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.

Fitting a water butt

If you grow plants and have access to a gutter downpipe, it’s well worth finding the space and time for a water butt. Rainwater is better for your plants than tap water*; and of course you help conserve water as well.

Water butt against fence

For small spaces you can get slimline water butts; we have room for a 250l one, and it’s worked out very well. This weekend was the first time this year I’ve needed to fill the watering can from the tap. I did put off fitting it for ages, but in fact it was an easier job than I had feared.

You’ll need a downpipe diverter, and a hacksaw to chop through the downpipe. The diverter kit will have detailed instructions, but basically you cut through the drainpipe at a height just below the top of the water butt. You then connect diverter and water butt with a piece of tubing, and when the water in the butt reaches the level of the drainpipe, the water will flow back into the drainpipe and down the drain. (Here’s a basic explanation of the physics of how water finds its own level; imagine the drainpipe, which is ‘bottomless’, as one of the tubes, and the water butt as the other, with the tubing connecting them.)

A note: when measuring the height of your water butt, it is VERY IMPORTANT to place the water butt high enough off the ground that you can get a watering can in under its tap. We used spare paving slabs; you can also get a purpose-built plastic stand.

Once you’ve cut the drainpipe and fitted the diverter and its tube, that’s it — you’re done, and your water butt is ready to collect water the next time it rains.

The only problem we’ve found so far is that the angle between drainpipe and water butt means that our tubing has a couple of kinks in it that tend to gather gunk & allow algae to grow. This means that it needs to be cleaned out occasionally to keep the water flowing. We’ve just added gaffer tape to reduce the amount of light and thus hopefully also the algae.

Drainpipe diverter and gaffer-taped tube to water butt

Next job: fitting a smaller one on the front balcony. I need to check this with the neighbours first, though, as we share that drainpipe.

* If you can’t use rainwater for watering, when possible it’s a good idea to let tap water sit for 24 hrs before using it on your plants, to allow the chlorine to offgas.

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?

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.