Friday, December 21, 2012

Favorite Pallet Planter

Benefits of vertical gardening

I strike a pose with a large pallet
planter that I built at work.
As an apartment dweller, traditional gardening is difficult for me for the simple reason that I don't have any space to plant.  Bending down to weed and dig in the soil can also be hard on the back, knees, and other joints.  A living wall, or vertical garden, is a great way for those with space or physical limitations to garden.  A vertical garden can be hung on or propped against a wall inside or outside the home, and when working with a living wall, there's decreased need to bend down.

Choosing the right system

Many vertical gardening systems can be difficult to construct, and kits can be expensive.  If Pinterest is any indicator, repurposing old pallets to create a living wall is gaining in popularity, and there are many different styles to choose from.  With so much variety to choose from, it's difficult to know which methods are solid designs for long term growth and what designs are just a flash in the pan good for a month or two before literally falling apart.

Earlier this year I built a couple pallet living walls using the steps outlined below.  It took only a few hours to construct and the materials were fairly inexpensive.  After nearly a year the planters are still solid and the plants are continuing to grow.

To built my favorite pallet planter, you'll need
    A lovely living wall can be built from an old pallet.

Some other tools that may be helpful:
  • Staple gun
  • Hammer
  • Drill
  • Hand saw
  • Knife or other blade
Building the pallet planter

Attach landscape fabric to
 the planks inside of the pallet
Pick your favorite side of the pallet to be the front.  Use the hammer to pull the planks off the back of the pallet.

Save one of the planks and drill several holes across the bottom.  Attach the drilled plank to the bottom of the planter.  This will hold the soil in the planter and allow water to drain.

Landscape fabric will hold soil inside of the living wall.  Attach the landscape fabric to the planks inside of the pallet.  Be sure to secure the fabric across the front and sides of the inside of the pallet.  Staples may be the most effective way to secure the fabric, but nails or screws will work in a pinch.

Lattice will provide support and prevent the fabric and soil from spilling out of the planter.  Attach lattice with screws to the front planks of the living wall.

Fill the planter with topsoil or garden soil.  If possible, allow the soil to dry out before this step.  The drier the soil is, the easier it will be to lift the planter.  I wouldn't recommend using potting soil or seedling mix.  Potting soil will break down and compress over time, pulling plants down into the planter and requiring the addition of more soil to fill in.

Attach the plywood back of the planter with galvanized screws.  Your planter is almost complete!  

Have a friend help hang the planter on a wall, or secure over a ledge before planting.  This step is important because you do not want a heavy living wall to fall down on you.
Cut through the landscape fabric to plant.

Through gaps in the lattice, cut a hole in the landscape fabric.  Securely place a plant in the hole and make sure that soil is firmly packed around the roots.  Repeat this step until the living wall is completely planted.

Maintaining the vertical garden

As in any garden, water is a big consideration for your living wall.  Water daily until the plants are established.  Water from the top of the planter and into each plant's hole in the landscape fabric.  When designing your pallet planter, consider adding drip irrigation tape, soaker hose, or another sort of irrigation pipe inside of the planter with the soil.  In my experience, once the plants -- especially drought tolerant herbs -- are established, the planter will require less attention to water.

To see more photos of my pallet planter, check out my photobucket story.

If you have any questions, ideas, or suggestions, leave a comment or shoot me an email.

Have you or a friend built a living wall planter?  What did you do differently?  How is the system working for you?

Is there another type of pallet planter you're interested in trying?  Where did you first learn about it?  How is it different from this design?

'Tribute' strawberries bear fruit in a large pallet planter.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Clean, Simple and Inexpensive Composter -- A Rare Combination of Words

As an experienced gardener, I'm telling you that composting can be a messy, smelly process.  If you don't have the yard space for a large compost pile, or if you're just looking for a simple, clean, inexpensive system to recycle a few banana peels and coffee grounds, worm composting (or vermicomposting) is for you.
Red wiggler worms are best suited
for life in a vermicompost bin

Benefits of vermicomposting
  • It's a simple, relatively clean way to recycle some food waste.
  • Provides a good supply of fat, healthy worms for fishing.
  • The end product, rich, dark, vermicompost, is a great soil amendment.
  • You can also make worm tea during this process, which is high in nutrients and deters some pests.
  • Worms, vermicompost, and worm tea can be sold for $$$.
  • Worm compost bins can be used in a classroom setting to teach about decomposers, communities, recycling, and other key concepts.
Considering all these benefits, the cost of building the worm bin is very low.

