My balcony garden dreams - starting out, thinking it through, have some questions

Discussion in 'Planting, growing, nurturing Plants' started by Branchy, Nov 15, 2014.

  1. Branchy

    Branchy Junior Member

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    I want to get a balcony garden up and running soon. I've been researching somewhat haphazardly for the last week, trying to get a handle on permaculture and applying it to my balcony garden planning. My mind is a swirl, but some ideas to move forward with are emerging.

    I live in the inner-west suburbs of Sydney, which has a sub-tropical climate (or so I'm told). The space on the balcony I can use is a 1.5x3m area, so 4.5 square meters. The balcony faces north and most of the area receives late morning to mid-afternoon sun. The balcony has a roof over it which extends over the edge, so the balcony doesnt receive rain. There is a brick wall on eastern side, so facing west, and this is a thermal mass I guess. And its 3 storeys high.

    Its a rental property, so I cant make any modifications to the structure itself. I couldnt drill holes into brickwork, but I could lean trellises against the wall or secure them to the balcony rail. Renting also means I need to keep mess to a minimum. To elaborate on that, it basically means I need to avoid staining tiles or groutwork, not attracting cockroaches, and not bothering neighbours with unpleasant odours. I should also mention that all my container are going to be small, between 20 and 40 litres as I need them to be portable.

    So starting out, I do want to start small and grow from there. But my mind keeps trying to form the big picture. I look at a single container, and dont see a single container anymore. I see it as part of a support system that needs to accompany it. I need a quality water supply, quality worm castings, quality compost, quality maintenance, quality crop selection, quality seed, quality you get the idea. But, anyway yes I'm just going to start with the one container. Or maybe even two if Im feeling adventurous!

    The first subject about which I have questions is containers. I want to use wicking air prune rigid containers, and preferably square or rectangular in shape as opposed to round. So not a grow bag or a standard rigid container, but a mixture of the two lined with growbag-like material with some holes or slits in the side. At the hardware store they sell self-watering containers, which seem similar to the DIY wicking containers I've seen on Youtube. But a couple things about them worry me: they don't have the tube that goes up to the top, and they dont line the space between the soil and water reservoir with a suitable material (weedmat, shadecloth, hessian, landscape fabric). Rather than the porous liner material, they have a hard plastic insert with some holes in it. They cost almost twice as much as the normal containers. They dont seem worth it because of the cost and possibly being inferior to a DIY container.

    So would those store-bought self-watering containers be okay, or is it worth spending some time and effort into a DIY wicking container job?

    I had a hard time finding a suitable grow-bag-like material, as the local small-business destroying mega hardware store didnt stock them. The closest thing they have is their branded shopping bags. I did find some grow bags for sale online but only in large quantites and not from an Australian retailer. But after exploring the hardware store further I found in the laundry section they had Mr Clean brand heavy duty bags, which are made of a plain woven plasticy, nylony white material. Its like a plastic hessian, for lack of a better term. I'd really like to know what the woven material is called because Im tired of calling it the "plasticy hessian stuff". Anyway I could cut smaller ones to size from the larger bag and seal them with a cable tie. I dont have a sewing machine. Weed mat seems like it would also work if I was just lining the sides (for air pruning).

    Second subject is compost. How should I do it? I mean, given the small space. If I use a compost bin, what size should it be (I want something future proofed for when the garden grows). I considered just getting it from elsewhere, but then I wouldnt getting any personal experience in compost making. Is it as simple as collecting some decent compost stuff around the place, chucking it in the bin, giving it a shake, and leaving it to decompose for a while? I'm also quite foggy as to how the compost and worm farm work together. Im intending to go to a worm farm workshop later in the month so maybe my questions about compost and worms will be answered there.

    Next subject is about husbandry. Guinea pigs? I'd really like to introduce an animal to the balcony at some stage, and guinea pigs seem like a good candidate because theyre quite small and they enjoy eating kitchen scraps I assume. They can also be eaten, if I could ever bring myself to slaughter the little cuties. I imagine they would also produce a manure thatd hold some benefit. Any insight into the wonderful world of guinea pig keeping, links, books, personal experience, recommended alternatives etc would be great.

