Monday, 11 February 2008

Wicking Box Gardens

Wicking Box Gardens
I had to plant some of these rapidly growing brassicas so I decided on a few wicking boxes.
The concept of these is the same as the in ground Wicking Beds.

You need a container without drainage holes, it's sides need to be at least 30cm tall.
Here in Aust broccoli is packed in polystyrene boxes that are just about right for this.
They are 600 mm x 300mm in size and will need a hole made in the side about 100mm high for drainage. Experiment with the height of this hole.

If you only have boxes with holes in them use these but line the base with plastic. Only the bottom 100mm needs to be covered as it's only to this height that will need to hold water.

For these I'm using up some hose that is sold for distributing grey water from washing machines.We're not using this in our grey water set up so it's been sitting in the shed. It's a 22 mm hose and has holes the length of it.
I had some of the larger drainage pipe left-over from making the in-ground beds so I tried some with this too.

The ends of the small hose were blocked with some of Doc's leftover dowel bits. The larger hose was able to be wedged against the edge of the box.
These hoses were placed in the bottom of the box and covered with some chux-like cloth (thin cleaning cloth) off a roll from the cheap shop.

The covered pipe was surrounded with chopped pea straw and shredded paper to hold the water. This was covered with a thin layer of chook house bedding a mixture of wood shavings shredded paper and chook poop.

Please Note:
These early boxes had straw and paper in that base layer but as it broke down this mixture became very smelly. I now use sand or a sand and gravel mix.
I might add that doing this has made these boxes very heavy so it's best to build them at the site where you intend to keeping them.

I used Max Mixer to make up a mixture of potting mix, compost, blood and bone, coir soaked in Seaweed extract, Charlie carp, Epsom salts and potash.

An important part of this system is to add some worm bedding including some of the compost worms.

A tube of 50cm drain pipe was cut and had 15 mm holes drilled into the sides of it. This is where the worm food will be put and the worms will enter it to eat.
This saves having unbroken down food scraps in the box. The scraps are blended up and put into the tube of which about 1/3 is buried.

These boxes have been planted up with Mini Cauliflower, Broccoli, Lebanese Cress, Parsley, Kale, some companions Egyptian Onions, Thyme; later some Celpar and Coriander may be added if there is room.

I've used lengths of small conduit pipe from a cloche kit, to hold up some 50% shade cloth while it's still quite warm, later this will be replaced with a curtain to keep the cabbage moths and aphids off the growing brassicas.

Wicking Boxes and The Heat
Wicking Worm Bed Questions?

More info:
Wicking Worm Bed Basics


  1. Really fascinating! Can I ask an obvious question? Do you pour water down the pipe holes? Is it supposed to be a water reservoir at the bottom of the box?

  2. Hi Matron
    The water is poured into the drainage hose at the top to feed it through to the bottom layer which does act as a reservoir. The rest of the soil in the box is watered by the 'wicking' action whereby water is pulled up to the growing layer. The compost worms live in the growing layers to keep the soil healthy.

    From the Waterright site (link below)
    "The wicking bed is the most important, it enables us to grow food with a lot less water, it can be used to harvest water otherwise lost and particularly it can actually capture carbon from the atmosphere."
    Click here to visit the waterright site with lots more info.

  3. That looks really interesting! I hope you post some progress shots so we can see how it turns out. Will you get more than one brassica plant to a box or would that be too crowded? Melissa

  4. Hello Melissa
    I intend to take progress shots (even if it fails..eek).
    It would depend on the type of brassica chosen. I could have put 2 of the mini cauliflowers in I think. Perhaps some of the more compact varieties that are more suited to containers could be used. I wasn't actually planning to use these boxes when I planted the seeds, so they weren't chosen to grow in containers.

    Asia varieties like pak choi or bok choy and others that can be planted closer together should work too.

    I wanted to make these with a mixture of plants in them, mainly to see what works best in these boxes.

    I'm still experimenting with these systems so there's still lots to learn.

  5. I tried the wicking bed idea in a terracotta strawberry pot because they always seem hard to water and it has worked well so far.

  6. That sounds like a good idea Tracy!
    Let me know how it goes.

  7. Wow... It really is an art isn't it??? You're doing a fantastic job, thanks for the advice!


  8. What a brilliant idea. I use fish boxes for starting off early plants. I am so looking forward to our summer.

    You site is such a mine of information which never fails to impress me.

  9. Hi Jodie
    It's fascinating really, I'm still experimenting but it's seems to be working so far.

    Hello Lottie
    Spring must be just around the corner for've had quite a winter.
    Your allotment's looking really great and just about ready for planting.

  10. Scarecrow, I have a question - Are you saying that you have compost worms INSIDE the box with the plants growing?
    I am raising worms in a worm bin, but after reading Charles Darwin's book about earthworms, I was wondering if i could put them in the TONS of houseplants I have. People always say that my home looks like a greenhouse! :) It would be so handy to be able to raise them there! But I hadn't heard if anyone had done that before or not. Thanks for your help!