To create your own vermicompost bin, you'll need
  • 2 Roughneck Rubbermaid bins and lids, 10 gal $7.27 ea. Home Depot
    • You can choose the size bin that's right for you.  I prefer 10 gal for my apartment.
    • Virtually any type of plastic storage bin will work for this project.  In my experience, Roughneck's hold up best against UV damage and don't crack or shatter.
    • Additional bins can be added as the worm population grows.
  • Used potting soil (continuing in the recycling theme), finished non-worm compost, or potting soil without fertilizer prills
  • 2 pieces of cardboard
  • Newspaper or other shredded paper
  • Autumn leaves (optional if not available but beneficial)
  • 4 small pieces of scrap wood
  • Red wiggler worms, available from most bait shops or an established worm compost bin
    • Red wigglers are excellent composting worms that will thrive in your bin.
    • Nightcrawlers don't thrive in confinement and will find a way to escape.  They're also not great for composting.
    • Worms hand-dug from the garden probably won't be suited for life in a compost bin either.
Some other tools that may be helpful:
  • a power drill
  • 1/4-inch drill bit
  • 1/16-inch drill bit
Building the vermicompost bin
Drill holes for drainage and ventilation
Select one bin to begin with.  Using the 1/4-inch drill bit, drill about 20 or so holes in the bottom of one bin.  Be sure to space holes evenly along the bottom of the bin to ensure adequate drainage.  A moist but well-drained bin is the key to prevent worms from drowning and to keep moist compost from becoming smelly from anaerobic bacteria.

With the 1/16-inch drill bit, drill ventilation holes along the top edge of the same bin.  Try to space the holes about every inch or so.  These small ventilation holes will provide air flow into the bin without allowing worms to escape from the sides.

Place the scrap wood inside the non-drilled bin close to the corners of the bin.  Place the bin that has holes inside of the bin, lifted up by the pieces of scrap wood.  This will allow the compost bin to drain excess water without making a big mess on the floor.

There's no real rhyme or reason to adding the remaining components.  My preference is to repeat layers like a lasagna inside the bin until the contents are a few inches below the ventilation holes, like so:
I prefer to layer leaves, paper, and soil
    • Moist cardboard,
    • Moist page of newspaper,
    • Autumn leaves,
    • Soil,
    • Moist shredded paper,
    • Soil,
    • Worms,
    • Moist cardboard,
    • Moist page of newspaper
    Secure the lid and you're ready to compost!  

    What to feed the worms

    To feed your worms, lift the top layer of cardboard and newspaper.  Bury the food to prevent fruit flies from finding it.  Avoid over-feeding your worms to prevent fruit flies and other pests from becoming a problem.  As with any compost situation, try to maintain 30 times more "brown" material (like paper and autumn leaves) than "green" material (food scraps).

    My completed vermicompost bin
    Worms should only be fed plant-based scraps like apple cores, tea leaves, carrot tops, and dead leaves from houseplants.  Worms should NOT be fed any salty food or animal products like meat, fat, or manure.  Exercise common sense -- what would you want to eat if you were a worm?

    Future expansions

    When your worm population grows, you can add additional bins.  Prepare the second bin with drainage and ventilation holes.  Use the 1/4-inch drill bit to make holes in one lid.  Stack the bins where the lid with worms is between them and the non-drilled lid is secured to the top bin.  Worms will be able to travel through the holes between the bins.  Add food to the top bin and the worms will create more vermicompost in the bottom bin.  After the vermicompost is harvested from the bottom bin, switch the bins so that the freshly mixed bin is placed on top.

    To see more photos of building a worm compost bin, check out my photobucket story.

    If you have any questions, comments, ideas, or suggestions, I love to get email!

    Sources of inspiration:

    Tuesday, November 6, 2012

    Tabletop Aquaponic System, $50

    On the morning of my most recent birthday, I sat up in bed, yawned, and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.  I walked out to the patio with a cup of coffee, and lo and behold, a $50 bill had sprouted on my money tree.
    "How far can I stretch $50?" I asked, and decided I'd challenge myself to build a thrifty home aquaponic system.

    What is an aquaponic system?

    Plants are grown hydroponically without soil.  Instead of adding fertilizer for the plants, fish live in the water reservoir for the plants.  Through the power of the nitrogen cycle, when fish go to the bathroom they supply nutrients for the plants.  In return, the plants keep the water clean for the fish.

    Some benefits of aquaponic gardening include
    • Increased access to fresh veggies and herbs year-round.
    • In larger systems, edible fish like tilapia and catfish can be grown.
    • Can be easier to maintain than strictly hydroponic systems, aquariums, or aquaculture where fish are grown to eat.
    • Vegetables, herbs, and fish can be sold for $$$.
    • Can be used in a classroom setting to teach about cycles of matter, communities, mutualism, and more.
    To build a bare-bones home aquaponic system, I'd need
    • A fish tank -- 10 gal aquarium, $12.97 from Wal-Mart
    • Something for the plants to grow in
      • 2 foot section of 4 inch PVC pipe, $7.18 from Home Depot
      • 2 4-inch PVC endcaps, $4.86
    • A pump to push water from the fish tank up to the plants,
    • An air pump to inject oxygen into the water,
      • 5-15 gal air pump, $6.77 Wal-Mart
      • 1 air stone, $0.99 Petsmart
      • Connective tubing, $1.72 Wal-Mart
    • Aquarium gravel - $3.74 Wal-Mart
    • Plants -- grown free from rooted cuttings
    • Fish -- a handful of feeder goldfish cost about $1.00 Petsmart
    Some other tools that I thought may come in handy included:
    • A drill, 1/8-inch and 1/16-inch drill bits
    • Caulk and caulk gun
    • A hacksaw
    Putting the pieces together

