The problem with standard containers and planters is that you must pour lots of water in through the top to get good consistent moisture to all the roots. Potting mix has sharp drainage to protect roots from rot, so you have very low moisture retention as all unabsorbed moisture quickly exits at the bottom. This is great on automated irrigation. At home, it results in plants enjoying a heavy drink, getting parched, binge again existence… and the cycle continues for the length of their life.
Not only is this a huge waste of water, it throws your plants off-balance. First they’re lovin’ life. Next they’re battling stress. Then it’s back to living large again when you come by with the watering can. You know what this kind of constant mood and energy swing does to you. Imagine what it does to plants, and their ability to grow food!
PLANTS AREN’T MADE FOR CONTAINERS
Container growing any plant means being super vigilant in staying on top of your watering. Let it get too dry, and you have foliar damage, at best. This situation can maim, or kill, even a rugged plant quickly under the midday sun outdoors. Inside a building won’t make parched potting mix any friendlier. In fact, it’s much more critical. Modern homes and offices are climate controlled, free of dew and rainfall.
With a SIP system, or self irrigating planters, you can still enjoy just picked delicious produce at a far lower cost than buying it. You’ll also use way less water, and none of it is wasted. The bonus with these growing systems is that you have greatly reduced your risk of crop loss, because you forgot to water. You can also go away for a week, and not come home to dead plants. The biggest benefit might be that your harvest will ripen more quickly than in a traditional summer garden, and deliver a higher yield.
Here’s the really cool part. You can grow totally organic food this way – indoors or outside. SIP gardens are perfect for an empty corner, a windowsill, the basement, rooftop gardens, patios, balconies, classrooms, greenhouses, and even your office. For best results indoors, do plan on using full sun intensity grow lights. Fruiting plants need that energy to build a bumper harvest.
HOW DOES THIS WORK?
Any self watering plant system will hold a great deal of water in a reservoir with a storage capacity ranging from one to many gallons. Some are battery operated drip systems and others use natural gravity, water pressure, and a specially designed container. An important note about inexpensive automated drip systems… Your tap water could cause problems with valve functioning. Claber makes one you’ll find easy to locate that can water 20 plants for 40 days, but the reviews are anything but glowing. Why bother if it’s not reliable?
Gravity is free, and far less prone to issues. Plants know exactly how to make this system work. The simplest form of self irrigating system uses what is known as wicking, also known as capillary action. This has long been used for starting seeds. Here your containers sit on an absorbent mat with ends that drop over a riser stand that draws water up from the pan below. In a seed starting tray like this, a clear plastic dome keeps moisture from simply evaporating, and disappearing too quickly. Self watering growing systems today also enclose the water tray and reservoir for this same reason.
Old fashioned methods of wicking into containers used cotton rope to pull water from the reservoir into the container where the media and roots could do their thing. Technology and advanced knowledge has improved this technique of low maintenance growing. Some SIP systems still use a wick, while others use the wicking action naturally present in soil or moisture absorbing media.
AIR & WATER
Water is heavy, but with proper aeration, any of it stored below is drawn up into the substrate easily without a wick. That is what capillary action is all about. When fine tunnels are available in the soil or potting mix, water can defy gravity and rise. Your plants make full use of it where it counts most – at the root zone. A huge reduction in water use, and foliar issues from overhead watering.
You can increase your water conservation with the use of lightweight sheet mulch covering the surface of the growing media. Additionally, these techniques allow growing fruits and veggies anywhere with minimal labor, while delivering high yields in a very compact space.
HOW DO I GET ONE?
You can buy ready to use systems online, and at local garden centers and hydro shops. What you can grow this way runs the full gamut. There are shallow planters perfect for herbs and greens to those large enough to grow sweet corn and full-sized tomato plants. Plant a mixed mini plot in a single container, or a whole garden of goodness growing in several containers at once.
BRANDS TO INVESTIGATE
All of these function without timers or power, though you do need electricity for grow lights for reliable indoor gardening. If the SIP system has a pump, it operates using gravity triggered by the water level when needed. This technique is also known as passive hydroponics.[column size=one_half position=first ][/column][column size=one_half position=last ]EarthBox
- Window box styling; 2 sizes & 3 colors
- Fill your own or purchase a full kit
- Organic kit available
- Accessories & supplies available
- Priced from $25
- More info and dealer location: www.earthbox.com
- Gorgeous individual pots for discerning indoor gardeners
- Priced from $25
- Supplies & accessories available
- Visual reservoir level monitor
- Stacking systems available
- More info: www.lechuza.es
- Gravity triggered pump
- Passive hydroponics
- Natural capillary activity
- Reservoir feeds & waters up to 4 weeks
- 2 pot system kit with reservoir
- Used in homes and commercial growing
- Expandable system with 1-2 pot trays
- Larger reservoirs available
- Priced from $70
- More info: www.autopot-usa.com
STRAPPED FOR CASH?
You can build your own self irrigating planters. Check out these great plans that could cost as little as $6 to complete HERE. Practice some savvy repurposing or recycling, and you might do it for less. If you’re new to growing food, the DIY directions on that web page explains what you need once you’ve got your planter built. There are also winterization tips if gardening solely outdoors, but you can grow indoors and outdoors with the same unit – depending on the season.
A note about building your own. Look for plastic tubs that are food safe, like recyclable symbol 5 on the bottom, which identifies food grade polypropylene construction.
WHICH IS BETTER?
Factory-produced systems are probably much more durable, and they are the closest thing to a plug and play SIP garden possible. If you’re not real handy and can afford them, buying ready made self irrigating planters or systems might be your key to success.
[alert type=white ]This article by Tammy Clayton, Senior Editor of Garden Culture Magazine is republished here from Issue 3, where it appeared under the title, “SIP Gardening.”[/alert]