I have just found that the link to

'How to grow (or buy) healthy food'

 was missing.  This is probably the most in depth article I have written on diet, health and growing so my apologies  Colin

Newsletter October 2015

Colin Austin 24 Oct 2015 © Creative commons this document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged. Information may be used for private use but commercial use requires a license.

I wanted to use this newsletter to give details on my new Mk 11 Wicking beds. But I did not want to do a Windows 8 and come out with a product that hasn’t been properly tested and it just takes time to test a horticultural system.

But I can talk about what I am trying to do.

When I first started experimenting with sub surface water systems my focus was on water savings and storage - specifically to provide sustenance food in times of drought.

Any water passing the root zone is lost to the plants, the idea of putting a plastic sheet below the root zone seems such a simple solution and when I tried it - despite the warnings from experts that it would lead to the water stagnating and going putrid - it worked really well.

The battle over water going putrid still rages and later I will give a snapshot of a Facebook debate but for now I want to talk about the change in direction.

Fortunately the mass starvation that was occurring twenty years ago has improved at least in the politically stable countries. Unfortunately political instability is now the dominant cause of starvation.

However there has been a global explosion in what is medically called the metabolic syndrome which essentially means accumulation of fat around the vital organs. This has led to a world-wide health crisis in related diseases particularly diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. This is now the largest drain on the health system and leads to personal suffering on a grand scale - diabetes is the largest cause of amputation and blindness.

At first this was simply blamed on the growth of factory farming and processes food which was full of fats, sugars and salt. However this simple argument was challenged when people began to ask why it was that some people ended up grossly overweight while others remains slim, often skinny while eating the same food.

It is now recognised that being fat is more than simply an excess of calories, there has to be something which makes our bodies store this excess food as fat or simply expel it from the body.

We now know that our guts contain a significant amount of brain cells - not as much as our main brains - but as much as a Kangaroo which judging by the way they will sit by the road side until my car is two meters away then jump in front of me is not that much.

But the explanation goes that this mini brain in our guts sends hormones to our main brain - which in turn send yet more hormones to tell our body to either store fat or get rid of it. Which way it decides depends on whether the brain senses we are under stress or not. If the brain says we are under stress it will do everything it can to protect our bodies including storing fat.

This research into our bodily hormones is still young but one fact is clear, that modern factory farming with its forced production is leading to reduced levels of essential micro nutrients. Our diet is often referred to as empty calories, high in energy but low in essential nutrients.

Wicking beds water and nutrients

Wicking beds are typically thought of as a way of saving water, which they do. But the water that escapes beyond the root zone is full of nutrients which are lost to the plants and often end up causing major environmental problems - river pollution, blue green algae and damage to the reef.

It is estimated that some 60% of the fertiliser which is applied is simply lost to the system.

Another alarming statistic is how much food we waste between the farm and our stomachs, some 40% of total food production. There are many reasons, off spec - but perfectly good food, wastage during the extensive distribution chain as well as the obvious loss in our homes.

Wicking beds seem an obvious solution to these problems so I have set myself the challenge of develop a second generation of wicking beds which provide us with the essential micro nutrients while also addressing these environmental problems of waste by recycling.

I thought I was pretty well there with my new system but a couple of problem cropped up, one was that the little vinegar flies seemed over partial to my initial waste food recycling system the other was a problem with germination.

I think I have now resolved both of these but I want to test the solutions before writing about the new system in my newsletters.

So I thought for this newsletter I would reprint some of the exchanging that has been happening on Facebook. The first relates to people not being able to find what they are looking for on my web. Yes this is a problem, I have been running my web for over twenty years and it has now so much stuff on it that it can be difficult to find - so a few tips here.

Secondly the never ending debate over wicking beds going putrid and the stones versus organics. This debate is not so important in its own right but for another reason. Wicking beds are now universal and it was not my promotion that made this happen - it was other people creating web and Facebook pages and progressively spreading the word.

Unfortunately this second hand promotion can lead to corruption of the basic technology.

With the new Wicking beds Mk 11 I want to avoid this danger.

Facebook reply

So here is a reprint of the Facebook reply.

Thanks Troy for more info on my wicking bed system.