  11. MY apologies for asking, but I've been reading about polystyrene leaching, do you have no concern over it leaching into your food? I have so many styrofoam boxes it's ridiculous, but I'm thinking I need to put a plastic bag liner in them.

    furthermore, what do you use for the bottom layer? or is it just good loamy soil from bottom to top?

  12. Hi Anonymous??
    No need to apologise, it's a valid question. Apparently there is more leaching as the boxes age. I'm happy to use them though.

    By all means line them with plastic (if that doesn't leach too??) if you wish. Just remember to put the drainage hole in about 10cms up from the bottom and make sure the water will drain out of that hole and not to the inside of the box.

    Folks have also used plastic containers (storage/recycling type) to make these gardens too but I think they would get too hot in our climate.

    I've also used old washing machine tubs for these, anything that's big enough and looks like it will work.

    These early boxes had straw and paper in that base layer but as it broke down this mixture became very smelly. I now use sand or a very sandy loam. You might try gravel as other folks have had success with that.

    Any compostable material will breakdown and apart from the smell will cause the soil level in the box to drop. Plus the worms might eat it!

  13. Hey,
    I'm about to go out and try to find what I can to start making a couple of these boxes. My only question is how do you stop the soil from getting into the reservoir area?



  14. Hi Benen
    I'll have to update this post as I now use sand in the reservoir layer. This doesn't break down and seems to work as well in these boxes as it does in the in-ground beads.
    I haven't had any problems with it being mixed in with the soil and don't think it would be that much of a problem anyway. The roots of the plants can't survive in that layer due to the presence of water on a regular basis.
    The wicking action still works. A fairly sandy loam works well too.

  15. Well I made my box last night, its a fairly deep plastic recycling container, about 80x80x80cm. I ended up using some very sandy loam from the back yard, a grey water pipe with an old t-shirt over the top of it to stop the sand getting into the holes. I've then filled the rest up with a mixture of moopoo which is full of hummus and a good potting mix. I'm yet to place a compost layer and mulch layer. It held about 15 litres of water before it ran out of the holes at the bottom. No water has soaked up to the surface area yet though or will this not happen until there are plants in it?

    I also planted some carrot, broccoli and beet seeds to get some seedlings going to try in there once they're big enough.

    Thanks heaps,


  16. Hi Benen
    Great job on the box! The actual surface is supposed to stay dry. If you dig down a few cms you should find some moist soil mix. This is why I prefer to plant seedlings in these systems. The roots will be down in that zone straight away.
    Other folks plant seeds in the systems with success so I guess they do work too.
    Have you got any compost worms to put in as well?
    They help to mix everything up and keep the soil mix aerated. It may work without worms but I haven't tried that yet.

    This link is to a thread on the ALS forum where other folks are recording their experiences with wicking beds. You might pick up some hints on there too!

  17. thanks so much, I've not managed to get my hands on any worms yet but it is definitely on the list. I'll let you know how i go.


  18. Hi Scarecrow,
    I am building a number of in-ground wicking beds hopefully in time for spring planting. I got prices on sleepers today, and I think that I can do this much cheaper. Do you have any suggestions on what materials I can use in lieu of going out and spending hard-earned money on sleepers? My apologies if you have dealt with this else where in your blogs.

  19. Hi Roz
    This post on the basics of wicking worm beds gives one's what we've used here. Anything that will hold up the sides will work.

  20. Hi Scarecrow,
    Good idea, loved the brocolli box setup.

    Do you need to fertilize and at what strength would you use?

    I live in Darwin, during the dry season would be ok, but during the wet would the worms need floaties? Would the drainage system be able to cope with our downpours?

  21. Hi Denise
    I have no personal experience growing in a wet climate. Lots of people have concerns about the worms getting too wet during downpours.
    You would need to be sure the drainage was adequate or the worms will escape from the box.
    It may be best to use gravel in the bottom layer and use a barrier over the drainage hole to make sure it never clogs with soil. That could make the boxes quite heavy (to move around) though.
    Would it be possible to move/build boxes like these to a covered position during the wet season?

    Sorry I don't think they have ever made floaties in wormie sizes yet! :)

    During the growing phase I haven't needed to add extra fertiliser but when the plants are finished or need to be divided (for perennials) I add more composted manure and fresh growing media to the top layers as they do seem to sink over time.
    A good feeding mulch (chopped lucerne or other legumes) adds extra nutrients too. As you continue to feed the worms that live in the box they continue to produce castings which provide plant nutrients.
    Including a variety of good quality 'food' for the worms will give a better quality of castings.
    You could give the plants some liquid worm castings (from another worm farm) if it looked like they needed extra help or a mild organic liquid fertiliser.

    I am always wary of putting commercial fertilisers in such close contact with the worms, for the in-ground beds I use old manures but only in patches to allow the worms to avoid the manures if they need to.

