Silly newbie question list

onafixedincome(z8-9 CA)March 29, 2011

Sorry if this is something that drives people nuts, but I'm going to take a deep breath and ask some silly questions. As a newbie to container gardening (both the practice and the forum, hehe), I'm finding myself lost on a few things.

What, exactly, is a 'self watering container'? I know that the 'common knowledge' ones are on the lines of 'any container holding extra water' but that's not making sense.

Much of what I'm seeing here seems to require a lot of constant attention, regular feedings, and so on--is there a lazy man's way to plant it, throw water at it about once a week, and it will do its own thing?

Wicks--what purpose do they serve and how are they best used in a soil environment? Or are they only for use to remove water from a pot to evaporate or to the ground? (And yes, Al, I'm reading the article on water movement--wowsers! Thank you!)

It almost sounds like a lot of folks are against (or at least don't like using) plain ol' dirt and compost for containers--is this a complete fail sort of thing, or just 'the mix works better' thing?

I'll post what I have soilwise in another thread for everyone to laugh at (not insulted! just joking) and help me figure the best way to use's kind of unique.

Many thanks for all input!

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hi, Pam. I promise I'll get to your email soon. My box is jammed so full with gardening questions I can't keep up. That's why I'm tardy.

A SWC is one that holds a large reserve of water separate from the soil mass, but connected to the soil mass by a wick, which hopefully delivers water in a metered, as needed fashion. To get them to work well, some tinkering with the soil's particle size is helpful. You could be successful with the arrangement using a variation of the soil we're discussing off forum, but what's in the picture you sent might be a little too water-retentive as it is.

SWCs do reduce your commitment to watering and fertilizing, so may be the answer to your question about a more passive approach.

Wicks can be used to supply or drain water from a pot, and don't necessarily have to LOOK like a wick to work. EG, I often suggest ways for people to employ the earth as a wick to drain water from their containers, effectively turning their containers into mini raised beds that then take on the drainage characteristics of raised beds. Nesting one pot in another that's partially filled with soil is an effective wicking technique (pot-in-pot) that can offer relief from water-retentive soils. The wicking action of the earth itself, absent in container/soil combinations, is the reason that much of what works in the garden doesn't work in containers. As the article you're working on illustrates, water behaves differently in containers than in the earth, and understanding the difference has made a pivotal difference in my growing experience as well as so many others that have come to understand the concept.

There is a shying away from soils with a large fraction of fine particulates by those who understand the importance that drainage and aeration play in determining the fealty of a soil to plant vitality and growth. My personal view on container soils centers around their structure and the ratio of air to water in the soil and little else. For that reason, I feel that for my own purposes, if an ingredient detracts from those properties, I don't want or need it because there are other ingredients available that provide more favorable structure. Often soils are about different degrees. We see people cheerfully growing in soils that are practically unusable, poor, just ok, good, better, and somewhere close to best. We know that to be considered 'good', a soil needs to hold a favorable volume of air. This is where most commercially prepared soils based on fine particulates (peat/compost/coir) have trouble making the grade. We add perlite to them to help reduce the volume of water they hold, but perlite doesn't increase drainage or reduce the ht of the PWT. Those properties are ONLY improved by using larger particulates in the soil, or in some cases using tricks to help additional water drain from the soil.

I don't think anyone will laugh at you. None of the people here who actually know their stuff approach things from a negative angle or offer other than constructive criticism.

Take care.

Lol - who knows, maybe I already answered all the questions in your mail. We'll see. ;o)


    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 6:34PM
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I think the answers to your questions will all depend on how much you want to get out of your growing experience. If you don't expect to reap great rewards or optimal plant health, then I'm sure there is a "lazy man's way".

But if you hope for any modicum of success, and you'd rather grow healthy plants that look great, then there is some learning and a little effort involved. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, isn't it?

I can't, and won't, give you a recipe for lazy gardening. It's not in my nature, nor can I, in all good conscience, condone such lax practices. But if you DO want to grow plants with optimal growth, health and success, I'd be happy to point you in the right direction!

If your answer is, "Yes, I want to learn the basics so I can grow healthy, good looking plants!", then please click on the link I've provided below. It will help you to understand, in simple terms, what happens within the confines of a container.

Happy Gardening!

Here is a link that might be useful: It All Begins Here...

    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 6:49PM
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onafixedincome(z8-9 CA)

Well, that was a bit harsher than expected, jodik. :(

I read the article, and I'm not totally stupid, so I guess I'll muddle through.

Al, thank you for yor very helpful reply--it really does make more sense now. :)

I know they won't be self-watering, but I'm trying to think of the best way to combine my available soil and all these darn opaque cat litter jugs to make my strawberries thrive, since guttering seems to be a lot harder to get hold of than anticipated....more DryStall in the mix and a wick, you think?


    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 5:20AM
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onafixedincome, I love your user name. As another on a fixed income, the fact that it is fixed at a lesser amount than my garden needs, affects my garden choices. If you are interested in making your own SWC, look up the posts by raybo for directions. Al

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 9:57AM
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Loveplants2 8b Virginia Beach, Virginia

Hello Everyone...

Hi and Welcome "Onafixedincome"....

I just wanted to let you know that there is no such thing as a silly question and to please continue to ask any question here on this forum...

The people here are very willing to help and will go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome...

