Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Greatest Gardening Challenge Nets My Greatest Gardening Discovery

I was not expecting to move this summer.  We'd started our seeds over winter, planted the seedlings in the ground (and in planters) and were nurturing them along when life said, “don't get too comfortable, now.”

Challenge:  can one move mature garden vegetables successfully?  My instincts told me “no.”  I've gardened most of my life.  I've never transplanted anything in the middle of summer.  That would be begging for trouble.

A googling I went.  Sure enough, there was a how-to video for moving mature tomato plants.  If it works for tomatoes, it should work for peppers, right?  According to the video, we needed to prep the plants by digging around them and breaking their roots, letting them recover from that shock in their original positions by watering them thoroughly over the next two weeks before removing and transplanting.

I would not be moving the plants to another garden plot, though.  I would be transplanting them to planters.  Tomatoes are large plants that need a lot of soil for their roots and plenty of nutrients to support their intense, rapid growth and fruiting.

A project that had been tickling at the back of my mind for over a year was sub-irrigated planters. During my mid-winter gardening research (if I can call stumbling about the Internet somewhat haphazardly 'research') I came across Bob Hyland's Flickr photostream of his research and work with sub-irrigated planters.  Bob is the founder of the Center for Urban Greenscaping and has spent years perfecting the way he makes sub-irrigated planters (SIPs). His photostreams showed convincing results (coffee trees in New York!)  that compelled me to give SIPs a try.  The instructions are sketchy in his photostreams, however, and I felt no confidence in moving forward.  When life suggested I get moving, the time was right to give these sub-irrigated planters a go.  I worked from memory knowing my memory was shoddy at best.  I managed to mash the instructions for smaller SIPs with the instructions for larger SIPs, but the results two months later are great.  From memory, I needed a reservoir for the water, wicking material to draw the water into the planters, and a pipe of some sort to be able to add water to the reservoir without dismantling the planter.  I had forgotten an overflow hole (remedied quickly with a drill).

I gathered food-grade plastic five gallon buckets for the tomatoes and other, smaller ones for the peppers.  Since the pepper plants were small and easy to work around, we transplanted those first.  Once they were in the planters we positioned the planters in mostly shade and watched for signs of shock.  One plant pouted a bit – the leaves and stems were droopy that day and the next.  By the third day, the droopy plant was fine as were all the other pepper planters.  This was back in June.

Inside of planter bucket.  Wicking material is poly fabric.  Section of garden hose  is  used for refilling the reservoir.
Wicking material hangs down into water of reservoir.  (This is the part I got wrong, but seems to have worked throughout this season.) 
Newly transplanted.  
I use a funnel to add water.   
We went on to transplant 12 pepper plants with equal results and three tomato plants.  The tomatoes were enormous!  They wilted terribly when moved, despite having prepared them 10 days previous.  We stopped at the third plant because we didn't think they were going to make it.  During the actual move, one of the tomato plants dropped 30 green tomatoes.  I thought for sure these plants were going to succumb to the shock and die.
It's a beast! 
They did not!  They rallied and within a week were no longer wilted or drooping.  I damaged one of the plants trying to stake it after transplanting it when it was wilting so severely.  I broke several branches and decided to stop there and never staked it.  Of course, none of this was ideal for the tomatoes.  Saving the three plants we did, we've been able to put up enough sauce and chopped tomatoes for a winter's worth of spaghetti, soups, and chili!

All the planters in their new home. 
The peppers, though, have behaved as if nothing ever happened.  They've produced heavily.   I did not have time to make all the transplant containers sub-irrigated and not knowing if SIPs would make much difference anyway, several of the planters are just regular drain-holes-in-the-bottom planters.   And this is where my big discovery comes in.  Since June in record-high temperatures with record-low rainfall, I have had to add water to the sub-irrigated planters TWICE!  Twice!  The regular planters all must be watered daily, twice a day on very hot days!  Not the sub-irrigated planters.  This is astounding!  I do fertilize with a liquid fish and seaweed emulsion once a week for the peppers, but that is it.  Every day I check my planters and every day the soil in the SIPs is moist.  This is a Very Big Deal!  I imagine I save about a gallon of water a day on each sub-irrigated planter.  The plants in them are happy, healthy, and incredibly productive!

SIP on left.  Standard planter on right.  Note how dark and glossy the leaves are on the SIP and how pale the leaves are on the pepper in the standard planter.  Soil is the same.  Fertilizing schedule is the same.  The only difference is the water reservoir on the SIP.  (Can you see I added an overflow hole on the SIP bucket? )

You can bet every planter I make from now on will be sub-irrigated!

 As a PS, I don`t want anyone to confuse or conflate SIPs with self-watering planters.  You can buy self-watering planters just about anywhere now-a-days, but commercially produced SIPs are hard to come by.  Earthbox is one and there are others. I have several self-watering planters and my experience with them is that they don`t make much difference at all from standard planters.  Using them outdoors, I need to water as frequently as I do with any of the standard planters.  I suspect that the large fill hole in the side of the planter allows for evaporation.

This is a self-watering planter with 4 peppers in it.   The seashells are only there to keep the squirrels from digging.  I overcrowded this planter and clearly not enough nutrients are getting to the one super cherry plant in the foreground.  (There are four pepper plants in this planter.  Ideally, there would only be one.  These are not transplants, however.  They started out this way.) 

I'm sure the reservoir hole allows for evaporation.  I have to fill this daily, sometimes twice daily.  


Johanne said...

Hi Rachel,

You might be interested in my SIP roof-top veggie garden in Toronto. Have a look at my flickr site:

You might interested in this system as well. Larry Hall's rain gutter grow system. He is on YouTube and also on Facebook.

Johanne Daoust

CannedAm said...

Thank you Johanne! I'll do that. I'm in Ontario, too.

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