Timbah Rooftop Herb Garden: part 4 How to make a wicking wine barrel planter (with worm tower)

Head Chef Daph checks on the garden

Work Begins

As this design is within eyesight of many neighbours and visited by some of the building’s residents, my client Tim has opted for wine barrels – eleven of them.

Having decided on the style of planter (a wicking bed or Sub-Irrigated Planter) the hard part starts. I have to construct 11 wine barrel planters, so on a beautifully clear July morning I got to work.

Step 1: Scrub out all of the wine residues in the barrels with a heavy brush.

Step 2: Prepare the watering pipe by cutting PVC downpipe (any diameter from 15-50mm) the same height as rim of barrel (so it will be a little higher than the level of the mulch), drilling a few holes in it at the bottom then wrapping it with a sock to prevent it getting clogged up with organic matter.

tube with holes and then covered with sock to prevent clogging

Watering tube with holes and then covered with sock to prevent clogging

Step 3: Next, the reservoir: Before filling the reservoir with material, you want to determine the depth of the reservoir and drill a hole for drainage slightly under that level (say a 1-1.5 cm).

Step 4: Place the watering tube in its desired location. (I put mine on the edge so it’s easy to see and fill.) This will allow you to determine whether the planter needs water as you can look and see or if it’s a narrow tube, just get yourself some doweling and use it as a dipstick.

Step 5: Fill the reservoir with your chosen media. The first barrel I used crushed gravel (grey metal), some seed raising trays and a few bits of polystyrene. The function of these materials is to create space for water to collect and hold the soil above the water. Over the course of stage one I used a variety of materials including takeaway containers and PET bottles all with many holes drilled into them to allow the water to seep in and evaporate up. There is some debate as to whether sand or gravel or containers is best here. I have really mixed it up over the course of this job so it will be interesting to track it.

Some of the many different reservoirs for the wicking wine barrel planters

Some of the many different reservoirs for the wicking wine barrel planters

Step 6: Once you have the volume of material required, level it off and cover it with a layer of shade cloth. (Again, some recommend hessian or sacking, some don’t bother with anything, especially if using sand as the reservoir media.) You can lay this over the top of the container and mark the cloth with a marker pen (remembering to mark a place for the water spout too.) I allow for a ‘bleed’ or extra margin around the edges so as to not get soil in the reservoir. Cut to shape and lay over the reservoir and watering spout.

Once the cloth is down carefully spread potting mix over it to seal in the reservoir

Wicking wine barrel with watering tube and reservoir divider cloth

Step 7: Cover the shade cloth with a layer of potting mix to seal the reservoir in.

Step 8: Time for growing media. Over the course of this job I have opted for a variety of different layers and media. I have tried straight potting mix with some excellent compost mixed in (teeming with worms thanks to Gavin Smith at The Addison Road Centre), layered with shredded newspaper, cardboard and also a no-dig recipe too.

You can use cardboard and newspaper instead of straw, go for unbleached paper and not domestic laser printed paper as the inks can contain some waxes and unfriendly chemicals

You can use cardboard and newspaper instead of straw, go for unbleached paper and not domestic laser printed paper as the inks can contain some waxes and unfriendly chemicals

As I have mentioned I am trying to incorporate as many waste items from my client’s businesses as I can in my builds so instead of straw and lucerne in the layering I mostly used shredded newspaper and cardboard. This will break down nicely and retain moisture in the soil plus food for the worms. You can use cardboard and newspaper as mulch too (but I knew this wouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing to the neighbours.)

Step 9: Add the worm tower. You can add this around half way through adding the growth media. You will need a short length of PVC tube at least wide enough the get your hand in but preferably wider (this is so you can clear the tube without disturbing it once it’s in.) It’s up to you how wide you make the tube, just remember it will be taking up valuable surface area. Make it about 30cm long. You will need to drill some holes to allow worms to wriggle in and out of the tower. I made the holes my initial tower a little too low, so make sure you have holes close to the surface as well as down deeper. You want the little tackers to come in and out freely to do their job of fertilising the planter.

After you have a base layer of soil down you can insert the worm tower. This one has doesn't have holes high enough up the tower, make sure there are some holes near the surface.

After you have a base layer of soil down you can insert the worm tower. This one has doesn't have holes high enough up the tower, make sure there are some holes near the surface

As an aside, an idea mentioned by Milkwood Permaculture intern, Adam Kennedy (and wicking bed guru) is to use a portable tray with holes at the bottom like a worm farm and move that around your beds as a ‘worm tractor’. If you have a garden bed that needs aeration and reinvigorating, you can move a tray of a worm farm around your garden beds much like you move a chicken tractor around fresh pastures.

