Food Without Drudgery for Those Without Soil
Say you'd really like to try to grow some of your own food, for all of reasons we discussed in our last post, but you don't have any access to soil. You live in an apartment, or your landlord won't let you dig up the yard. Do not despair! If you have a sunny balcony, rooftop or patio, you can grow food almost effortlessly in a Self-Watering Container (SWC).
Sure, some people manage to grow food in ordinary pots. We have a friend who grew food in suitcases and old cowboy boots. But the problem with pots is that they dry out fast. Veggies are water hungry. To keep them happy, you might have to be out watering your pots twice a day during the hot summer months. Who has time for that? Enter the SWC, an inexpensive device guaranteed to save you from your own brown thumb and allow you to start your urban victory garden.
Summer is almost over, but it's time to plan for next spring, or for a winter garden if your climate allows. Use this time to make yourself a few different kinds of SWCs so you'll be ready to roll when planting season comes.
A How-To Project
A self-watering container has a hidden reservoir of water at the bottom. Potting soil is suspended above the reservoir by means of a perforated barrier. Circular "wicking chambers" reach down into the reservoir and draw water up to the plant's roots. The reservoir is refilled by means of a pipe that comes out of the top of the pot and the soil is usually covered with a layer of plastic to keep the moisture in the system. Depending on how deep the water reservoir is, it's possible to go many days without having to top off the water.
While commercially made self watering containers such as the Earthbox® are available, it's more fun to build your own with scavenged materials such as five gallon buckets, plastic storage tubs and old Slurpee cups, thanks to detailed instructions published by Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. We here at Homegrown Revolution (formerly SurviveLA) have produced a short video on how to make a self-watering container with five gallon buckets to be used in conjunction with those instructions.
You can even make mini self watering containers with used soda bottles for starting plants from seeds.
So far we've used our self-watering containers to grow seasonal crops like eggplants, collard greens and basil on our back patio. We also have a couple of jumbo sized SWCs fashioned out of storage tubs which are the permanent home of two young blueberry bushes. We'll be eating blueberries for breakfast next summer.
A Few Things to Know
About the only thing you can't grow in a self watering container are woody herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme, plants which actually prefer to go dry between waterings. Just put them in regular pots. More tender herbs like basil, cilantro and parsley love the continuous moisture a SWC provides.
Tomatoes can be grown in SWCs, but choose your tomato with care. You see, tomatoes have extra deep roots. In an SWC they sometimes poke their roots straight down through the wicking basket and into the water reservoir, and so become over-watered and sickly. Avoid this by choosing varieties especially bred to be grown in containers. These are often referred to as patio tomatoes. Your local independent nursery can help you find the right tomato for your climate and your container.
If you start your plants from seeds in your SWC you are going to have to water from the top until they gets some roots on them. Similarly, if you plant seedlings, give them some supplemental water until their roots are stronger. But once they are established, though, you should be able to go for a week or so before refilling the reservoir, depending on how deep it is. However, be sure not to neglect your plants. Check them for insects and to make sure they are getting enough water. Check them just to show them that you love them, because they know when they are being ignored.
Pimping your SWCs
Aesthetically, a grouping of self watering containers sitting together on your balcony provides a certain sort of drug-lab chic for your outdoor entertaining - and not without reason, as marijuana farmers often use them. For those with more genteel decorating notions, SWCs can be hidden inside larger, more attractive pots. Fill up the empty space between the SWC and the decorative pot with river rock or bark chips or whatever you please. You can also cover the plastic on top of the SWC with the same stuff. Just be sure leave the watering pipe accessible for refills.
Good luck with this project! Let us know how it goes, or if you have any experience using SWCs, tell us how they worked for you.Tweet