I think the file you are after is http://www.waterright.com.au/wicking_bed_technology.pdf

Go to my website and click on Library, then go to the second section classified on a subject basis, wicking bed is at the bottom the file you want was written on the 4th Aug 2015 but there is a host of other useful files there. You may also look at the soil section as soil is critical to wicking bed performance.

You ask about a simple description of how to make a wicking bed so I am giving details below. But first I do run a direct support operation. I tried a public format but people did not seem to like asking questions in public so I dropped that and now answer question directly from my email colinaustin@bigpond.com.

I often get asked the same question so I may then make this the subject of one of my newsletters which come out monthlyish. If you want me to add you to the mailing list just email me colinaustin@bigpond.com.

Now how to make a wicking bed - it is absolutely simple. Take any watertight box. The dimensions are unimportant but the depth should be similar to the natural root depth of the plants you want to grow. (Typically about 300mm).

Fill with an appropriate soil (my next newsletter is on soils so I will leave soil requirement till then).

Find some way of filling the box from the bottom upwards. Just pocking a stick into the corner of the box to make a hole to fill with a hose works fine but a pipe system is better.

Make some way of preventing the box flooding completely, a hole in the side again works fine but I really like a sight glass so I know and can regulate the water level.

That’s all there is to making a wicking bed. When I promoted this system, now almost twenty years ago, I was greeted with ridicule by expert gardeners saying that the water would go putrid and the plants would die.

Conventional wisdom is generally 95% correct and it is absolutely true that if you have stagnant water which contains nitrogen it will go putrid. That’s a simple fact I have observed many times.

But the 5% where conventional wisdom is wrong is in the word ‘stagnant’. If you just let the wicking bed work in the way I originally described the water never goes stagnant. The plants put down roots and will suck up the water which is then replaced by fresh water from underneath; the water is always on the move and never gets a chance to go stagnant or putrid.

The only possible exception to this is if you plant the whole box with seeds then fill the box with water it may go stagnant before the roots have developed. This is easily solved by not filling the box with water when seeding or better still have some deep rooted plant growing in the corner.

Tomato, Kang Kong, Parsley are just some deep rooted thirsty plants that will keep water in the box fresh.

I would have thought that this system is so simple and works so well that people would have just used it without trying to make it more complicated - but not so.

The conventional wisdom is now that some form of separate reservoir is required. These are generally made from a layer of stones covered with cloth.

Let us look at what may lie behind this new conventional wisdom.

Argument one - could be that the water in the reservoir will not go putrid because there is no nutrients in it. Wrong - nitrogen is highly mobile and will rapidly migrate to the reservoir.

Argument two - is that the cloth will stop the roots entering the water reservoir. Wrong - roots are incredibly tenacious and easily penetrate cloth to enter the water reservoir. This is in fact beneficial as otherwise the rock and cloth system would never work. Wicking depends on particle size and rocks are just too big to wick.

Argument three - is that rocks will hold more water than soil. If you are using the appropriate soil - wrong again. There are two essential requirements for wicking bed soil, first the soil particles must be hydrophilic e.g. attract water so they wick and secondly the soil must form aggregates e.g. small particles which give a high void space to hold large volumes of water.

For billions of years soil biology has been converting inert rocks into nutrient rich soil with exactly these properties.

Did I goof

I may have been partially responsible for this cloth fiasco. When I first started making wicking beds I used ag-pipe with many little drainage holes. It only took a two or three weeks for the soil to penetrate the holes and block the pipe.

I then covered the pipe with cloth which meant it took two or three years for the pipe to silt up. I promoted this system in my original publications.

Now I use a rigid pipe (which is cheaper) and just put holes or slots (with an angle grinder) in the bottom. I have wicking beds which have been working for many years without clogging but the cloth idea seems to prevail whatever I do or say.

But there is a much bigger picture than the debate between storing water in the soil or rocks.

We live in an era in which factory farming is producing food high in calories but lacking the micro-nutrients essential for health - empty calories. A healthy diet starts in the soil with a combination of minerals and soil biology. Wicking beds provide a way for people to improve their health by eating fresh nutrient rich food.

This is the subject of my next newsletter.

Colin Austin 24 October 2015