    And now onto aquaculture and aquaponics. I would also like to have a water tank (big container, over the 40litre limit for the plant containers) at some stage, with plants and maybe fish or yabbies. It would be cool to have a small aquaponics system. But the need for a pump really bugs me. I read many people reporting expensive losses when the pump stops working. Fish seem to die remarkably easily and quickly when oxygen isnt being added to the water. I read that introducing aquatic plants doesnt help to oxygenate the water very much unless you have loads and loads of them. Aquaponics still seems awesome despite my apprehension. Its more than likely that as my understanding of aquaponics increases, I'll be looking to implement a small system to suit the space. I havent been able to find any tutorials specifically for small-scale systems, nor ultra-reliable ones. It seems like a bigger investment and potential loss than anything else I might try, and I havent a clue which pumps are considered bulletproof or even how to hook them up to a solar panel.

    PS. To anybody who makes instructional or demonstration videos: As Ive been trying to learn about wicking containers, Ive been annoyed at the lack of clear instruction in many tutorial videos. They dont use diagrams, they dont explain elements/concepts in enough detail but instead just skim through their own particular implementation of the element, and its usually their first attempt instead of something they have experience and confidence with. If you can make a video that does a better job than them then kudos.
     
  2. songbird

    songbird Senior Member

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    you do not mention this, but it is good to consider before you get too far ahead of yourself with purchases and plans: make sure the structure can support that weight. after a certain amount of weight you may even need to ask the building manager permission. water is heavy, containers of soil and plants will also be heavy, a tank of water will be heavy, etc.
     
  3. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    songbird is right, the amount of stuff you are going to stack on there is a worry.

    With your space, I would either pick aquaponics or keep it to wicking containers. The larger the fish tank, the bigger the temperature buffer and the less likely a small failure will lead to the death of all your fish. Aerator backups and failsafe pumps can be designed into the system.

    https://www.youtube.com/user/bnbob01/videos - Rob Bob makes good videos and will link to where he borrowed the original idea from so you can follow some more videos.

    https://www.insideurbangreen.org/ - is more smaller wicking stuff or SIP as they call it.

    https://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/ - you can find small systems on here.

    I'd buy compost from a source and I would do all my personal composting through worms. The method you describe would be a slow or cold compost and would take a heap of space for not much result.
     
  4. Branchy

    Branchy Junior Member

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    Okay now I'm a bit more confused.

    The SIP design is to have holes in the reservoir part, which allow the roots to pass into it. The author says the reservoir feature also provides the benefit of aeration. The author of that blog also added an overflow tube to the design, which he previously seemed to have avoided due to it being a drain or evaporation point.

    The wicking bed design screens roots from the reservoir; roots are not allowed to pass into it.

    In both of the designs, it is required that the growing medium (soil I guess) has points of submergence in the filled water level, so the water can actually be wicked up.

    Previously my confusion was about the design of the wicking bed. And that confusion remains to a lesser extent. But my confusion now is about which of the designs, wicking or SIP, is actually better.

    The wicking bed, with its screen between the reservoir and the soil, seems better. It seems there would be a higher chance of the holes of the SIP being blocked, or worms falling into the reservoir.

    Adding an overflow to the SIP bed makes it pretty much the same as the wicking bed, except that the SIP still doesnt use a screening material. An overflow means it still drains onto the balcony (or whatever I come up with to collect any overflow).

    Should I just go with the wicking bed design?
     
  5. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    https://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=663&start=2160

    Food&Fish has a linked design starting from that page, soil as wick.

    I use 300mm pots over a 10L bucket, wick dangling in the water and all the roots dangle into the reservoir with no obvious issue. On phone atm, I'll find you some pics soon. These were based on a SIP design. I also use the standard wicking bed style too.
     
  6. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    You could use linked overflows with barb fittings and a sump to catch all your excess. If you were clever, you could have every pot level and have an auto-topup system (Rob Bob just made one recently, check his channel). Or you could have multi-levels with a bucket on the end of each run where you do your filling and each wicking reservoir is connected to the fill reservoir. Or one pot has a fill pipe and connected reservoirs, one has an overflow leading to the sump.

