the course so far, although disappointed that the videos are fairly short—I powered through the dozen videos in Week 1 in less than an hour—but I will watch them several times and make some notes.

 

I’ve written about this attractive Naranka Gold pumpkin previously. It’s not going to flower now; it’s too late in the season, but it’s still growing and I haven’t pulled it out because I wanted to see how it coped with the cooler weather. The older leaves are a bit brown around the edges, but there’s no sign of downy mildew. I’ll definitely be sowing this variety again next season. I would have sown it much earlier last year if I’d known how good it was going to be :

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That yellow colour isn’t due to a nutrient deficiency. That’s how it’s meant to be. You can see the variegated colour on the young leaves in this photo of the pumpkin from the Coles website (it’s grown exclusively for Coles).

 

I pulled out all my tomato plants; they were looking woeful, with late blight and sooty mould on the leaves, but I’m pleased with the season’s harvest—I picked just over 26 kilos of fruit. Most of that is in the freezer for cooking over winter (I’ll use them where a recipe calls for canned tomatoes); there are 2 huge jars of dried tomatoes and a third smaller jar in the pantry and I’ve eaten as many fresh as I could. The end of the tomato season is always the saddest time in the garden, because I never ever buy the tasteless, hard lumps that pass for supermarket tomatoes.

Sun-dried goodness :

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The major pest problems for me this past season have been aphids and whiteflies….gazillions of whiteflies. They’re hard to spot because they collect on the underside of leaves, and only when the plants are disturbed do clouds of them take to the wing. I’ve used a natural garlic-based spray or otherwise blasted them off with the hose. It’s French beans they seem to favour most. I need to do a bit of homework on them before next season—learn about their life cycle, why and when they appear and what eats them.

 

I put in two new wicking boxes next to the wood heap, raised up on polystyrene foam boxes to prevent rabbit access and with a rainfall catchment bin beside each one. These are just 60 litre plastic rubbish bins with the lid placed upside down and a hole drilled in the centre to allow rain to enter :

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I did a head count and there are now 31 wicking boxes in the garden. I plan to use these two new ones for pumpkins next spring. There’s plenty of room for them to cascade over the sides and spread (even over the wood heap) and the rabbits don’t like pumpkin leaves!

 

Rainfall for March  35 mm.  Melbourne’s average  44 mm. February and March were both drier than average. The citrus trees looked a bit stressed at times and I filled the swales behind them on a weekly basis. I’ll be really glad to see the autumn rains. They seem to be getting later every year.

 

I don’t tend to bother too much about the site statistics that WordPress provides, mainly because I can never remember where to find them, but I just did, and realised that I’ve passed the 500 mark, with 508 posts here and (this is the amazing bit), I have 104 followers! (I know that’s not a lot, compared to some blogs, but quality counts with me, not quantity). So thank you, all 104 of you, whoever and wherever you are.

The other amazing thing to see is where all those people looking at the posts come from. As I would expect, Australia leads the list, with the UK, US and New Zealand also predominating, but there are 70 other countries represented! This blog has been as far afield as the Cayman Islands and Bosnia & Herzgovina! How about that!