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.

EC and permaculture guest posts

I wrote about Elimination Communication, peeing on the floor, and the advantages of not going nappy-free, over at Natural Parents Network last week, in The Nappy-Free Potty Pause.

Then, at The Green Phone Booth, I wrote about tips for food gardening with a toddler. (Leon is now properly a toddler — he really got the hang of independent walking at Glastonbury last weekend. Having just made my plans for summer planting, I’m now reminded that I should keep a section of the NW bed specially for him. Perhaps marked out in some way in a likely-vain attempt to keep him away from the rest of it?)

Summer planting

I’ve just cleared out three of the raised beds in the back garden (some failed crops – no sign of turnips this year; some that are over – broad beans and winter lettuce) and need to plan my summer planting. To the seed lists!

  • Greens:
    • Pak choi
    • Tatsoi
    • Tsoi sim (a good catch crop as it is only 3 wks to harvest)
    • Mixed and oak leaf lettuce
    • Winter lettuce from August
    • Rocket

    I also have broccoli raab and mustard greens, but previous experience suggests that we just don’t eat these, so there’s no point in growing them. I’m actually a little ambivalent about the lettuce, but I’ll give it another go.

  • Veg
    • Carrots (til end July)
    • Petrowski turnip

To avoid the perils of the monoculture, the planting plan looks like this:

  • NW bed: rocket, lettuce, pak choi (all broadcast)
  • SE bed: carrots, pak choi, tsoi sim in between the rows (to come up in 3 wks to make more room for the other veg as they grow)
  • SW bed: turnips, tatsoi, lettuce between the rows (to come up as microgreens / mini greens to make more space as the other veg grow)

Normally I’m all about the succession sowing, but I think this time I’ll get it all in at once, and see what’s come up and where there’s space in two or three weeks, and decide then whether to plant more.

Bean wigwam

Lousy weather notwithstanding, I am soldiering onwards with planting in the back garden. (And, indeed, some things are even growing.) This week, it was time to establish the new bean wigwam.

First job was to prise up some more paving slabs, as this is an area I haven’t used before. Next, to shove a few bamboo canes firmly into the ground and tie them together. Here it is, modelled by my glamorous and somewhat grubby assistants Leon and Sidney.

Dog and baby 'helping' spread sand around
Paving slabs up, sticks in, lots of sand (underneath which is London clay).

The other beds are all standard raised beds (made from pallets), but this time I haven’t had a chance to build a proper bed. So for now I’m just piling compost around the poles and planting into that. Leon helped me to trowel compost out of the bag and spread it in a circle.

Finally, after Leon was in bed (so I wouldn’t have to hoick him out of the compost heap), I dug a few spadefuls of not-yet-composted material out of the compost heap, and piled that in the middle of the wigwam. (Ideally I’d have done this before setting up the poles, but baby and dog assistance precluded.) The idea is that the beans will surround this pile as it composts down, creating new soil in the middle of the bed. Once the beans are done for the year I can also chop those off at the base, leaving their roots in place to help improve the ground, and pile the rest of the dead bean plants in over the compost to rot down further over the winter. This bed only gets sun during the summer so won’t be in use in winter anyway.

Bean wigwam and compost

French bean seeds planted around the poles, and I was all done.

Balcony planning

For some reason I found it really hard to get to grips with a plan for the balcony. Perhaps because it’s a space that at the moment we really don’t use (since it overlooks the road, although it also overlooks the river, and which I’m aware has no nearby water source.*

I’ve already done a survey, a sector/zone analysis, and some research on north-facing plants** but I’m still not feeling hugely inspired. However… planting season is coming up, and I’d like to put something out there.

As a result, I’ve constructed an interim plan, with nothing permanent and no huge time, money, or effort investment at this point. It’s a fairly small space, long and narrow. The plan looks like this:

  • A couple of pots (at least 9″ deep) of peas at each end, against the fence dividing our balcony from next door on each side. I’m not sure how well these will do, as it may be a bit too shady, but I have loads of pea seeds so may as well give it a go.
  • A collection of pots/troughs/containers along the railing, with a mix of salad greens (rocket and lettuce), nasturtiums, marigolds, alpine strawberries, violets, plumbago, and pansies (the pansies are already there). Perhaps also some poppies as I have some seeds from last year.
  • A big pot of mint (transplants from the back garden).
  • Chuck in a few seed bombs — I have some from EAT 2011 and some from a Christmas present exchange.

I’m considering mini kiwis for next year, but I’ll see how this year goes first. I don’t want anything too tall or too vigorous to grow along the railing as it would get in the way of the view of the river from the sofa.