    Here are my pots. Note the plant in the photo actually enjoys having roots in water, I have Pepino, Miraclefruit, Passionfruit (now planted out), Willow and Ficus in others:

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    Here is a wicking bed:

    [​IMG]
     
  7. eco4560

    eco4560 New Member

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    I'd look into an aquaponic set up for a small balcony. No compost needed, and you get the fish as part of the deal. Add a few extra pots, perhaps build a wooden frame to sit inside the existing structure to hang some planters from, add a worm farm and you are good to go. Can you capture grey water to use? Even if it's just a bucket under you when you shower it's a start.

    Like SOP has done look at containers that are available as a waste product to repurpose - square shaped buckets for washing powder spring to mind. I'm sure delis and restaurants would get bulk food supplies like olives delivered in square buckets that they would be happy to get rid of. Nest them one inside the other to make your wicking pots, you could even make a worm farm out of them. With the labels peeled off and some paint applied they could look really good rather than looking like you live in a tip.
     
  8. Grasshopper

    Grasshopper Senior Member

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    I did hanging strawbs on the balcony ,they grew real well until they ran out of root space,but got heaps of strawbs
    Next time I need to scrounge a bigger pipe and I want to make it aquaponic include water cress or Vietnamese mint and some fish (maybe gold fish)and a little solar water pump
    https://postimg.org/image/f5fzjst2x/


    I grow all my herbs in pots on the balcony its near where I cook I have had 2 wicking pots full of spring onions(shallots for NSW/Qlders) and Gailan thats been gowing for months same with 2 tomatoes in a self watering pot.
    Even have a capsicum going red in the pot a rarity due to parrots and fruit fly in the actual garden
     
  9. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    Here is an "inside urban green-style" SIP that my daughter made for a school talk. Apparently it was quite the hit and she ended up doing talks with the neighbouring classroom too. We used polyester batting as recommended by the website as it doesn't break down and can be sun-sterilised and washed if required (other materials need to be replaced as they rot). Rain gutter gardens use the same theory, 10-20L buckets resting on top of a filled gutter and wicking from there. To prevent mozzies you let the gutter dry and then refill immediately after. In my daughter's design, the roots have to grow through the wick to exit which will take a while.

    [​IMG]
     
  10. Branchy

    Branchy Junior Member

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    Thanks for responses everyone, and SOP especially for the photos.

    I like the idea of using a wicking material that doesn't break down (not anytime soon anyway). People suggest to add a good wicking material to the medium, like cocount fibre, but the worms and microbes chomp away and then you'd lose some "wickyness" of the medium.

    Currently I'm thinking of a design that is a combination of the wicking bed and the global bucket (or rain gutter system of Larry Hall). It'd use a container sitting on top of a reservoir, and medium (probably sand) filled cups to act as wicks. Geofabric would be placed at the bottom of the container to prevent worms from getting into the wick cups and reservoir.

    I do however like the idea of the roots hanging down into the reservoir with some air around them.

    I intend to visit the local reverse garbage this week in the hope I can get some square buckets and other such things.
     
  11. eco4560

    eco4560 New Member

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    Post some progress pictures as you go!
     
  12. pebble

    pebble Junior Member

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    Re the compost, I'd go straight for wormfarming given the small space. Get a system set up where you use only things the worms like, chop the kitchen scraps as you go into smaller bits, leave them in a bucket to start decomposing, and add to the wormfarm in batches. Some people have their wormfarms in the kitchen or laundry/underbench, and you can buy ones that are more contained than those used outside.

    Eco, I don't think of hydroponics as particularly sustainable. Don't you have to buy in nutrients?
     
  13. Grasshopper

    Grasshopper Senior Member

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    Depends on the fish
    You can go worms ,veg and soldier fly larva with certain fish
    Talpia you can go anything but they are illegal in Australia.
     
  14. Branchy

    Branchy Junior Member

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    Okay so I visited the reverse garbage (RG) today and also the local hardware megastore. I tend to spend way too long in such places, and today was no exception.

