Water-wicking Boxes

I think the wicking box concept is so valuable in a water-limited situation, that I’m creating a special page to record my experiences with them.

It all began with a friend mentioning water-wicking beds and me asking what they were. She mentioned an article in Grass Roots magazine and promised to look it up for me.

In the meantime, I Googled and came up with Scarecrow’s Garden blog and her experiences with water-wicking beds and boxes. She posted a link to the waterright site where I found a really good .pdf file with more information.

There’s also this blog (The Pool Room) whose owner is collecting information on the idea. From time to time I Google to see if any more info is arriving on the scene.

I didn’t really have a good site for a full-scale wicking bed, nor the time nor resources to put one into place quickly, so I decided to go with the wicking box idea.

Scarecrow had used white polystyrene broccoli boxes, because they’re nice and deep. I found them a bit hard to come by and chose to go with black plastic crates purchased from Bunnings at around $12 each.

They’re 60 cm long, 40 cm wide and 25 cm deep; not quite as deep as I’d like, but useful for shallow-rooted plants. 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 presently grow my annual vegetables in built-up beds using home-made compost. I wanted to use the same material for the boxes, with a few worms thrown in for aeration. Trouble was I didn’t have a huge supply of the stuff ready to go. Eventually I managed to get 2 boxes going. A plastic tube at the side is where the water is added. Drainage holes were drilled 7 cm up from the bottom—about a third of the height.

Here’s what they looked like:

Trial 1: Bok Choy
On April 8 this one had seeds of Bok Choy chinese cabbage sown into it. I kept the seeds moist until they germinated and watered them lightly from above until their roots had penetrated the moist soil. This is indicated by the water level in the bottom reservoir starting to drop. I used a dipstick to measure the level. I must admit they didn’t receive any additional water via the tube because they were getting regular rain at the time.

Seventy days later, I started harvesting the first plants. They were the best Bok Choy I’d ever grown:

Trial 2: Tomatoes
I planted this year’s tomato seed on a heated bed at the Winter Solstice. By the beginning of September I had dozens of well-grown seedlings waiting to go out. Too cold in the main garden still, but by this time I had 3 wicking boxes up on the house deck, under the eaves. Nice warm spot, catching the winter sun and with a warm brick wall behind them.

So into a box went a couple of seedlings of San Marzano variety. Here’s what they looked like on Sept 5:

And here they are a month later:

The other San Marzano seedlings in this batch were planted into the open garden a week after those in the box and they’re only about one third the size. A few days after this photo was taken, the first flowers started to open.

Later edit: If you read this post, you’ll see that these are not San Marzano, but Grosse Lisse. I persevered with them for a while but they grew too large and sprawled untidily everywhere and then got attacked by a horde of hungry caterpillars (which I could never find, but which fell all over the place when I shook the plants), so I removed them, but not before we got a few nice-sized ripe tomatoes from them.

Later later edit: I still wanted to know how small-growing tomatoes would go in a wicking box, so I’ve put three Roma tomatoes in a box. Seeds were sown in mid-September and the seedlings planted in mid-November. You can see how they looked on 28th December in the photo below the capsicums trial.

Yet still later edit: The Roma tomatoes were very successful and have only just finished (late March). The fruit was a bit on the small side but there was lots of it. They grew tall enough to need stakes however, but it wasn’t a problem as I just hammered them into the ground around the edge of the box.

Trial 3: Peas
On 24th and 28th August I planted 2 lots of dwarf peas—one lot in a box on the deck and the other in a box in the main garden down the back. The seeds were sown direct, just pushed down into the moist soil. The ones on the deck took 8 days to germinate; the ones down the back, 12 days, the difference no doubt being due to the warmer location on the deck beside the house wall.

Two months later, both lots were 80 cm tall (measured from the soil surface) and rapidly soaking up all the water I gave them. I said they were ‘dwarf’ peas, because that’s how they looked in the open garden last year. Looking at them in the two wicking boxes, they could pass as climbers!

It’s now early December and the peas have finished. The ones down the back did very well and we got a good yield from them. The ones on the deck weren’t as good. The lower leaves became covered with mould and eventually died. As a result the yield wasn’t nearly as good. I suspect the position of the wicking box (up against the house wall) limited air movement and that was the reason for the mould. The ones down the back were affected too, but not nearly as badly. In any case late August was probably getting too late for sowing peas. I may try again next year but much earlier.

Trial 4. French Beans
On October 1st I sowed two lots of butter beans in two wicking boxes down the back. They literally ‘took off’ and look like being the best butter beans I’ve ever grown. It’s early December now and they’re covered in flowers and tiny beans are starting to appear.

Since we love fresh beans, I decided to plant up two more boxes and into those on 23rd November, went a batch of Snapbeans from Hortico. They germinated in a week and are just getting their second pair of leaves  (early December).