As a newbie myself here to this particular type of "mix" but not to gardening...i always am reading and rereading whatever is available for us will find lots of valuable information here. Please continue to ask and really is a great experience to see how your plants and trees react to you new "learned" ways of making your own mix....your plants rewards and your visual rewards will give you all the encouragement you will need....

Al and Jodik are wonderful people and are full of knowledge that will continue to help you follow the way to happy and healthy gardening...

Have a great day...and welcome to the forum!!!

Take care everyone...

Laura in VB

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 10:35AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Ok - (((((group))))) hug ..... Lol! ;-)


    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 11:55AM
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First impression are a lasting impression Lets hope stubbornness sees past the repetitive chatter and pays benefits to the plants.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 3:05PM
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onafixedincome(z8-9 CA)

Oh, I'm VERY hard to put off... :) I've been gardening on the 'what the heck it might work' basis for many years now, and I would like to make some changes--but not when my priorities have been involuntarily changed by finances. :(

Jodi--okay, let's try this again. :)

Al--they're rectangular in cross section and I want to guesstimate some 5-6 inches 'thick', a solid foot tall, and about the same wide, maybe a bit less. I figured out how to sling wire shelves off my fence on which they will fit, yes. But they are completely opaque.

My climate gets VERY HOT AND DRY in summer (North Valley of CA, east side, base of the foothills); I'm figuring on either putting these strawberries on the fence in the dappled shade of the front fence under the fruitless mulberries, or on the back or side fences in full afternoon sun.

I went to the local 'hoity toity' (ie, mostly for those into hydroponics, aquaponics, or who have terminal gardening addictions) garden store today and they only sell mixes that are either very fine, full of perlite and dust, or mud-in-a-bag (used them before, no thanks!).

So I'm thinking that my vermicompost plus drystall is going to have to do the trick like-it-or-not, it's-what-I've-got style.

Ideas are always welcome, and thanks to all for the warm welcome!

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 10:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hey, Pam!

Here's what I'm thinking. Your VP/drystall is going to be very water-retentive unless you make the Drystall a large fraction of the soil, but let's assume you're not going to use a lot of Drystall, because I know you're leaning toward the VP. First, perlite would probably be a better choice than the drystall because it will be more effective at reducing water retention. Perlite has no internal porosity, so would hold less water than the Drystall - and it's less expensive. If you have more questions in that area, just ask & I'll help; otherwise, I'll leave you to figure out how to deal with the 'making' part of your soil.

How to rig your containers to take the most advantage of gravity to help you drain your containers: Hang them by a corner, or from wherever you need to to ensure the container hangs at as close to a 45* angle as you can make it hang. Drill your drain hole in the lowest spot, and insert a wick. This makes the soil that the perched water occupies cone-shaped or pyramidal, and a 6" pyramid or cone standing on its apex holds only about half the soil as a 6" cube. Since the PWT will occupy only (about) half the volume of soil it normally would if the container is level, you'll reduce the perched water volume by half PLUS whatever extra the wick will remove. You'll lose some soil volume because the container is tipped, but that you'll have a much higher % of soil with air i it instead of being saturated, you'll actually GAIN volume in the 'healthy' soil dept.

You aren't the only one here trying to escape the mud-in-a-bag you referred to. Many have passed this way and embarked on a path different than that which they arrived on. I'm glad you see the folly in remaining chained to what you already know wasn't working. I applaud your initiative. ;o)


    Bookmark   April 1, 2011 at 12:38AM
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Al, and AL, Jodik, and Laura are WONDERFUL people and just reading this thread makes me smile!

Hi Mike. Hope you have been well.

Thank you everyone!

Very nice screen name as Al put it by the way.


    Bookmark   April 1, 2011 at 12:01PM
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All is well Mike Thanks for asking heading to CT. this weekend if yah need anything

    Bookmark   April 1, 2011 at 12:33PM
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onafixedincome(z8-9 CA)

I tried to hang one of the litter container bottoms today and it just wouldn't hold. :( So they'll have to go on wire shelves cantilevered to the fence instead...I think, given the nooks and crannies on the bottom, I'll be running four wicks per container, more if need be.

I went to four nurseries today and here's what I got:
"Bark? Why would you want bark?"
"Bark sucks all the nitrogen out as it breaks down; you don't want bark."
"The only people that use bark have orchids."
"Oh, we don't even carry bark."


"We have this neat water-holding potting soil."
"These are soilless, isn't that the idea?" (showing me an extremely dusty/fines-filled coir and peat mix)
"You don't want to use something that holds water in this climate? Why not?!? Everything dries out so *fast*!"

At which point, I threw up my hands and said Enough!

I will be using what I have-- vermicompost based in rabbit manure and hay, combined with DryStall until it's a nice balance of fine and coarse, and see how it works.

It may not be 5-1-1 or GrittyMix, but at least it's not MudInATub.

I'll keep you posted on how it works.

Thanks all!

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 12:54AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Best luck, Pam. TTYL


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 2:14PM
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I think it will work well. BTW, for my outdoor containers, I just use bark sold in big-box stores like Home Depot. I use composted bark or chips used for mulching flower beds.

Indoors on my houseplants, I use orchid bark since I grow orchids and always have bags of that around.

Good luck and please post some photos.


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 10:35PM
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