    At the RG I found they had hundreds of waste paper bins which were a great size for wicking pots. However I highly doubt theyre UV resistant. They were $1 each. I bought a few to experiment with.

    The RG also had milk crates. I thought they'd be good for air pruning containers. The only trouble I had was finding a suitably sized reservoir beneath. The best thing I found was a kiddy pool at the hardware store, but it was clam shell shaped so a bit awkward. I also considered using a drain gutter as a reservoir, but then I'd have to line the bottom of the crate with pond liner. Pond liner is quite expensive. Whilst at the RG I looked around for a safe alternative to pond liner but couldnt find one.

    I also managed to get some shade cloth material at the RG for quite cheap. I'll use that as liner for air prune containers.

    Oh and the RG had some 7cm ag pipe which I was pleasantly surprised to find so I snapped that up too.

    I did not find any of the polyester material to use as a wick that SOP suggested.

    I'm pretty excited but I move like molasses trying to get such things done. I'd like to do it quicker but questions arise in my mind that hinder me from proceeding until answered. And I rarely do anything handy. But I really want to start being part of the solution and I have to start somewhere.
     
  15. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    Shademesh air-pruning crates resting on a gutter using a wick or soil/sand wick shouldn't require pond liner? I'm trying to guess where it would be needed but perhaps (definitely) I am uneducated in the world of air-pruning.

    Polyester quilt batting it is, and comes off a roll at a material shop at a price per metre. I think I paid $7 (can't remember) and I still have a heap left as I cut 5 cm strips of the edge of the piece. I then double it over but single lengths would go twice as far obviously.

    Can you cut a hole in the base of the crate and slide in a cup/pot so that rests in the gutter and wicks the water for you? Will the crate stand on a cut-down bin?
     
  16. Branchy

    Branchy Junior Member

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    The milk crate could sit on the gutter stable enough, and I could add extra support. The pond liner is because the bottom of the milk crate is a mesh, allowing water to drain out from where it shouldnt. The gutter is narrower than the crate. I only want water to be able to drain through the net cup hole, hence lining the rest of the base. I'm glad that I pretty much know what I need at this point, and its just a matter of finding it out there in the world. If I were willing to spend more I'd get everything somewhat optimal and according to the vision, but Id really prefer to use recycled stuff as much as possible.
     
  17. Branchy

    Branchy Junior Member

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    Okay, so I've made some progress. Mostly with just gathering the things I need.

    Needed some extra tools, bits and pieces. I was perplexed about how to install a tap (or male threaded irrigation director/joiner) in a container for a while, haha.

    I bought a couple small wheelie bins from Bunnings. I intend to make one into a continuous flow worm farm. I just put a tap in it today. To install the tap I made a smaller hole than the director's (irrigation part I used as a valveless tap) thread, and it was pretty snug but I also added a socket. So the director was like the bolt and the socket like the nut. It worked quite well, pretty secure. Sealed it up with All Clear which might not have been necessary if I had made the hole cleaner or used an o-ring.

    Completing the wheelie bin worm farm is easy enough. Just need a casting extraction port at the bottom, vent holes and a grill to seperate the casting from worm juice.

    Then I'll set about making the containers. They will need holes in the sides for air pruning. I'm going to use sand as the reservoir and wick fill because a friend has an unused pile of it. I still havent found a wicking material, although I'm considering old socks that are missing their counterpart.

    But I have a big concern now before moving forward. Ive recently been alarmed by how much waste I produce, especially plastic. Drilling holes in the plastic causes a lot of plastic waste. Those plastic shavings are pretty much useless. I will collect and store as much as I can. But plastic as waste is so bad... Its horrifying actually. I have to drill so much plastic to proceed, and its a bit of a crisis on conscience to do so! I'm thinking of having a dedicated plastic waste container, because it is better to have that in my storage than plastic waste in the waterways and oceans.
     
  18. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    Can house bacteria in a water treatment system. Surface area equals more bacteria to convert water nutrients.
     
  19. Diggman

    Diggman Junior Member

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