Did I say we loved beans? Into two more wicking boxes (the ones vacated by the peas) went another two batches—this time Hawkesbury Wonder and Windsor Long Pod, both DT Brown seeds. One of these boxes is down the back and the other up on the deck.

I think that’ll be it for beans for a while!


Butter Beans

Trial 5. Beetroot
At the end of August I sowed seeds of Crimson Globe beetroot into one of the wicking boxes on the house deck. They germinated in 7 days and by late November had produced small bulbs about 5 cm in diameter. At the moment (early December) they don’t seem to be increasing in size. I may wait a bit longer then harvest them as baby beets.

Later edit: Which is what I did— harvest them as baby beets, I mean. They were delicious. It’s surprising how you forget the wonderful earthy taste of freshly cooked beetroot after being accustomed to the over-vinegared, tinned variety.

Trial 6. Celery
Celery loves water, so I reckoned it would really take to the wicking box growing format. I sowed seed at the end of May and potted seedlings into small cells. They grew slowly and eventually eight seedlings were planted into a wicking box at the end of September, where they immediately took off. Unfortunately, by November they were starting to put up flowering stems.

I’ve realised what the problem is—the seed was sown too early (or late as the case may be). Celery is a biennial, that is, it grows in its first year then flowers and runs to seed in its second year. I remembered reading that if a biennial is sown in autumn, it will run to seed the following spring. If it’s sown in spring however, it will grow right through the summer, autumn and winter and run to seed the following spring.

So, while we’ll get some sort of  a crop from this batch, I’ve sown more seed (in spring this time) which, I hope, will crop right through autumn and winter.

It certainly loves the wicking boxbox idea though. I seem to be always filling the water reservoir and the stems are really crisp and juicy.

Trial 7. Capsicums
I planted seed of the variety Californian Wonder on a heat bed at the end of July and potted seedlings into small pots at the beginning of September. On 20th October five seedlings were planted into a wicking box. They were slow at first, probably because the weather was cool, but a few warm days and they really took off. Here they are on 28th December. They’re in the box on the right and are just getting their first flowers. In the left hand box are three Roma tomatoes. Those are Purple King climbing beans at the rear of the capsicums, the result of a a few leftover seeds. Purple Kings usually go on a bean tepee.


Later edit: The capsicums went very well and it’s late March as I write and they’re still flowering and still producing fruit and about three times the height of those in the photo above. A very successful trial.

Trial 8. Sweet Corn
Unfortunately the sweet corn wasn’t a great success. Oh it grew alright—very tall and flowered well, but only the male flower spikes at the top of each plant. The female flowers never showed. There may be a number of reasons for this. It was a variety I’d never grown before—Extra Honey Sweet from DT Brown seed. The variety I should have put in, for a better comparison, was Hortico’s Extra Sweet, which has always done well for me in the ground. Another reason was that I put it in much later than I usually do and it got hit by that succession of days over 40 deg C we had in summer. The heat may have affected the appearance of the female flowers. (I probably need to do more research on what promotes flowering in corn and maybe try again next year with my usual variety.)

Trial 9. Cucumbers

These went very well, too. I put one plant each of four different varieties into a box in late October (Lebanese, Apple, Supermarket & Double Yield from Diggers). As they grew they trailed over the edge of the box and into the surrounding garden. They were knocked back a bit by the over-40 degree days we had in summer (burnt leaves) but recovered as the weather cooled and then, as usual, succumbed to the dreaded powdery mildew. Yields were good though, and I think I can safely chalk up another success to the wicking box idea.

More coming. Keep watching…….

19 Responses to “Water-wicking Boxes”

  1. Angela Says:

    Hey there! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and really enjoy it. I wanted to say thanks so much for your post on wicking beds. I checked out those links and I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear about it. I’m going to have to give it a go myself! I’m thinking it could be the solution to my problem – which is that we have a long narrow yard and that the sunniest side is right against the house and I’ve been too scared to put a garden bed there because my Dad has been harping on about water damage to the foundations. This sounds like it could be the answer – and a waterwise answer at that!


  2. foodnstuff Says:

    Hi Angela, thanks for the comments. Let’s know how your wicking boxes go; they’re certainly going well for me so far. I think they’re a great idea, especially as it looks like we’ll have Stage 4 water restrictions before long.


  3. dancingwithfrogs Says:

    I have no idea when you last updated, but just wanted to say that this post is really useful. I’m mulling over the wicking pots idea… for a time-poor person they look extremely attractive.


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi dancingwithfrogs,

      The wicking pot/garden bed is a great water-saving idea. I’m glad you found the info useful.

      I haven’t updated this page in a while, I agree, but my main page is updated regularly and there’s more info there.


  4. milkwoodkirsten Says:

    Lovely stuff. We’ve made some too – and they’re going great guns: http://milkwood.net/2011/05/09/how-to-make-a-wicking-box-mini-wicking-bed


  5. Cameron Says:

    Hello there. Very interesting blog, especially these wicking boxes. I’m just beginning to get into veggie growing in a small back yard in Melbourne.

