Garbage Gardening

We learned from our Peace Corp friend, Curt Lindley, that materials that we take for granted here in the USA are often very hard to find and expensive in developing nations. Try to find inexpensive sphagnum peat, vermiculite or perlite in downtown New Dehli.

Therefore, we've begun to experiment with garbage and other free materials that could replace the potting mix in our traditional Global Bucket. We're testing plastic bottles, newspapers, cardboard, old books, discarded clothing, Coke cans and sticks.

How could cloth or newspapers replace potting mix? Well, a plant's roots only require three essential items:
1) water
2) air
3) nutrients

Based on our testing, we've discovered that rolled-up newspapers and t-shirts, for example, are excellent at wicking water from the bottom of the bucket up to the top of the bucket where the plant's root ball will be located. Will the newspapers disintegrate too quickly? Perhaps, but maybe the plant's water seeking roots will reach the bottom water reservoir before the wicking newspapers fall apart.

By placing a bundle of sticks or a cut-up plastic bottles or Coke cans between the rolled-up newspapers or t-shirts we believe the aeration requirement will be met.

We'll be trying two different approaches. The first approach is to sprinkle some timed-released fertilizer (eg Osmocote) and dolomite in the newspapers/t-shirts as they are rolled-up. The second idea to to use liquid fertilizer in the water along with some dolomite sprinkled in the newspapers/t-shirts.

Will it work? We have no idea!

We'll be testing our new "worthless" system during the summer of 2010.

Click the photos for larger images.

Some materials to be tested: (pictured left to right):
1) Burlap or Hessian Cloth (coarse woven cloth made from jute)
2) Swamp cooler material (not practical, but we were curious)
2) T-shirt (with sticks to provide aeration)
3) T-shirt (with cut-up 1 L bottle to provide aeration)
4) Polyester (micro-fibers)

The wicking test results:
1) Burlap : D (maybe because "fancy" colored USA cloth burlap)
2) Swamp cooler material : F
2) T-shirt (with sticks to provide aeration) : A
3) T-shirt (with cut-up 1 L bottle to provide aeration): A
4) Polyester (micro-fiber): F (maybe because very loose fibers)

T-shirts wrapped around cut-up 1 L bottles...looks very promising.

Testing newspaers as wicks. Results: Excellent Wicking!

Below is a picture of our first Garbage Bucket. Newspapers have been crumpled-up into balls and tightly packed between plastic 1 liter bottles. We sliced the bottles with four vertical cuts from top to bottom. Then we stepped on the bottles to flatten them somewhat. The bottles provide a very airy mass, but are strong enough to stand vertically and provide support to the newspapers. We sprinkled dolomite (1 tablespoon ("Tbsp") (equals 15 milliliters) ) and a basic 10-10-10 fertilizer with micro-nutrients (2 Tbsp) at three different lawyers. We didn't use rolled-up newspapers like in the above picture, because we didn't see a good way to place the fertilizer and dolomite.

The questions we have are:
1) Will the fertilizer be dispersed enough so the plant's roots won't burn?
2) Will the wet newspapers "melt" into one big glob so the roots won't be able to get to the airy

5-21-10: Filling up the bucket. (click on image)

That's 10-10-10 fertilizer and dolomite on the newspapers.

Fully packed. The 1 liter bottles are buried vertically.

5-22-10 Update: After 24 hours, water had wicked-up from the bottom reservoir (1 gallon) up to the second from top layer of newspapers.

5-23-10 Update: After 36 hours, the top newspapers were moist. Below the top layer, the newspapers were very moist. We wonder if this would provide enough water for a tomato plant.

6-1-10 Update: Planting our first newspaper bucket.

We'll be irrigating using the PVC tube into the reservoir, but we directly watered the plant when we first planted it.

Planting a tomato in newspapers. The "dirt" potting mix is from the container that the seedling came in.

Our Garbage Garden.

We're using white plastic, rather than black plastic, because we've come to realize that Boulder Colorado is one of the sunniest places in the USA. Last year we used black plastic, but it created extreme soil temperatures.

Update 7-18-10:  The results of the newspaper and cloth "potting mix" have been disappointing.  The plants are still alive, but they are not thriving.  The plants in our other summer 2010 experiments, ollas combined with Global Buckets and Grow Bags are doing excellent.

Update September 5, 2010:  The final results of the Garbage Garden were disappointing.  In fact, we're too embarrassed to print photos of these still living, but sad looking, pathetic plants.  We believe the idea can still work, but we need to re-engineer our system.  Check back during the summer of 2011 for some new ideas.

Update 10-26-10:  Larry Kurtz from Omaha, Nebraska wrote to us with a brilliant idea:
I think you gave up too early on newspaper. You're trying to provide a
rooting medium for the plants.  I'm assuming that there's too much air and
not enough "root to cellulose contact" to effectively feed the plants.
Shredding the newspaper to finer particles should provide more nutrients to
the plants.  My interest in newspaper is the repurposing of a recyclable
that doesn't have the "green" downside of either peat (sustainability) or
coir (carbon footprint of delivery...salt problems, etc.).

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