Why Wicking beds Mk 11?

Colin Austin 29 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.

It is not secret that for the last few years I have been working on an improved version of wicking beds. In this article I want to explain why I think a new wicking bed system is needed and the logic and basic principles underlying the system. I will give more practical details in later newsletters.

In previous articles I have talked about metabolic syndrome (fat around the vital organs) and how it leads to diseases such as diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

There is immense personal cost - diabetes is the most common cause of amputations and blindness and is the single largest drain on our health costs.

See 'How to grow (or buy) healthy food  (.pdf file)

The modern food distribution system

Look at old photographs or film from thirty years ago and people were generally slim.

But walk around any shopping centre today and look at the people, some are at the extremes, either obese or emaciated but the majority are carrying excess fat around their stomachs.

In such a short period of time this cannot be genetic but simply the food we are eating. Let us be realistic - the supermarket system with the factory farming and processed food chain provides us with convenient and abundant supply of cheap food.

One reason they taste so good is they are full of sugars, fats and salt which unfortunately make us feel hungrier - in essence they are addictive so we eat more than we need.

lina Fig 1 There is a world of difference between food we should eat and food we want to eat. This is at the root of why we get fat, we just love processed food high in sugars, fats and salt - they taste so good.

Our Daughter Lina is an excellent cook and is working with me to develop recipes which are both healthy and tasty.

They are also low in essential micro-nutrients which makes our bodies feel under stress so we not only eat more but our bodies stores the excess food as fat. Eating nutrient rich vegetables has exactly the opposite effect it makes us feel full so we no longer crave food.

Grow your own

The seriously rich can afford a gardener to grow their own fruit and vegetable on their estate or simply ignore the higher cost and buy organic. The majority of city dwellers have little option but to buy factory food from the local supermarket.

Many people would like to grow their own food and there is a boom in urban growing but there are still many obstacles such as costs of proprietary systems, lack of growing skills, space and time.
wrapFig 2 One of Lina’s most successful dishes is this simple vegetable wrap. You can delude yourself you are eating tasty junk food but in reality it is full of nutrient rich vegetables. Dieticians seem to forget that we are real people that just love to eat.

My aim in developing the Wicking bed Mk 11 is to provide a system which is so cheap and simple that almost anyone can supplement their diet with nutritious home grown food.

Basic principles of wicking beds - Roots 101

Roots absorb nutrients and water but they also need to breathe taking up oxygen and expelling gasses like ethylene which acts as a growth inhibitor.

Plants have developed roots with different functions. In some plants this is totally obvious; there are the fine surface roots and a deep tap root.

fibrous and tap rootsFig 3 Fibrous and tap roots. Fibrous roots need to be able to breath taking in oxygen and expelling stale gases – they need an open dryish soil.

Tap roots are tough and seem able to handle being immersed in water.

The fine surface or fibrous roots have evolved to survive in an open soil where they can absorb oxygen and expel the toxic gasses. By contrast tap roots have evolved to bore down deep into even the hardest soil (where they may be very little air) and extract moisture and nutrients.

Many weeds have highly developed tap roots which is why they are so tough. Many of our food plants have predominantly fibrous roots which makes them more delicate. In nature there is a natural synergy between deep tap rooted and surface rooted plants which grow comfortably together.

Physical design

I receive all sorts of designs of wicking beds to comment on. They will almost always work as the physical design of the wicking bed is just not that important. The key essential comes from the way plants work - there needs to be an upper layer which has free access to air and a lower layer which has abundant water - in essence predominantly air and water layers. If these rules are followed and the soil is good then wicking beds will work.

One of the basic principles of wicking bed design is to have a moisture gradient with the top layer being nearly dry with an open or granular soil to allow air infusion while the moisture content progressively increases towards the base which may be virtually saturated.

In my promotions of Mk 1 Wicking beds I talked about a single container split into the two layers of air and water. In the Mk 11 version the bed is physically split into two containers.

There are several reasons for this.

Firstly is technical - each layer requires different types of soil so splitting into two containers allows the soil in each zone to be managed separately and extra nutrients or compost added to the lower layer without upsetting the upper root zone.

Second is economic - it enables experienced growers to supply young plants growing in the upper layer ready for maturing and consumption by people with not much space.

Third is cost - it is just so simple. Containers can be bought from discount shops for just a few dollars.
components of Mk 11 wicking bedFig 4 The basic components of a Mk 11 wicking box are cheap and simple, for example shown here is a tote box, compost, soil biology, seeds trays filled with mineral mix



Healthy bodies from healthy plants from healthy soil.