This is my task list, then:

  • Move all the big pots up to the balcony.
  • Fill all the containers with compost.
  • Throw in my existing seeds (rocket, lettuce, nasturtiums, marigolds, poppies, seed bombs).
  • Order some violets (plants here; apparently it’s the wrong time of year for seeds), plumbago (blue or white), and alpine strawberries (plants or seeds).
  • Transplant some mint into a big pot, possibly amidst some of the seed mix.

I’ll update once everything’s planted…

* There’s a drainpipe at one side, which I could put a diverter into for a small water-butt, but I think I’d need to talk to the neighbours on that side about it, and we never really see them.
** It turns out that I already wrote a version of this up last summer, which goes to show what’s happened to my memory of late.

Back garden fruit

Having rearranged the herb garden, I looked at the vast expanse of 6+ foot high, south-west facing fence behind it, and thought “Something should be growing across that. Specifically, a productive climber that produces something tasty…”. So last week I planted a dessert grape vine (Lakemont Golden Seedless Dessert, more info here), which I’m hugely excited about. It’s supposed to do well in this climate if in a sunny spot, so I have high hopes – and grapes are one of my favourite fruits. I need to get some organic tomato fertiliser and apply regularly this season, and read up on pruning next winter. Grapes grow on last year’s vines so nothing will set this year. Lakemont are heavy cropping, self fertile, suitable for outdoor growing, and very sweet, and harvest in London should be late September.


Grape vine hacked back to recommended three buds

Over the other side of the garden, no sign yet of this year’s autumn raspberry canes. My thumbs are crossed that they’ll spring up soon from the canes I brought in from the allotment last summer. If not, I may have to buy some more next winter.

I’ve also been thinking about the farthest end of the garden, where the compost heap and shed are, and where there is a little less sun due to the back fence. There were three major issues on my mind:

  • The compost heap, while a glorious thing in many ways, is not wildly attractive when viewed from the back door.
  • There is a couple of metres at that end of the garden that is currently still paved and underused (occupied, as it was at the time, by paving slab piles).
  • Small gardens benefit from having things to break the line of sight up. Dividing the garden up a little can make it seem bigger.

A bush of some sort in front of the compost heap, just at the limit of the shaded area, seemed the perfect solution. And since I wanted something productive, a blackcurrant bush (Ben Sarek Organic, a small-middling bush which fruits mid-to-late season) was the obvious choice. So I’ve taken up another two paving slabs and planted a tiny stick of a blackcurrant bush there. Hopefully it too will thrive. I’m a little concerned about how much sun it will get; I think it should be just about enough (the tomatoes against the fence there did fine last year) but we shall see.


I always find it difficult to imagine that a twig like this one, barely visible beside its stake, will ever grow into a big fruit bush, but hopefully…


This was previously occupied by a big pile of paving slabs. Clearly I now need to work out what else to do with it. Possibly a bean tipi this year?

One final note: I planted the grape vine in the corner of the oldest of our raised beds, put in 20 months ago when we first moved in. At that point, the soil underneath when we pulled the paving slabs up was heavy, compacted clay, which I shoved a fork into a few times before dumping compost on top. Now, I could dig right down into it with a hand trowel with no trouble, and it’s full of worms and soil life. That’s just from adding compost and green matter on top, and planting in it. An incredibly pleasing change to see!

The Balcony Project: sector & zone analysis

I’m planning planting for our balcony, and in my last post on this wrote up the surveying. The next step is to do the analysis: some possible approaches are to consider zones, sectors, and input/output.

For this project zones aren’t particularly useful. In theory it’s all zone 1 (close by house, for high-maintenance plants), but in fact due to the low foot traffic (see below) I may treat it as edging towards zone 2 (lower maintenance perennials).

Sectors:
– Sun: direct sunlight only during summer evenings, otherwise shady but bright. Need shade-tolerant plants.
– Wind: comes off the river. Some protection, but plants need to be quite robust.
– People: space not very well-used. Focus planting on area visible from indoors, being careful not to block view of river through door! Minimal maintenance as not heavily used.
– Water: edges get some rain, but assume water needs to be carried up. Plants should be drought-tolerant if possible but not drought-requiring.

Input/output: required inputs are soil/compost, containers, water, fertiliser, plants or seeds. Outputs are vegetable matter for compost, perhaps some food, beauty (!), perhaps seeds or potential cuttings. The compost heap in the back garden can help link some outputs to some inputs, and I can also use seeds and cuttings from there and from my parents’ garden. It may be worth considering a water butt.

Anything else I’m missing?

Next post in this series: plants, locations, and solutions that might work.

From pallets to shed

I spent much of February slowly constructing a shed (more of a tool cupboard, really; our garden is very small) from deconstructed pallets.

