Garden Update #1: Silverbeet, Garden Pots, Worm Towers and Kratky Jars

I have a confession: I pretty much gave up gardening last year. Two-year-old Chipmunk, while overall an excellent experience, did not lend herself to me keeping anything other than her alive. As a result, my raised bed has been lucky to keep the silverbeet going as long as it has. Especially considering the heat wave in early January and the complete lack of water for two months prior. In fact, I thought they were completely dead, until THIS happened:

IMG_20150127 Pollard Silverbeet

Yep, that’s pollarding silverbeet. Who knew?

IMG_20150127 Pollarded Silverbeet

This little miracle, coupled with a review of the PDC I took in 2013, and the growth of Chipmunk into a toddler who will happily entertain herself (or even help out in the garden), led to a renewed enthusiasm for the backyard patch. So I’ve been busy with all sorts of experiments and developments.

The first of which was these:

IMG_20150123 Pots out front 01
Not shown: adorable child helpers, who insisted on planting carrots. The rectangle on the left is a wicked pot made from a UV-stabilised recycling tub.

 

It took me a while but I finally worked out that I’m far more likely to pay attention to growing plants if they’re out the front of the house, where I have to walk past them every time I go outside. It’s too easy for me to ignore the backyard, since it’s a pain to get to. Interestingly, having these pots out front has also enticed me out back more often – the water tap is out back anyway, so I have to at least go out there to fill the watering can. And while I’m out there, I may as well check the silverbeet and other things. (If only it was that easy to entice myself into washing the dishes!)

I didn’t pot these up all in one day. Just two at a time. One of my biggest mistakes is getting too gung-ho too early, and then crashing when maintenance proves too much. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible this time round, so I started slow with the pots.

I have since discovered that I detest conventional garden pots with the fire of a thousand suns, and would much, much rather have wicking pots. The moisture level in wicking pots stays sooooo much more even, and I don’t have to water anywhere near as often. So until I work out a way to turn regular pots into the wicking variety, I’m sticking with this number of potted vegetables.

The white bag on the carrots is actually one such “wicking” attempt. My theory was that the bag could keep the water in, acting as a sort of outside reservoir. It works OK, but not brilliantly. And all the rocks underneath the pots poked a hole in the bag within a few days. If the pot had stayed in one position, it would probably have been fine. But the heat waves that have been rolling through mean that I’m shifting plants out of the sun on scorching hot days, and back into it again on milder ones. So back to the drawing board I go.

On the plus side, my semi-babying of the plants seems to be paying dividends. Here they are two and a half weeks later:

IMG_20150210_160617

 

Another fun thing I came across was worm towers. They’re essentially an in-ground worm bin, or in my case, in-garden-bed. (I have to stick with raised beds because there’s weed mat down everywhere, and the landlord said it has to stay there. Boo.) I happened to already have a bottomless garden pot left over from another project so I went to work with the drill, creating drainage/air holes in the sides. Unfortunately, I had technical difficulties about 80% through the drilling:

IMG_20150127_111720

Tip: never say "I think I'll upgrade to cordless electric when this one breaks" in hearing of your equipment. You might give it ideas.
Tip: never say “I think I’ll upgrade to cordless electric when this one breaks” in hearing of your equipment. You might give it ideas.

Despite this setback, I installed the worm pot in the raised bed anyway. Now it just needs worms. I’m waiting a week or two for the currently forecast heatwave to dissipate before I start to hit up friends and acquaintances for a share of their livestock.

 

Last but not least in my recent garden experiments is this little fellow:

Supposedly this contraption will grow food for me.
Supposedly this contraption will grow food for me.

This, believe or not, is a hydroponic Kratky jar. The Kratky method of hydroponic growing uses no pumps or air stones – just a net pot full of growing medium and a container (usually a gallon jug) full of nutrient solution. The above is my home-brew adaptation of the system. The plastic cup is filled with gravel (I had to tie it with string to stop the stones falling out) and sits nicely in the top of an old coffee jar. I painted the jars yellow to keep light out of the nutrient solution and thus stop algae growing. Instead of commercial hydro nutrient, I mixed up a batch of organic solution using seaweed extract, fish emulsion, and blood and bone per this article.

I did up four of these little jars to test Professor Kratky’s system. They were as follows:

  • One with parsley (roots washed of dirt) and shredded paper
  • One with tomato (roots left in the tiny bit of coir they had with them) and shredded paper
  • One with basil (roots washed) and gravel
  • One with basil (roots left in the dirt plug) and gravel

They’ve been sitting on my window ledge since January 24 (17 days at the time of writing), and the results have been…. mediocre.

IMG_20150210_175130
From left to right: parsley, tomato, and two basil plants.

 

The parsley seems to be doing pretty well overall. The tomato hasn’t died, but it hasn’t grown any either. And while the basil has put on an inch or two each, the one with its roots still in the dirt plug is definitely faring better. However, they both droop regularly and the washed-root basil is looking downright unhealthy. Their roots just don’t seem to be growing fast enough to keep in the nutrient solution, so I’ve had to top them up every day to keep them going. I suspect that basil just may not be suited to this type of system, but I’m very much a neophyte in the hydroponic growing world.

Now, to be fair, the Kratky system was originally developed for lettuce. And the original system uses proper grow medium (vermiculite, coir peat, perlite, or a mix) instead of gravel or shredded paper. I suspect that if I shell out the money for a medium with better capillary action, my results would be better.

 

So that’s how my garden’s been growing for the last few weeks. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll show you the real work I’ve been putting in.