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.

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.

Watering upstairs

We have some plants on the first floor; a few on the windowsills, and a few more now on the balcony (see The Balcony Project). We do not have any water on the first floor. So far, my watering has been at best intermittent (though given the recent weather this hardly matters for the balcony); what I’d like to do is to set something up to make it more reliable.

Currently, if I want to water the indoor plants, I have to pick up the small watering can, go downstairs and fill in, come back up and water. To water the balcony, I need to get the large watering can from the back garden, fill it, come back up, water, and take the watering can back down again.

The time when it would be easiest to water, and when I’m most likely to remember, is when L is playing on the floor; but I don’t want to be running up and down the stairs too much at that point. (Having said which – I could associate it with making myself a mug of tea.)

So; what might make this easier:
– having a watering can on the balcony?
– having a water container upstairs (perhaps on the desk) that I fill up on a more regular basis and then have available to water from?
– emptying half-glasses of water into one of these containers before clearing them downstairs?

So far that’s it on the ideas front & I’m not very convinced by anything there. Any other suggestions?

The Balcony Project: plants for north-facing spaces

The next stage in the balcony planning is a little research on plants that will do well in north-facing areas. Given my other requirements, I’m most interested in edibles, and perennials or self-seekers (for minimal ongoing maintenance).

It’s a good idea to remember the difference between different types of shade: ‘open’, ‘medium’, and ‘deep’ shade. I have open shade (north-facing, but nothing much overshadowing it) which makes life a little easier.

In a small space it’s even more important than usual to consider height as wel as ground space, and I have a small area of wall and a railing available. Here’s a few potential plants:

Climbers and shrubs

  • Oregon Thornless blackberry: can be grown in a pot (2′ square x 2.5′ deep, ideally) and carefully trained up a trellis. It would need regular maintenance not to overrun next door’s balcony. But I do like blackberries, and in a pot it would be less of a menace than they are in the ground. It flowers on one-year-old wood.
  • Kiwi vines: will fruit in the shade, and could grow along the railing. I’d need a male and female plant, so one at each end. However, they would block the view through the railings onto the river, which is really valuable to me.
  • Honeyberry: prefers partial shade, so in that sense ideal. However, you need two plants (male and female), and they grow to 5′ so need a half barrel sized pot per plant. I think it’s either this or the blackberry.

Flowers

  • Plumbago: perennial, butterflies love it, but not edible.
  • Violet: edible, perennial, one of my favourites anyway.

Herbs, greens, etc

  • Mint: that old favourite for shady areas. I don’t actually use it much in cooking, but mint tea is nice, and mint, apple juice, vodka and ice is a lovely summer cocktail. Smells great on the balcony, too. I have a plant in the garden so would be easy to propagate.
  • New Zealand spinach: a new one on me. Perennial, best started from transplant, and needs blanching before cooking so realistically probably wouldn’t get used.
  • Chard, beets, other leafy greens: if they’re on the balcony, they won’t be readily harvestable for the kitchen, so we’re unlikely to use them.
  • Peas: in theory the above would also apply, except that raw peas fresh from the pod taste fantastic, so could be eaten on the spot.
  • Salad greens: could be eaten on the spot, so might be worth it, especially as the baby gets bigger and might be in and out of there more. Planting in partial north-facing shade might give some resistance to bolting and mean we get a midsummer crop, which is not possible in the south-facing and very warm back garden. I have plenty of salad green seeds so may try this out.
  • Alpine strawberries: very very tasty. Definitely try these next year.
  • Rhubarb: shade-tolerant, can be grown in a pot, but we already have it in the garden and it is quite large.

I did also find a list of some other shade-tolerant edibles, but they all seem a bit big for my purposes.

Now I have the list, the next step is to construct a plan. Watch this space…

Tip o’ the hat to: the Savvy Gardener on gardening in the shade, and Life on the Balcony on shade-tolerant fruit.

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.

The Balcony Project: surveying

In addition to the back garden, we also have a front balcony. Now that the garden is well under way, I want to tackle some container planting for it.

The first stage of the permaculture design process is surveying: site, resources, and client requirements.

Site

  • North-facing, though not overshadowed, so some evening sunlight especially in summer.
  • Paved.
  • First floor (so need to watch the weight!).
  • 4.5m x 1m.
  • No water supply (any water has to be brought up from the ground floor). However, there is a drainpipe at the corner (possibly shared with next door?). Slight overhang above so doesn’t get much rainfall either.
  • Fairly windy, but with some protection to about a metre up.
  • Some containers, but nothing fixed.
  • Railing provides some potential support for climbing plants.

Resources

  • Plenty of containers of various sorts available.
  • Some already-planted containers: violas, primroses, pansies, evening primrose.
  • Possibility of propagating some plants from the back garden (or using some of my seed collection).
  • Some compost from the back garden compost heap, but is likely to need supplementing with bought compost (or wait for longer to plant more!).

Client requirements

  • Enough space to sit out on folding chairs.
  • Attractive when seen through balcony window — I’d like some flowers!
  • Attractive during the winter — at least something that will survive or even thrive through winter.
  • Nothing poisonous to dog or baby if they eat it.
  • At least one food-productive plant.
  • Minimal cost setup.
  • Neglect-tolerant / low maintenance.

The next part of the process is the analysis: sectors, zones, and input/output, which I’ll consider in the next post, before coming to the design.