The first step was to measure up (my shed was 80cm x 60cm in footprint, and spade-height-plus-a-bit in height) and cut the pallet planks to size. I think I used about 2.5 pallets, and a hand-held circular saw (very very useful to speed things up).

I also needed four lengths of 2×2, one per corner, to attach the planks to. My design called for a sloping roof (so the rain runs off), so required two shorter lengths for the back, and two longer for the front. I nailed the back planks to the shorter lengths, and each set of side planks to one of the longer lengths (so at this point the side planks were braced only at one end).



The back wall, screwed into its 2×2 bracing at both ends of the planks.



One of the sides, with only one end braced. Note that its 2×2 rises above the planks; this is because it needed a triangular piece of planking attached later to allow for the slope of the roof.

The next step was to screw the loose ends of each side piece to the 2×2 bracing of the back piece.



Shed with three sides. Note again the space at the top of each side for a triangular piece. (Apologies for the sun flare in the photo!)



Shed corners screwed together.

I measured, cut, and attached triangular pieces for the top of each side (no photos, sorry). For the roof, I cut a piece of plywood which overlapped the sides by about 4-5cm in each direction. I intended to cover this with some thick black plastic left behind by our kitchen fitters, but my Dad came up instead with a roll of roof felt from in his garage, so I was able to do a more professional-looking (and longer-lasting!) job with that, roofing glue, and some roofing nails. Before covering the roof, I screwed in a batten at the back to keep it from sliding off.



The batten on the underside of the roof, and the roofing nails keeping the felt down. The felt was glued down on the topside of the roof.

Since installation, I’ve added a couple of battens at the front to keep it square and to brace the roof.

It still lacks a door (I’m on the look out for some large enough plywood), and at some point I will use a couple of L-shaped metal bits to attach the roof, rather than using bricks to hold it down. But as of now, it does the required job, and, given the high percentage of reused materials, for minimal financial or environmental cost. I’m also kind of proud that I built it at 38 weeks pregnant!

One change at a time: easy shower greywater reuse

After a very full-on fortnight learning about permaculture and activism at the Earth Activist Training 2011 course in August, I came away all fired up to make some changes at home. I would absolutely love to set up some kind of greywater reuse system, but given the 40 sq m of garden available in my central London terrace, it would be both a big practical challenge and a pretty poor use of our limited outside space.

However! There is a very straightforward way to reuse some of your greywater, which requires only a bucket. Put the bucket in the shower, where it can catch some of the water you use while you’re showering. The next time you need to flush the loo, grab the bucket and pour it down there instead of hitting the flush. There you go: a bucket of water saved per day, with next to no effort.

I started doing this a couple of weeks ago, and can definitely recommend it: both easy to implement and personally satisfying (if you’re the sort of person who gets satisfaction from saving water). Sure, it’s not a huge amount; but it’s more than nothing. Not only that, but I’ve found myself more aware of the water I’m using whilst showering (and have taken, for example, to turning the pressure down a bit), which is a neat secondary advantage.

Watch this space for more on my permaculture adventures; specifically the plans for the brand-new garden, and my solution to maintaining the allotment next year on what will be a very small amount of available time.

Keeping track

This year, for the first time, I actually bothered to harden off my tomatoes before migrating them full-time from the windowsill into their final home on the balcony[0]. In theory, this should mean that they don’t get a nasty shock from their first night outside, and therefore that they fruit a little earlier. In practice, the fact that I forgot to take any notes on the timing and performance of last year’s tomatoes means that I won’t know either way. (I suppose I could have left one or two un-hardened to compare, but I was far too proud of myself for remembering to do it at all this year to risk one of them.)

In a similar manner, I found myself having to water the incredibly dry allotment from the last couple of weeks in April. It seemed ridiculously early to be doing that; but whilst I think I remember similarly hot Aprils and Mays in the last couple of years, I haven’t actually got anything written down on how the allotment was doing.

The obvious solution is an allotment/balcony journal. In fact, I have one of these already; I just never remember to write in it. And I have no idea how to fix this problem.

I could just put more effort into telling myself to remember, but the evidence to date is that as a strategy, that’s a failure. Apparently, something about the “allotment journal” structure doesn’t lend itself to my remembering it. So instead of trying to fix my brain, I want to fix the structure, and create something that does support my remembering.

So far, I have no ideas, other than a vague belief that if it were more fun and less of a chore, it might be more likely to happen. Do any of you have any suggestions as to a method of keeping track that might work better?

[0] ‘Hardening off’ is when you move your baby plants from inside to outside gradually, leaving them outside for a couple of hours longer each day before you leave them out overnight for the first time.