For the first barrel I planted a range of Italian herbs that I had sprouted mostly from seed and cuttings.

The first completed wicking wine barrel with worm tower planted with Italian herbs including thyme, sage, parsley and rosemary

The first completed wicking wine barrel with worm tower planted with Italian herbs including thyme, sage, parsley and rosemary

A month later the growth was very encouraging.

Strong spring growth is apparent! (Note, I did replace the rosemary cutting with a healthier 'gorza' specimen)

Strong spring growth is apparent! (Note, I did replace the rosemary cutting with a healthier 'gorza' specimen)

Timbah’s head chef, Daphne has really taken to the project. More on that later…

Head Chef Daph checks on the garden

Head Chef Daph checks on the garden

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10 Comments on “Timbah Rooftop Herb Garden: part 4 How to make a wicking wine barrel planter (with worm tower)”

  1. September 26, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Hey mate, thanks a bunch, I have 6 barrel halfs to get started on, so your blog was very inspiring! I like the idea you have used pet bottles to recycle, and save on importing new mediums to work with, but I watched a show about how bad PET is for your health over the long term. Carcinogenic infact. So I just hope these effects don’t get sucked up by the plants and get passed into your customers! Lol. The docco is called “tapped” from the us. Thanks again, think I will stick to straw and people’s for now.

    Also I noticed you didnt fill your bed to the top? Was there a reas for this? Regards,

    Olly

    • September 26, 2011 at 11:11 am #

      Hi Olly,

      Thanks for your comment and question. I will look up “tapped” when I get a chance :)
      As only a few PET containers made it into the build I didn’t worry too much as the temperatures and UV exposure (main causes for breakdown and leeching) would be minimal as they are buried under layers of soil etc. The other containers all have similar properties so shouldn’t be an issue.
      For an alternative reservoir you could use gravel, sand, scoria or expanded terracotta beads if you have concerns.

      As for not filling to the top, it was a combination of allowing for wind protection for the seedlings and a bit of compaction from watering.
      Happy gardening :)

  2. May 23, 2012 at 2:59 am #

    I would love to hear an update on this project. I am thinking of doing wicking beds in wine barrels too, and this design is the most well thought-out one I can find so far. I love the idea of using shredding newspaper as mulch too. Straw is not easy for me to get.

    • May 23, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      Hi there, thanks for the feedback. A good idea I will look at doing an update post in the near future, lots to talk about. Pretty busy right now tho. Maybe in a month or so?

      • May 24, 2012 at 1:54 am #

        Sure, this project is probably for next year. I’d like to collect as much information as I can before starting to scrounge around for materials. I live in Colorado where it is VERY dry and the sun is very strong, so wicking beds are the only way I have been successful growing things here on my largish patio. But big ready-made containers are expensive. I’m hoping that I can follow your example and reduce my costs to mostly the barrels and the pipe.

      • Mary
        February 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

        I keep popping in here to see if you have been able to update us on the outcome of the different bases as I have 4 containers to do. thanks for sharing your inventions. It has it all – water and worms! Hope all is well.

      • April 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

        Hi Mary, Thank you so much for your patience! You can sign up to the blog so you get notifications of new posts (I will one day get round to doing a recap and audit but I can’t say when that will be I’m sorry. In the meantime I have been contacted by someone else who has come up with a design which I think is way better than mine. We’ve actually become friends as a result of the wicking winebarrels! Here is his design: http://theecologyofbeing.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/how-to-make-self-watering-wicking.html

      • Mary
        April 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

        Thanks for the response and the link to your new friend’s option. I hope we will be able to use our barrels because we drilled holes in the bottom before we found the new self watering/wicking method. We did put wheels on the bottoms. Oh well, later this year I hope to have the time and energy to get them prepared. Cheers,

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Timbah Rooftop Herb Garden: part 5 How to build a wicking bed in a concrete basin | Urban GreenSpace - September 30, 2011

    [...] the separation layer. I used shade cloth but again as previously mentioned in this blog, you could use hessian sack, straw or anything porous, some choose not to use a [...]

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    […] was a lot of trial and error, but any project that is upcycling tends to be, a lot of googling, this blog was definitely one of the best I found( and I figured if it worked in Perth temperatures, it would […]

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