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Growing (a little) Food in the City

Bruce F's picture

[Lambert suggested I cross post something from our blog Green Roof Growers. An earlier version of this post can be found here. What follows is New and much Improved.]

Most (All?) of you who read this understand the ways that food and politics are connected. Energy Policy, global warming, peak oil, and subsidized agribusiness, to name a few. If you're trying to change things, it's hard to know where to begin.

Michael Pollan thinks that growing some of your own food is the place to start.

Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it's one of the most powerful things an individual can do--to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

My friends and I are showing city residents how they can do just that. There are plenty of brilliant blog posts about how or what should be done to change things. The act of building and using these sub-irrigated planters is a way put certain ideas in to practice and to build partnerships with natural allies. They are desperately needed, too. Here in Chicago, community gardens have long waiting lists. And of the roughly 70,000 (!?) vacant lots in Chicago, I'd be surprised if more than a handful had soil that wasn't contaminated with industrial waste of some kind. These planters avoid that.

Here's why they should be used by everyone. Whether you live in the city or not.

They work. Great results, with fewer inputs, are possible without knowing anything about gardening.

They're cheap.

They're easy to use.

On to the cross-post..............................

How (and Why) to Make a SIP*

*SIP = Sub-Irrigated Planter

I've never had much luck getting plants to grow. It's probably more accurate to say that I never really cared if they grew.

Things change.

A couple of years ago I read a story in the Chicago Reader about Earthboxes™.

Touted as the "garden of the future," the EarthBox is an innovative container gardening system invented by a Florida tomato farmer, Blake Whisenant, after a hurricane wiped out his crop in 1992. Two and a half feet long, 15 inches wide, and a foot tall, the EarthBox is self-watering and self-fertilizing, and its fans say that given enough sunlight even the brownest thumb can coax a crop from it. Plants grow in a sterile potting mix of peat moss and vermiculite and are nourished by a strip of fertilizer spread across the top. Water in a 2.2-gallon reservoir at the bottom of the box, which is filled through a tube jutting up from one corner, wicks up through the soil and into the roots, rather than seeping down from above, which means the box uses significantly less water than a conventional garden. A lightweight plastic cover--the shower cap--acts as mulch, keeping the soil moist and discouraging pests and weeds.

A decade ago Whisenant teamed up with Mickey Lynch, a plastics developer, to manufacture and market the EarthBox, which now retails for $37.95 through the company's Web site, earthbox.com. (A complete starter kit including potting mix and fertilizer is $59.95.) Made from recycled plastic, it's compact and portable, a boon for urban gardeners with limited open space. The self-contained design also prevents plants from pulling lead and other contaminants out of city soil. The reservoir doesn't need to be filled every day, and the box can be set at table height by anyone whose back or knees balk at ground-level horticulture. The Web site is stuffed with testimonials from happy gardeners ecstatic about record-breaking cucumber crops, four-foot-tall artichoke plants, and monster tomatoes. Whisenant says one season he harvested 137 pounds of tomatoes from a single box.

Obviously, there are some big ideas in those little Earthboxes®. After reading that they "more than double the yield of a conventional garden using less fertilizer, less water, and virtually no effort", we looked a little deeper and found that the results are scalable and they've got some numbers (PDF file) to back up the hype. With that in mind, we decided to make our own planters using cheap, readily available containers.

The post continues here, with plenty of pictures and videos that I can't figure out how to put up here. So click on through to learn how to make these planters.

[Lambert, I'm not sure what's involved with cross-posting. Meaning if I left something out please let me know.]

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Submitted by lambert on

clicking through and looking at the various approaches to the concept, which seems neat (and I'm wondering if I could apply it to a wintering-over greenhouse up in Zone 5b, because the ground will freeze, but maybe a box, placed higher up, would not.

But I'm not paying $110 for an Earthbox. What I'd like is whatever the cheapest and best solution is. Readers?

[ ] Very tepidly voting for Obama [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

Bruce F's picture
Submitted by Bruce F on

as long as they work with the same basic principles: A soil chamber fed by wicks that draw from a water reservoir.

[edited to add this link to a schematic of how the Earthbox™ works.]

We made a comparable version of an Earthbox for about $25, which includes potting mix, fertilizer and an automated watering system.

For another $25 we built a trellis that goes on the roof without making any holes in the membrane.

I'd love to hear some ideas on how to drive the price down, too.

Truth Partisan's picture
Submitted by Truth Partisan on

Please tag with the Bootstrap Plan too.

Yeah cheaper=affordable. Self-irrigated=the plants will live. I know someone who makes their own irrigation tubing by poking holes in some old hose and burying it.

Bruce F's picture
Submitted by Bruce F on

One way to cut down on the cost is to make Two-bucket SIPs with free food grade buckets.

My friend and co-blogger, Heidi, has 20 homemade planters on her roof that she made from used 5 gallon buckets collected from restaurants.