    I hope that gives you some ideas and please let me know how you go if you do decide to try some wicking boxes!

  22. Hi Scarecrow,
    Thankyou for that information.

    I like this system a lot, now I need to find a gardener to set it up. Too heavy for me.

    At the moment I use what they call luggs, they use them for fruit picking holds about 40 L potting mix, have to have a watering system on it goes through so much water. They seem to dry out real quickly.

    I sprinkle vegie scraps on top and cover with potting mix, not dig composting. Worms do the work. I suppose you could do the same with your system too.


  23. Hi Denise
    That set up sounds like it should work with a drainage hole in the side.
    I hope you can find someone to help you with your gardening.
    Good luck!

  24. hi, possibly dumb question- can you do wicking bed in an old bath?

    what a wonderful, inspiring website! thankyou!

  25. Hi Brongrieve
    No questions are ever dumb!!!

    Yes an old bath tub would be fine. You could rig up a way of draining to allow for just the bottom 10-20cm to remain wet.

    This could be done by attaching some hose (maybe clear) to the 'plug hole' at the bottom of the tub and bringing the hose up on the outside of the bath. It could them be adjusted to view the water level in the base.

    I hope that makes sense. You may find an easier way of monitoring the water level. You don't want the whole growing area to flood because that will make your worms 'jump ship' or drown!

    I must set up one of these bath beds as a trial.

    You should make sure the surface of the tub itself is sound too. If it too rusted through you could use a pond liner or plastic to line it.

  26. HI Scarecrow! Hi Brongrieve!

    First of all I just would like to thank you for this amazing's just perfect!!!

    So, I´m giving my first steps in the wicking boxes world and I'll be making my first one also from an old tub that will be in an indoor space. I just have a couple of questions:
    - Since I´m controlling the water level by the hose maybe there's no need in having a overflow hole, right?
    - If I do need one overflow hole, this hole is done just above the height of the drainage pipe, correct?
    - I want to do it without worms (the tub will be set up in my office and the boss didn't like the worm idea) so I´m concerned with the system aeration. Do you think it justifies to install another drainage pipe( connected to 2 holes) a bit above the other pipe in order to promote air circulation?

    Sorry if the questions sound silly but I´m just a rookie in this!

    By the way, have any of you done the wicking tub?

    Thanks a lot for your time.
    Sending the best vibrations from Portugal,


  27. Hi Francisco
    If you can control the water level and the tub isn't exposed to rain then no you shouldn't need an overflow hole.

    I think it would depend on what you will be growing as to how the lack of worms will go. If only growing annual plants that will need to be replaced in a couple of months you could check the state of the soil at replanting time. You could add fresh compost and aerate the soil then.

    I hope you will experiment and see how things work out.

    If you are talking about a bath tub then no I haven't tried growing in one YET. One day I do intend to.

    Good luck with your tub garden.

  28. Hi Scarecrow - we just made some and linked to you - strangely somehow I didn't know about your wicking boxes till after we'd made ours - but they're darn similar!

    Many thanks for your ongoing work!

  29. Hi Kirsten
    Thanks for the links I'll add your link to the wicking bed links on my permaculture blog HERE

  30. Hi! This is a fantastic idea and I'm keen to make my own wicking boxes asap! I have one question... how many worms would you use in a standard broccoli box?

    Many thanks

  31. Hi Melanie
    I usually just add a handful of compost worms to a box.

    If you don't have any worms you it would be ok to start growing in a box like this without them for the first crop. As long as your potting mixture is high in organic matter (compost) and not a heavy mix the plants will grow.
    If you intend to continue without worms you would need to top up the compost for a further crop, I would even go as far as emptying the box and starting again from scratch.

    It is the worms within the system that aerate the soil and add nutrients.

  32. How do you keep feeding the worms in the boxes for successive crops? They'd be fine when they first went in, but what about when they've eaten all the organic matter? How do you manage the ongoing feeding of the worms?

    I'm planning to build my first wicking box this weekend, and will have to dig worms out of my gardens for this as the worm farm (compost bin) was a hotel for mice....

  33. Hi Melinda
    There is a 'feeding tube' placed into these boxes. As these are compost worms (the ones used in worm farms/bins) they will need regular feeding with well chopped food scraps.

    I have used an old blender to break up food scraps but now find their favourite food is the leftover pulp from the veg/fruit juice we make each morning.

    The mulch layer on the top of these boxes also provides food for the worms as these worms are surface feeders and live in the top 30cm of the soil eating mainly rotting vegetation.

    You may find you will still need to top up the mix when you plant the next crop, sometimes I have needed to start the boxes with fresh mix but you shouldn't need to do that each time you plant.

    This Link shows how I feed the compost worms in the larger 'in-ground' wicking beds.

  34. Thanks for that. I hadn't realised that the boxes had a feeding tube as well.


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