Even Lina cannot prepare food which will make us healthy if the basic nutrients are not there in the first place.

The easiest way is to grow your own and urban agriculture is increasing rapidly in our cities allowing even people who live in apartments to benefit from healthy food - again that is a topic for further articles.

I and many others have talked about fat around the vital organs add infinitum but where are the solutions? This article focuses on a key aspect – soils and minerals.

Soils and minerals

Let’s start with a key point. Any good book on horticulture will describe in detail the fertilisers needed to grow healthy plants. But that can be missing the point, the aim is to grow plants which will make us healthy and this is a far more complex issue.

We need a whole range of minerals that the plants simply does not need - for example selenium which is used to the reproduction of our DNA. If there is no selenium our DNA does no reproduce accurately and most likely we will get cancer and die.

We need other mineral in much larger quantities than plants - for example the sex minerals iron and zinc. We won’t die from lack of zinc or iron but without the sex minerals life will not be as much fun and our species would become extinct.

Diet and Health is discussed in detail in ‘How to grow (or buy) healthy vegetables’  in the June 2015 newsletter

Widely reported deficits in our modern diet

The table below shows the minerals that plants need to grow well, the primary and secondary elements and the elements that we as humans needs to be healthy. Some minerals such as iron and zinc are needed by plants but in small quantities. We need these in large amounts.

Others like selenium and iodine are not needed by plants at all but are essential for our health. Over the years of continuous farming these trace elements have become denuded from the soil. Modern intensive farming aided by chemical fertilizers is highly productive but exhaust the soil of biology and minerals.

Bio-essential trace elements are critical to human life. These include iron, cobalt, selenium, copper, zinc, molybdenum, vanadium and cadmium. The elements are linked into the chemical structure of the cells and become a natural nutrient for survival. Cobalt is a central atom in the structure of vitamin B12, whereas zinc is essential for growth, magnesium guards against heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, prostate cancer and osteoporosis.

Elements needed by plants  
Elements available from the air or water carbon, oxygen, hydrogen
Primary elements from the soil N, P, K
Secondary elements Ca ,Mg, S
Trace elements Mn, Fe, B, Zn, Cu, Mo, Cl, Co
Widely reported dietary deficits  
Elements needed by plants but we may need higher doses Ca, Mg, Zn, Fe ,Cu
Essential extra elements needed for health Selenium, Iodine, Vanadium, Chromium
Vitamins humans are generally short of Omega 3, B12, B6, E, K

Minerals and availability

Minerals are readily available - for example from volcanic rock or marine products.

food chainFig 5 When we talk about us needing minerals we never mean the basic element
we need the element as part of a complex chemical which is produced in a chain starting from soil biology reacting with minerals in the soil to make them available to the plants
then the plant converting them into further chemical which are available to us
or more realistically the bacteria in our guts
which converts these into hormones which are sent to our brain
which in turn converts them into yet more hormones which control our body.

This is a complex chain which science is busy unravelling but in the mean time we can learn a lot from studying how our bodies have evolved.

Evolution and food supply

We can learn how our bodies work by studying how we have evolved to adapt to available food.

Just to be clear I am not advocating the paleo diet or even that somehow food was better in the olden days - it is just a useful learning exercise.

Life started about three and a half billion years ago. It started in the sea and it has been suggested that mycorrhizal fungi played a crucial role in enabling marine life to adapt to the land.

Primates first appeared some 60 million years ago and the prehumans some 23 million years ago while the first humans - biologically similar to us some 6 million years ago.

Time scales in millions of years are more than long enough to allow for evolutionary adaptation.

The first agriculture appeared some 10,000 years ago which in evolutionary time scale does not give much time for adaption and in any case this early farming was little more than the controlled growing of naturally occurring plants so there would be minimal evolutionary change.

Modern farming with genetic selection of plants and the use of chemical fertilisers only goes back a few decades which is far too short for any ecological adaption.

Whether we like it or not modern man is adapted to the food of the hunter gatherers.

The debate over meat or plant eaters is irrelevant - food comes from plants directly or indirectly via animals.

The feature of natural plants is that they depended on bio-diversity and synergy (apart from some specialized areas like the tundra). No one plant species is self-sufficient they depend on synergistic relation from other plants, animals, birds, insects and above all soil biology.

Natural edible plants (and the early agricultural crops) were low in energy (sugars) but were grown in soil rich in essential micro-nutrients. In our hunter gather days there were few people and lots of available land so people naturally moved to areas where the soil was nutrient rich.

Our bodies have evolved with a low energy - high nutrient diet. Shortage of energy was a common hazard so our bodies are geared to store the energy as fat when there was an abundant supply of food.

