Backyard experimentation

By David Parkinson

Sub-irrigated planter or self-watering container: overflow hole visible near the bottom

Small-scale and urban food production is certainly catching on all over the place. Every day I see more articles about backyard gardening, permaculture, community gardens, CSA programs, and all other kinds of schemes that people are trying out to shorten the distance between producer and consumer. Anything that turns consumers into producers is especially exciting, since that is one guaranteed way to put some amount of direct control and personal responsibility into people’s hands.

But, as anyone who grows food will tell you, it’s a lot of work; and not only physical labour but also a constant or near-constant project of thinking up new plans and new approaches and testing them out. This year, the two things I’m most excited about in our garden are our ten new blueberry bushes (two each of Bluecrop, Brigitta, Duke, Northland, and Reka varieties) and our jazzy set of self-watering containers, also known as sub-irrigated planters.

The blueberries are pretty obvious: ever since I was a child, blueberries have been one of my favourite fruits. For me, there is no pie like a good blueberry pie; and they’re an essential ingredient in a good bowl of oatmeal. When I got these ten bushes a couple of months ago, I learned that in their first season they will do better at rooting and getting established if they don’t put too much energy into their flowers. Which means that I was supposed to be removing flowers when they appear. Well, I did that for some time, but then my heart just went out of it. I want those berries too much!

And so now I am gratified to see a fair number of almost-berries on a few of the bushes. I can’t wait — to me, there is almost no luxury greater than picking ripe blueberries off the bush in the backyard. (I think I’ll still need to mount an expedition or two to a U-Pick this summer, though, in order to pick enough to dry the quantities I need for winter storage.)

As for the tomatoes, no decent garden is complete without a few tomato plants. But tomatoes present some interesting challenges, especially for gardeners working with a limited space: they don’t like to be drenched with water, so it’s best to keep them somewhat sheltered and away from other plants. They like real heat. They can be especially thirsty, and they need heavier feeding than many other plants. Last year, we had a few tomato plants that we tried to keep sheltered under the south-facing eave, tucked in under the branches of our peach tree. But when it rains the wind tends to blow out of the southeast, so they were not always keeping dry there. This is not the hottest side of the house either, thanks to shade from a neighbour’s ornamental cedars; but it was hard to know how we could plant them on the west side without having them out in the middle of the lawn.

The solution: self-watering containers (SWCs)/sub-irrigated planters (SIPs). I found this clever idea on the internet (where else?). The idea is simple: instead of watering plants from above, letting much of the water evaporate off the soil surface and training the roots to stay shallow, why not water plants from beneath? That way you lose less water to evaporation and dissipation into the surrounding soil, and send it right where it belongs: straight to the roots of the plant. In an Italian garden you will often see tin cans open at both ends and dug into the soil around the base of tomato plants, providing a water-tunnel to do the same thing.

The idea is simple: two buckets stack into one another. A pipe cut through the bottom of the upper bucket carries water down into the lower bucket, from which the water is drawn up into the soil by capillary action (“wicking”).

For a simple set of instructions, see this website. We managed to get our hands on about twenty used food-grade five-gallon plastic containers from a kind friend, some PVC piping from another kind friend, and that plus a drill and a utility knife were about all it took to whip up a number of SIPs to hold the tomato starts we got from some other kind friends. Even for notoriously non-handy people like us, it was dead easy. And now we have twelve robust tomato plants out on our front steps, under the eave on the west side of the house where the sun is at its most intense in the afternoons and evenings.

It’s definitely an experiment, although there seem to be enough people out there using SIPs — often in small spaces or on rooftops where it is impractical to have large planters full of heavy moist soil — that the technology is proven to work well. Still, we will go through this season to see just how well they work and whether there is room for improvements. It’s my hope that we can divert a large number of used food-grade containers from the waste stream and construct SIPs for more people next season. It’s pretty close to an ideal technology for growing some food in a small space, and would also be good for people who may not want to spend a lot of time watering and weeding. But what a way to get people hooked on ultra-local food: there is nothing on earth like a tomato fresh off the vine; so completely different from the tomatoes in the store it might as well have another name.


3 Responses to “Backyard experimentation”

  1. 1 Margy June 14, 2010 at 22:23

    The self-irrigation planter is a great idea. I grow my tomatoes in small barrels but do have trouble with consistent watering. It’s either too much or not enough. I might give it a try next year if I can find some buckets. – Margy

  2. 2 David Parkinson June 15, 2010 at 07:42

    So far this is working really well. The tomatoes look pretty healthy and happy. If anything they threaten to overflow the buckets they’re in!

  3. 3 H2 June 13, 2011 at 19:43

    Hi David:
    We so enjoy your posts and have a fragile dream of moving from Chicago to your neck of the woods.

    A note on SIP reservoirs: if you can get your hands on larger buckets you can create larger reservoirs, requiring less frequent watering. In a hot summer on our roof, temps can zoom to 100+ degrees (especially in these climate-change years).

    My partner purchased 6 and 7-gal buckets to create a larger SIP set, with more room for potting mix as well as the larger reservoir.

    Here’s a quick view:

    We’ll be eager to hear how your tomatoes grow…

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