Watering and wicking system trials

I find it difficult to remember to regularly water all of my various growing spaces. Two of them (balcony and porch) don’t have any water source which means watering is harder work and thus likely to happen; the back garden has water but I still struggle to remember and find the time to get out there with the watering can (time consuming in itself). So I’ve been looking into watering systems.

I already have most of my tomatoes in self-built self-watering containers, which work wonderfully. Mine are very basic, based around two florists buckets stacked on one another (full instructions in Permaculture in Pots!). For the third year in a row, the tomatoes in those buckets are thriving, and I want to make a couple more for next year.

I’m likely to construct more SWCs for the porch and balcony, but in the meantime I’ve been looking at other alternatives to use in the existing containers, as well as in the ground in the raised beds in the back garden. In the light of the permaculture approach of “make small changes and observe”, here are the current experiments, all using things we already had lying around the house:

  • Mostly empty white plant container, with upended plastic bottle and a couple of small pea plants.
    This just drains straight out. Peas in the background, but nothing else is growing well.
    On the porch, this is just a plastic bottle upended in the soil. Opinion online seems divided on whether you leave the lid on (with a hole punched in it) or take it off. I took it off, and it seems to me that the water just leaks out again too fast. Part of the problem, I think, is that this box is too well drained; the first time I filled the bottle, it all flooded straight out of the bottom of the box. This area is entirely under cover, so I could use a container without drainage, as it can’t flood with rain. I will try a non-draining container here the next time the current one is empty.

  • Plastic bottle upended in soil, with tomato plants surrounding it.
    The plastic bottle drains very fast.
    This box, out in the garden, uses the same plastic bottle system, again without a top. There’s no drainage problem here (don’t think this box has drainage holes!), but water still seems to drain out of the bottle very fast. I think you may need pretty damp soil to start with for it to work (so not suitable for all plants, though tomatoes grow fine with wet feet). I’ll also try putting a cap on the bottle to see if that helps.

  • Ceramic pot buried in the soil, surrounded by seedlings planted under plastic bottle tops
    Ceramic pot — drains too fast. Surrounded by chard seedlings in mini cloches.
    Out in the back garden again, this is a ceramic pot buried in the soil. I got this variation on a traditional African watering system from the current issue of Permaculture Magazine. Again, currently mine seems to be draining too fast. Reading the editorial again, more carefully, suggested that I need a cork in the bottom, so I’ll try that. I also suspect that I’ve buried it a little too deep and it would do better with a centimetre showing above the surface, so soil doesn’t leak in. It could do with a cover to limit evaporation, but currently it’s draining too fast for that to matter.

  • A plastic pot buried to its rim in soil, with seedlings under plastic bottle tops surrounding it.
    Again, this is draining too fast. More chard seedlings here!
    On the other side of the same bed, I wondered whether a plastic pot with holes in the bottom would work similarly — like a cross between the ceramic pot and an upturned bottle. Again, however, it’s just draining too quickly, and it takes up more space in the bed than an upturned 2l bottle would. I will try replacing it with a large water bottle, lid on, and see how that works.



I suspect that the best solution will be different in my different growing spaces, as the parameters, requirements, and limitations are different in all three areas. However, I would like to get some kind of watering solution in place across all of them before next summer. Watch this space for more experimental results!

Rocket plants growing right out of their little trough
The rocket is trying to take over…

Meanwhile, the rocket is doing just fine anyway.

Very late potato-planting

Having harvested a handful of new potatoes from the balcony the other week (and then having to deal with the ants’ nest thereby uncovered), I then noticed that I still have a couple of seed potatoes left from earlier in the season, which whilst a little wrinkled look basically still sound. Then, I came across a blog post talking about planting potatoes entirely out of season for a Christmas harvest.

This fits nicely with my beliefs about experimental gardening, so I’m off this afternoon to dump the earth back in the potato-box, and see what happens. I will report back.

In other balcony-gardening news: the red arrow-head lettuce appears to be flowering and setting seed (much to my pleasure), as is the dill (which pretty much just bolted the moment it was a real plant). I shall try planting some more of both.

The cherry tomatoes are doing well (2–4 to harvest daily, which isn’t bad at this time of year), and are still busily setting more of themselves. I am tempted to try planting seeds from the earliest-growing one (a Peace Vine Cherry), to see if I can get a second batch of plants to provide a late harvest. It might, of course, just be a late harvest of green tomatoes; but this would suit me fine, as I very much like green tomato chutney and I’ve just eaten the last of last year’s.

Solar ovens

I made a pizza box solar oven at the weekend. I’ve been meaning to make a solar oven for a while, but this one struck my fancy because I had everything I needed already (including an old pizza box).

It turned out looking rather like this:

I used an A4 plastic document wallet (cut open and retaped to fit the hole I’d cut) for the film, and some black card (again, cut and retaped) for the bottom.

I tried it out with biscuits yesterday, and unfortunately wasn’t all that impressed. I’m not convinced that the box itself seals particularly well (so the hot air is escaping), and even allowing for half an hour to heat up, the biscuits were only halfway cooked an hour or so after I put them out. They did definitely warm up quite a lot; but not to anything like the temperatures suggested in the instructions linked above.

This may be to do with the UK climate, but my south-facing balcony catches the sun pretty well, so I’m loathe to give up entirely. Instead I intend to try this option, as soon as I’ve collected the necessary kit and have some free time.