Modern food with high energy and low nutrients is exactly the opposite of our natural food we evolved with.

Getting fat is not simply greed or laziness; it is the natural working of our bodies to protect us from the next food shortage. Maybe in the next hundred thousand years our bodies may have evolved but in the mean time we need to boost our intake of essential nutrients to stop our bodies going into panic mode.

Mark 11 wicking beds - learning from nature

So how does this affect the design of Mk 11 wicking beds? It means that we need a steady supply of the essential minerals plus a diverse soil biology to make the nutrients available to the plants.

However soil biology is living, it needs looking after just like a farmer looks after his cows.

That means feeding them.

Soil biology gets its food from two sources. Plants exude simple sugars as energy and more complex chemicals to facilitate the growth of certain beneficial biology.

For example farmers have known for at least a hundred years (maybe longer but that’s as far back as I could find) that growing sunflower is highly beneficial for later crops like wheat.

We now know that this is because sunflowers attract mycorrhizal fungi.

The second source of food is from composting.

I don’t mean conventional hot composting but - in soil - cold composting. I appreciate there are many compost enthusiast out there who promote the nutritional benefit of compost.

The real benefit of compostable material is that it provides energy for the soil biology. There will certainly be macro nutrients in compost but if the micro-nutrients are not in the original material they will never be in the final compost.

The micro-nutrient need to be added in controlled amounts.

The good old days that weren’t

Now all I have talked about so far is based on logic and science but now it’s time to open up  and get to the real reason behind Mk 11 Wicking Beds

My formative years were during World War, it wasn’t houses just turning to rubble overnight that affected me but the austerity - spare rooms being filled with sacks of potatoes and pickled cabbage to see us through the winter. It was a time of make do and mend and this went on for many years after the war finished and at long last affluence crept back in.

If anybody tells you this austerity was good tell them to drink less after dinner port and talk to a Syrian migrant who has no idea whether he will die from a bomb or starvation.

Everything was recyled.

A major consideration in the design of Mk 11 wicking beds is sustainability and recycling what would generally be thought of as waste.

Snap shot of a Wicking Bed Mk 11

The system is simplicity itself. It can be a simple bucket, a typical wicking bed tote box, a conventional wicking bed or even the larger sponge bed.

The key components of the soils are the essential minerals which are generally supplied from volcanic rock and soil biology which dissolved the rocks to make the minerals available to the plants.

Mk 11 has two separate soil layers - an upper layer with a fine texture for seed germination and containing minerals plus additives to increase void content and to make the soil hydrophilic to aid wicking - a lower layer - much coarser and fibrous containing extract from the rhizosphere from selected plants with the corresponding soil biology.

Sponge beds

Some readers may not be familiar with a sponge beds so here is a snap shot. They are very similar to conventional wicking beds but there is no waterproof layer, just a layer of absorbent material which holds the water.

Smaller sponge beds are made by simply placing a layer of the absorbent material (typically organic waste) under the top soil; larger ones are made my making a trench in which the organic material is buried. Each year a new trench is dug alongside the old trench.

Sponge beds are more suitable for larger areas.

A simple Mk 11 wicking bed

Plants are grown in a seed tray with an open mesh base which sits on top of the main container. This is filled with a nutritious mix of organic material, soil biology and water which forms a compost tea which wicks up to the root zone.

Seed traySoils are the key components.

The seed tray is filled with a soil which is both hydrophilic e.g. it attracts water which aids wicking and has a high void space.

The soil in the main container may be made by collecting organic waste (waste food or weeds) which is covered with a layer of soil taken from the rhizosphere or root zone of selected plants. When sufficient material has been collected it is placed in the main container which is then partially filled with water.

As the organic material decomposes the seed tray is lifted and fresh organic material added.

It is so simple it hardly needs an instruction manual but I think the thought processes and experiments I have been through will enable users to get maximum benefits from the system.

Do it yourself

My aim is to make the system as available as possible which essentially means encouraging people to do as much as they can themselves without having to go out and buy things.

Fortunately the hardware is dirt cheap and I can provide details through my normal on line help or later articles.

The basic hardware can be bought very cheaply but there are a couple of areas where they may need a bit of help.

Soils for wicking beds – how to prepare

Soil must contain the basic minerals and appropriate soil biology for plant to take up micro-nutrients. Wicking beds also need different soils for the lower (wet) and upper (dry) zones.

I am putting up on my web a summary of how I prepare my soils (see appendix). At this stage this is quite a complex process of composting, growing soil biology and selecting minerals.