    It's a good idea to start with feeder fish
    My first step was to fill the aquarium with water and put in the air pump.  The water needed to sit out at least 24 hours to allow chlorine from the tap water to evaporate before it was safe for the fish to live in. After a day passed, I added the fishies.

    Cut a channel
    With the fish in place, the next step was to give the plants some room to grow.  I started out by using a hacksaw to cut a 2-inch section of the 4-inch PVC pipe.  This step takes some patience, but I promise it's possible to finish.  The open section becomes the top of the pipe that the plants will sit in.

    Next, I flipped over the PVC pipe and drilled 4 holes on the bottom to one side.  The fourth hole that's closest to the end of the pipe was drilled with the larger 1/16-inch bit, and the other holes were drilled with the smaller 1/8-inch bit.  I recommend starting with only two or three holes and adding more if needed rather than drilling several and having to plug them up when the plants get too dry down the road.
    Drill drainage holes

    With the channel cut and the holes drilled, it was time to add the end caps.  Although an employee at Lowes assured me that no caulk would be necessary for this part, it is.  I added a line of caulk along the edge of the PVC pipe, then popped the end caps on.  

    Once the caulk had dried overnight, it was time to start pumping water.  Set the channel on top of the aquarium and partially fill with gravel.  Submerge the fountain pump and run the vinyl tubing up into the channel.  Secure the tubing with gravel inside of the channel.

    I added plants, turned on the fountain pump, and the aquaponic system was complete!

    The system has been running successfully for 3 weeks now.  I did lose some fishies, but I've also been able to add a couple fancier fish now that the cycling is complete.

    The system continues to run
    smoothly after 2 months
    Helpful hints:
    • A note about the fish:  It's a good idea to start off with just a few inexpensive feeder fish that are available at just about any pet store.  Don't get too attached to these fishies, because they're probably going to die of ammonia toxicity.  To speed up cycling, leave a clean sponge in an established aquarium for a few days.  Add the sponge to your tank when you add the fish.  This will transfer some of the beneficial bacteria needed for cycling to your system.  To learn more about ammonia toxicity, nutrient cycling, and other options to this process, check out the Aquaponic Source's cycling page.
    • Another note about fish: Although comet feeder goldfish are great to kick start cycling, I've learned that they aren't great long term residents for this particular system.  Comet goldfish have a habit of jumping out of tanks that don't have a lid.  There are slightly more expensive fantail goldfish that have shorter bodies and are less likely to be able to build up the momentum required to jump out of the tank.  I wouldn't recommend black moor goldfish because they are likely to experience fungus problems.  Fish fungus illnesses should be treated with aquarium salt that can stress out your plants.
    • A note about worms: Red wiggler worms can be added to the gravel to help break down fish waste.  Worms release nutrients for the plants to use and help keep the system clean for the fish.
    • A note about PVC:  Be sure to remove all the little shavings left over from sawing and drilling.  If there are any left, they'll get into the water and the fish will eat them.
    • A note about gravel:  Be sure to use aquarium gravel and not just any old rocks you happen across.  Rocks that contain limestone or seashells can raise pH to dangerous levels for both the fish and the plants.  Check out the Aquaponic Source for a simple test to determine if your gravel contains limestone.  Another good medium for the grow-bed is Hydroton clay pebbles.
    • A note about the fountain pump: The model of pump that I selected was small and inexpensive, but it does not have a filter that protects the pump from getting clogged by fish waste.  For the first month or so, I removed the filter weekly and rinsed the intake in a sink.  Although that was effective, I scratched together a couple dollars for some filter foam.  Using scissors, I cut out a square and placed it under the fountain pump intake.  The filter foam should be removed and rinsed every month or so.
    • A note about light: My system ran fine for over a month with just the ambient lighting in my apartment, but I grew tired of leaving my office overhead light on all day.  I sprung for a small desk lamp and fitted it with a 10 watt fluorescent aquarium bulb.  The lamp is plugged into a timer that turns the light on at 7:00 a.m. and off at 8:00 p.m.
    • Side view of the system after 2 months
    For updated information on my bare-bones, home aquaponic system, check out my profile at the Aquaponic Source.

    To see more photos of my home aquaponic system, check out my photobucket story.

    If you have any questions, comments, ideas, or suggestions, I love to get email!

    A special thanks to my Dad for giving me an opportunity to do such a neat project on my birthday!

    My system continues to run smoothly after 2 months.