I posted earlier about finding the gutter garden system of growing vegetables. Now that we have been doing it for a few months it is time to reflect and see what is working and what needs adjusting to be even better going forward. Overall I am please with the system and it is great for busy people like me that do not have a lot of time.. as well as those without out some equipment like tillers to make putting in a garden much easier.
My tomatoes did very well when they were first planted in the buckets and put on the gutter. I did not have a water barrel to feed a continuous water supply into the gutters, even though I had gotten some float valves. With everything I needed to purchase for the chickens this year I did not have the extra money to buy a rain barrel. And I am also not too familiar with all the plumbing connections so opted to just take the garden hose and add water day and night to the gutters. It was working great until the summer heat hit and the tomatoes were sucking up all the water in the gutter before I got home in the evening. I think that affected the harvest as well as the size of the tomatoes. The Romas were fine size wise.. but the larger tomatoes never did get past a large cherry tomato size. I also had 10 tomato plants on that one gutter so the water demand was probably too much for what I could do with manual watering. Next years tomatoes will have only 5 plants per gutter and be set up to keep the water a constant level.
In addition to the water issue I think the soil really could not support and feed the plants. I made my soil with the recommended components and added some Osmocote instead of the fertilizer that was recommended. I ended up with yellowing leaves, some puckering of the leaves and other signs of nutrient deficiency. To have an abundant harvest I am going to have to pay more attention to the quality of my soil. I am diligently adding to my compost pile but it is not getting big enough fast enough, so we will have to look at other things to get a richer soil. I also need to come up with a way to support the tomatoes as I had no real ability to support the growth this year. Since tomatoes get quite tall we will also grow these closer to the ground.
The radishes gave a decent harvest as well.. but again, better soil would have given larger radishes. The tubs I am growing them in seem to be an good size for them so we will continue to use them and just get a richer soil blend.
The herbs all went kinda crazy in the gutter system. I do not think herbs as a general rule are heavy feeders.. so a good soil mix and water supply kept them extremely happy. I grew several different Basils.. Thai, Genovese, a purple one, and Pistolli and all provided me with a constant supply of leaves that I dehydrated. I also am growing Stevia, Oregano, Catnip, Mint and Thyme. For the most part, all did well in my one gallon buckets.
With the cold snap we had over the past weekend the Basils are all here in the house with me until I can get them back outside. All but the Thai Basil I used the strip of a cotton dish towel to wick up the water and they were pretty easy to bring in and set on the floor or in some extra plastic totes I had in the house. The Thai Basil is in a cat litter bucket with the net cup in the bottom that is typical of containers on the gutter grow system. This arrangement does not sit flat and the pressure will push the net cup back up and into the bucket. So the Thai Basil is sitting here on the kitchen counter on a loaf pan supporting the bucket and having a space for the net cup. I can add water to the pan to keep the plant watered, but that net cup makes it very difficult to remove the container from the gutter and sit anywhere, let alone bring indoors. Note to self is any plant that is not winter hardy needs to have a base that will allow being moved indoors easily. Only problem with the cotton strips in the larger containers is they do not bring up enough water fast enough. So the way around this issue may be to come up with something these types of containers can sit on when they need moved.
The use of cut dish towels as my wick instead of the net cups worked to a certain extent. They pulled up the proper amount of water in the tubs and the gallon buckets without wicking so much the soil was soggy. The draw back is the cotton rotted and separated from itself right at the bottom of the planting container. So I was left with nothing to wick up the water and having to re-pot the plants, often several times during the growing season. So now we are looking for something to use besides old dish towels. Things I am considering are old jeans as well as a cotton rope. I think the use of these strips is a good way to go on the smaller containers.. now I just need to figure out the best material to use.
I also learned this season that the tubs are really only useful for more shallow rooted plants. The radishes and lettuce are working great in this container.. but the beans I tried earlier in the season had a lot of roots coming out of the bottom. Since I have cat loving friends that go through a lot of littler pails, I will continue to use the cat litter buckets. They are close in size to a 5 gallon bucket and you can’t beat the free price tag. The yellow ones are definitely better suited to this application than the white or clear ones. I had some high winds knock everything over and when I tried to pick up the clear ones they broke and shattered. The constant exposure to the sun made them extremely brittle. On the other hand, the yellow ones held up to the relentless summer sun and kept their integrity. If you have cats and prefer the litter in the lighter containers and do not want to switch to get the yellow bucket I recommend painting the outside of the plastic to shield it from the UV rays.
I have a few days off next week and I am going to get some 55 gallon food safe barrels. I will cut them in half along the long side and have two halves that I will fill with soil to garden in. I plan on getting some strawberries and also growing potatoes and peanuts so want to get the soil ready for them. My plan is to put three net cups in each and set them on the gutters. Then I will add soil, some shredded paper bits from my micro shredder, some alfalfa pellets and chicken manure. I will create a few layers like this then sow some of the wheat I am sprouting for the chickens. I plan to cut it back some and leave the cut leaves on top of the soil. Eventually I will turn it under and add another layer then sow the wheat again. Come spring I will again cut it back and turn it all into the soil where I will plant my plants. I hope to have a rich soil with good decomposition going on to provide the much needed nutrients lacking in this years soil. Concerns with this container is making sure it is secure on the gutters. If winds or some of the critters running around out here knock it over, there will be not returning it to position when full of soil.
I also want to grow some corn, watermelons and pumpkins. The recommended way to grow those are in kiddie pools using grow bags. I should have gotten some kiddie pools at the end of the season when they were on sale but had too much going on to get some. Still, I think I will pick some this Spring to grow my corn in. The bags are grow bags or even the shopping bags that can be obtained at Wal-Mart. I will need a rich soil mix to get the best harvest, but think we should have a better handle on providing it come Spring. For pumpkins and watermelons I think I will look for plastic containers that are a bit smaller than kiddie pools to set some grow bags in. I am growing the pumpkins and melons more for the chickens so a few plants should be all I need, at least to grow a season and see how successful it will be. They need space to run and I am also still trying to decide where to let them grow.
The Comfrey I ordered came in from Coes Comfrey. I ordered 10 crowns, he sent 15 and also some DVD’s that I am really enjoying. The one on organic gardening really got me thinking about my soil and has given me ideas to improve it. The gardener in the video gets some incredible yields from a relatively small growing area so I want to try some of his ideas at improving the soil. I am looking forward to the other videos as well.
The Comfrey is going to need planted in the ground because of its deep root system. I will put the crowns into the cat litter buckets and put them on the gutter garden to get a start in growing through the winter, then I will need to till up an area and plant them for further growth. I will use the greens from this plant to feed my chickens as well as the compost pile. Growing them on the gutter system through the winter will allow me the time to decide the best place for them and to start to improve the soil. I have nothing but weeds here and pretty hard clay soil, so having a place to allow them to grow a bit is really helpful.
Over all the gutter garden has been great. I see a lot of potential to provide a good harvest if I can get the soil figured out. I also need to figure out the plumbing so I can keep a constant water supply. As we move into winter here in the south, there will not be much going on outside.. .but a lot will be happening inside as we make plans for next year.