Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Sub-Irrigation Makes Sense for Me

I have had folks ask me questions about the sub-irrigation buckets that I am using to grow my tomatoes and some other vegetables and I have written down most of the reasons that I have for doing these things. This probably isn’t an all-inclusive list of every reason that would explain what I’m doing with the buckets so as I add other reasons or explanations don’t think that I’m changing my mind. There is more, a lot more.

First, it’s a semi-automated system. With time being the most valuable commodity and the only real non-renewable resource I have, this is important. I only have to tend them a couple times a week because each container holds several days' worth of water. It only takes 10 to 15 minutes for me to walk down the row between the buckets with my watering wand and fill them up. Even if I had a timer on the watering system in the traditional beds, they would only get water during the morning or whenever the timer was set. 

Second, there are no weeds to pull because the soil mix that I have used has no weed seeds. Less time, less labor, and so far, very good growth. There is much more growth in these plants than those in the traditional beds in the back yard.

Third, these are designed specifically to reduce the amount of water stress the plants will go through during the hottest parts of the summer. This is a big consideration here in the desert. Since they hold a reservoir of water, the plants can drink whenever they need to, depending upon the temperature and humidity and wind. This is expected to reduce the number of split and cracked fruits because they don’t get stressed for water. 

Fourth, all of the water goes to the plant. None of it soaks down into the dirt beyond the roots. Since this method uses only 20% of the water that traditional in-ground beds do, I’m actually saving money on the water. In essence, I have to use five times more water on the terrace beds than in the buckets.

There is a way to change the terrace beds into the same type of water-reservoir systems and my son-in-law and I have talked about it and we would like to do it. Before we put in that much labor (removal of all the dirt, installation of a rubber liner, gravel, pipe, reinstall the dirt), I want to make sure that this system will work for me here in my climate. This gives me the chance to test and observe how this system works before I go all out on converting my backyard gardens. So far, I'm liking what I'm seeing.

Fifth, it’s portable, to a degree. I can move them to take advantage of the specific micro-climate that does the best for them for whatever the weather throws at us.  Right now, the tomatoes are growing in a place that gets optimum sunshine, later afternoon shade, and protection from high winds. That side of the yard opens into a southern exposure which should allow me to continue growing long after the “normal” season is over.

Sixth, it doesn’t look as sterile as a rock yard. I don’t know why people like rock yards other than the fact that they are very low maintenance. They are ugly and sterile looking. They are hotter in the summer than they need to be. They are tough to clean when debris blows into them and digging weeds out of them is a bear. The buckets give a feeling and appearance of lush plant growth. To me, it makes that side yard look nice. So far, there have been no complaints from either my neighbors or the HOA.

Seventh, I can’t keep the dogs out of the backyard garden beds. I can keep them out of these because the dogs aren’t in the front yard. Dogs like gardens, what can I say? There is, consequently, no dog poop or pee on any of these plants. I can’t say that about the ones I am growing in the backyard. I have lost several cabbages, 30 or so onions and a huge amount of chard and lettuce to the dogs pooping, digging, chewing and sleeping on the plants.

Eighth, the tomatoes that are growing in the buckets are growing 3 or 4 times faster than the tomatoes in the back yard. It’s obviously a better system for tomatoes and I’m hoping for other plants, too. Bigger, healthy plants, growing faster. Hmmm, what gardener would want that?

Ninth, I haven’t really put that much money into the garden this year, actually less than last year. I bought eight white buckets from the Re-Store, sort of a materials thrift store for Habitat for Humanity. They sold for half the price ($2 each) than they sell for in the big box hardware store whose name is on the front of the bucket. Most all of the other buckets came from dumpsters, the garage, my son-in-law, and the like without a cost. I like free, don’t you? The inner materials are all recycled. This has given another use to a lot of plastic bottles, food containers, milk jugs and plastic piping and kept it all out of the landfill. All of the plastic piping I have used has had at least one and often several uses before I chopped it up to fit the buckets. The only thing new, besides those eight buckets I actually bought, were the cable ties I use to hold it all together. I still haven't figured out how to get one of those things off without cutting it. If you know how, pass it on.

Tenth, I am also growing in the buckets to illustrate my blog and my book on Stealth Farming (the blog is in support of the book). It will be a part of the whole package deal with the book. I’m hoping that it will allow me to contribute to the growing trend in urban farming. That’s why I’m reading and researching all the stuff of food, and gardening and urban farming and alternative ways to grow in the city and stuff like that. It’s a huge wave of folks, ideas, concepts and perceptions. People are turning to growing their own food in the city like they haven’t done since before World War I. It’s huge and I want to be part of it. I think I can and I think I can help a lot of people and have some fun while I’m at it.

So there you have ten reasons why I’m growing food in sub-irrigated buckets. As I learn other benefits or the disadvantages of this system, I will be sure to pass that information along. As I discover more reasons for doing it this way, I’ll be sure to pass them on to you, too.

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