SWC's for a Veggie Garden Noob

MA2CAMarch 14, 2012

Greetings GW.

I’ve been yearning for a veggie garden for ages. Three things keep stopping me:

1. Not enough space for a standard garden bed. We own a home in suburban CA central valley. My land is a postage stamp with a pool… My side yards are only wide enough for walkpaths, and I can only assume that the front yard is out of the question due to CC&R’s, though that’s unconfirmed.

2. Not enough time to commit to doing it properly. Although my weekends are generally free, I have a 200 mile round trip commute to work every day, two young’ns, and my wife works full time as well.

3. Very little budget for automating irrigation, a necessity. This area of the central valley stays very hot and dry for a long part of the summer. Full sun, High 90’s to Mid 100’s is pretty much the norm from May thru the end of September.

Last year, I wet my feet with a half wine barrel herb and assorted pepper garden…which did ok. Aphids did get out of control, and some kind of small worms/caterpillars bored through and ruined most of my bell peppers. This year, I’m going to try self watering containers using a slightly modified version of the dual 5 gallon bucket. Really, the only thing I’m doing different, is using a different (cheaper) wicking basket…something I found at the Dollar Store, meant to be a decorative bathroom storage container I think. Will post pictures later. Anyway, it’s quite a bit larger in area than the usual pond strainers, but I can get them two for a buck. It’s plastic, roughly 4x4x8”, and covered in vent holes, something like a laundry basket.

So, how I got here…I recently became interested in preparedness and have been listening to one particular podcast that sort of re-sparked my interest in personal food production. I became aware of some of the problems facing the future of world food supply due to the clearly unsustainable methods of modern agriculture. Since going down that rabbit hole, I’ve been turned on to ideas like homesteading, permaculture, and the paleo diet. Granted, these are pie in the sky ideals for most of us that aren’t lucky enough to be able to own and occupy that much land. Anyway, a man’s gotta dream.

In my research, I happened across lot’s of cool ideas on YouTube…geodesic dome greenhouses, aquaponics, rocket mass heaters, and these nifty little contraptions…self watering containers.

I don’t really expect to offset my food costs by much this year, as I’m certain this will be a learning exercise more than anything else. My little girl just turned three, so she’s probably getting old enough to involve and engage in some of the activities. Even if she just hangs out and bombards me with a million questions, that’s infinitely better than parking her in front of the tube. Plus, I’m sure we’ll all end up eating better for it.

Some questions I hope you folks can help me out with:

1. Considering how hot it gets here, is container soil temperature going to be an issue? If so, any thoughts on lining the inside of the grow bucket with reflective mylar facing out?

2. To sheet mulch or not? I assume this would help in retaining soil moisture, but will it also tend to trap heat?

3. My buckets are all food grade #2 HDPE, so I assume that’s safe to grow in. Should I be concerned about using PVC for the fill tube? I’ve seen where some people are using bamboo, or even copper tubing. Copper? That just seems like a bad idea to me given the fact that it’s one of the most powerful antimicrobials/antifungals occurring in nature. That can’t be good for beneficial soil micro-life. What about the wicking baskets? Am I overthinking? I do that :)

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Your wicking baskets may be too large, the only reason they might work is because of your climate. Believe it or not, it's easy to make SWCs wick too much water. It's a common rookie mistake (that I certainly made). Believe it or not, a yogurt cup is fine. You don't need tons of holes. I know one gardenwebber that uses just a single 3/16 hole in his SWC buckets.

I wouldn't worry too much about any of the materials you mentioned.

As far as soil micro life goes, that is of much lesser concern in container gardening, and there's far greater challenges to the microbes than a bit of copper.

Sheet mulch will help you a lot with water usage, but to combat the heat either use white plastic to reflect, or top plastic with a layer of light colored mulch.

I wouldn't use reflective mylar inside the bucket. That stuff will come off and I have no idea about it's safety. Many SWC users in hot climates shade their SWCs with bamboo curtains, or wood, or white paint or plastic.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2012 at 11:05PM
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Thanks for your response Ferretbee.
Now that I've spent a bit more reading time, it's apparent that this particular facet of gardening is still being pioneered. So I won't expect to find a consensus on the right way/wrong way of doing things. I like to experiment anyway, which is why I didn't go out and just buy an earthbox.

I'm starting everything from seed, and that seems to be going well. I figured I'd put some of my unused aquarium equipment to use for that. My propogation greenhouse is a 55 gallon glass aquarium with a DIY canopy, and 4x54Watt T5HO lighting.
For grow media, I just mixed my own with equal parts sphagnum peat, vermiculite, and perlite. I'm waterng with tap until the first shoots appear, and then I water with a 1/2 strength dose of MG all purpose water soluble fert. I chose to use 3 Oz. plastic and paper cups (with holes poked inthe botoms) to grow out of...mainly because they are cheap and plentiful.One change I need to make...I either need to be able to lower the lighting fixture, or put the cups on a raised shelf. As it is, the bulbs are about 20" above the cups. I've read that somewhere around 6" above canopy is best and will prevent leggy seedlings.

And heres the progression of my first experimental container.

This particular container is configured for beets. A couple of ahah, or duh, moments. The plastic cover with the cutouts probably isn't going to stay...at least not with my rootcrops; beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes and onions. Otherwise I'll have to harvest them all at the same time as there will be no way to remove the top without cutting all the crowns off. Probably better off using white poly anyway.
Then there's the fertilizer strip...not really sure if this layout is going to work. It seems awfully close to the roots. I did lay down a couple layers of paper towel in the fert furrows to kind of keep it from spreading out. One thought I had was that I could keep the white hole forming cups in place, but just cut out the bottom, and plant right into them. That would provide a couple inches of vertical barrier and also force the roots to grow lower...well, it's an experiment, we shall see.
The next one I do, I will do away with the center plant, and use that area for the fertilizer, making sure to keep it well away from the outer ring of plants.

Oh, forgot to mention the grwing media. I could not find anything in my area that would work right out of the bag. The only non-humus/manure containing potting mixes I could find all have at least 6 Month fert built in, or some sort of water wise formulation.
I kind of just went with what I could easily find that wouldn't break the bank. 6 parts sphagnum peat, 2.5 parts perlite, 2.5 parts vermiculite, 1 part pine bark fines (orchid mix). I then mixed in about 1/2 cup of dolomite in the top 6" of the bucket.
The wick basket was packed tightly with a saturated mix. As I filled the bucket with suitably moist mix, I compacted the center section to aid in establishing the wicking process.

Should be about another week before my beet seedlings get their 1st set of true leaves, and that's when I'll transplant to the bucket.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 4:27PM
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Sorry folks, didn't realize you couldn't post pics here. Copy/Paste the URL's I listed if you want to see.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 4:43PM
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