    I read all your pages a while back and thought I’d circle back and comment that there are commercial versions available, that I’ve just found online: http://www.greensmartpots.com.au/

    I would think though that your pots are much cheaper, starting with a $12 Bunnings tub, especially to make them in numbers. I’m thinking of putting a few of them in a row and then making a timber planter box wrapper to make them look a bit neater.




    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Cameron, thanks for the comments and the link.

      When I first started experimenting with wicking boxes not much was known about the principle and not many people were doing it. Now, it seems to be all the go.

      I like your idea of putting a surround around them. It might also be useful to keep the hot sun off the boxes. I was initially worried that the roots would cook inside the black plastic, but it hasn’t been a problem for me. They do heat up earlier in spring which is an advantage.


  6. narf77 Says:

    Been following this blog for a while and really like this guys style and bigger raised wicked beds. Thought you might not have found him yet. If you have please disregard if not “WOOT!” 😉



    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Fran,

      WOOT! indeed. What a fantastic site. Thanks for the share. Still going through all the info. And he’s in Melbourne, which makes it even better. I really must make some decent shade covers for my wicking boxes before next summer; his are perfect. Will put a link to his site at mine.


      • narf77 Says:

        Glad you liked it. I kept trying to find it again (lost the link) and found it and thought “send it to Bev STAT!” 🙂 I love his inventive ideas for creating larger beds and that shade cloth is amazing. Lovely beds and great info 🙂


  7. narf77 Says:

    Just found this instructable Bev, thought you might be interested… http://www.instructables.com/id/The-Dearthbox-A-low-cost-self-watering-planter/#step0


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Thanks, that was good. I’m coming to the conclusion that my wicking boxes are just too shallow and I haven’t got a big enough water reservoir in the bottom. As a result, I’m watering every day in summer, so I might have to think about deeper things like buckets.

      BTW, what’s happened to that post about the big wicking box-thing that Steve made?


      • narf77 Says:

        I have the photos, I might have to write that post up (just a matter of nailing Stevie-boy down and getting him to sit still for 10 seconds to get the info out of him as to how he did it 😉 ). Just made a water wicked small dinghy yesterday as like you, I figured that anything small is going to dry out too soon so I figure bigger is going to keep it’s moisture content longer. Its the same with bigger raised garden beds being able to maintain their soil moisture longer as well. The big raised beds we just made seem to keep their moisture much better than the original 2 beds and they are just comprised of organic matter. The first 2 beds were bought in compost that seems to be quite hydrophobic so I am going to dig in a shiteload of organic matter (oak leaves and manure and chook straw) when the harvest is over to try to remedy that. I thought that bucket tutorial was a goodn as you were saying, deeper buckets, less likely to dry out and more of a water reservoir to keep them going.


  8. narf77 Says:

    Just found this (free pdf) thought you might be interested?



    • foodnstuff Says:

      Interesting…thanks for the share. It’s great that someone puts the idea of water-wicking out there and a zillion people come up with different ideas about doing it. Interesting that he says compost won’t wick….I don’t have any problems with it. As long as there’s water in the bottom, the top will be moist. It has to be mulched though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • narf77 Says:

        I am guessing they are talking about bought in compost which as we know is an extremely variable product. Your own homemade stuff is always going to be better. I would take much of what they say with a grain of salt, I just thought that the set up was a great idea and the fact that the grow pots are being watered by gravity and a large drum looked like a very time and water saving way to grow tomatoes. You were saying that you were having problems with having to water your wicked beds every day and I reckon that this setup (pretty cheap to implement as well) might give you more time between waterings. Could be jiggled around and take the best from the idea and see if you can make it your own?


        • foodnstuff Says:

          The gravity watering is a great idea, but at last count I had about 35 wicking boxes and 8 tubs, most together, but some widely scattered. I don’t really have to water them every day, it’s just that I’m passing with the hose to water other things and I spray a bit in their direction. They would last a few days without actually dying, but an even hydration cycle keeps the plants in better condition.

          Liked by 1 person

          • narf77 Says:

            Yeah, I have found that a short water in Sanctuary every day is better than a long water and a few days dry. I need to get a dripper system set up but am going to have to wait till my crop of manic tomatoes is over to pull out the plants and find the space to install it. I am going to attempt to pinch out some “cuttings” like you taught us to do from my San Marzano’s and see if I can’t keep a few going through winter this year in the glasshouse. I love a good experiment 🙂


  9. Of Mice, Fridges and Men – serendipityrevisited Says:

    […] enter Bev from https://foodnstuff.wordpress.com/water-wicking-boxes/  and John http://joharthash.blogspot.com.au/ who taught me about a concept called “water wicking […]


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