I am going to be guided by what people really want but my feeling is that most people would prefer to have a concentrate from which they can make their own soils.

I am therefore preparing two products which can be added to existing soils, household and garden waste to provide the key soil biology and minerals.

WickiMix-R R standing for Root or Rhizosphere is a root mass from living plants which contain a broad spectrum of soil biology.

WickinMix-M M standing for Minerals contains the essential minerals plus additives which provide a high void space and make the soil hydrophilic.

I am already producing far more than I need of these for my own use and so can supply if needed. The biology is a living product which I have to grow which takes some time.

To buy WickiMix goto Buying WickiMix

King of mulches

While Wickomix was developed for Mk 11 wicking beds I use them extensively on both my Mk 1 wicking beds and on conventional garden beds as a mulch providing both nutrients and soil biology. Probably overkill but certainly the must be the king of mulches. I apply at about 5Kg per square meter.

If you want to talk to me about this just email me colinaustin@bigpond.com or skype colinaustin1000.

Adequate production

Getting enough production in a small apartment needs to be considered. For example it may take three months to grow a lettuce from seed to a mature plant which may only last three or four days. This would mean having some twenty to thirty lettuce plants growing at any one time which may require some three standard tote boxes which is not very practical in a small apartment.

However it we use the cut and grow again system then the space required is a lot less. But it still takes may four weeks from seeding to when the plants can be first cut. A more effective use of space is to purchase a tray of lettuce which have already reached the baby green stage and are ready for the first cut.

Here lies an opportunity for a micro-business in which people with a little time, space and expertise can supply baby greens ready to cut.

There is a question on how first to set up such a system but I look to internet based systems like Uber and Airbnb which are achieving world-wide acceptance.



How I do it

While I am off message I think it may help to give a bit of background on how operate.

I live on an eco-village near Bundaberg in Queensland. The total area is over two hundred hectares about half of which is natural bush which has never been tilled or worked and is pretty close to a pristine environment.

This is a very dry area – too far North for the winter rains and far enough South to dodge most of the normal summer tropical deluges. But we do have an excellent system of lakes which provide water throughout the year and provide habitat for a wide range of birds and animals which visit my block bringing with them the biology from the native bush.

I am a compost nut so everything that is vaguely organic, from food waste to door to door salesmen get composted. (That’s a fib we are to remote to get door to door salespeople).

I am not particularly squeamish but even I have some concerns about what goes into my composting system, I also throw in a lot of woody material which takes for ever to decompose. So I have developed a two stage composting process.

I have made a horse shoe shape of plants surrounding the waste pile. (Xiulan - my wife - does not approve of my waste pile so I have to make sure it is hidden from the house.)

I grow a range of plants such as Comfrey, Queensland Arrow root, Senna Alata, Bananas etc. which have powerful root systems and big broad leaves. These pick up nutrients form the slowly decomposing waste pile and filter out any unwanted contaminants to give me a supply of green leaves which I can use for my second stage composting. I have plenty of space so do not have to worry about tying up the land area.

I appreciate most people prefer hot composting, I generally prefer cold in ground composting because I see compost as a way of feeding the soil biology rather than a direct source of nutrients.

Fortunately Kookaburra Park Worm Farms are a close neighbour so I have an abundant supply of vermicast or worm casting and not too far away is an old volcanic rim which can supply volcanic rock dust.

I experiments with all sorts of wicking beds to the small wicking baskets which holds about 10 litres, through tote boxes (about 60 litres) and larger permanent wicking beds of about five square metre in shade houses, open wicking beds and sponge beds which are much larger.

This is a major horticultural area so I do not try and grow all our food needs but just focus on ensuring we have the critical essential nutrients, largely by growing baby greens and a variety of Chinese vegetables.

My wife is Chinese and our Chinese daughter and granddaughter are living with us. Our daughter is a brilliant cook. She follows the Chinese tradition of cooking multiple dishes which she brings out in stages, you just think you have finished eating and up comes this totally delicious dish which I just have to try.

Although I am sure I am getting the essential nutrients in my diet I am equally sure that with our daughters cooking it is not a low calorie diet.

Diet and Health in discussed in detail in How to grow (of buy) healthy vegetables.
Other useful links on diet and health are


Here are our links to current newsletters, you can read as a web file or download as a pdf

Note to use links you should currently use web files (if available)

Newsletter_1_Nov_ 2015

Newsletter_October_2015  Reply to Facebook queries

Newsletter_September_2015  Return from China

Newsletter_June_2015 How to grow (or buy) healthy vegetables.pdf

Newsletter_March_2015 The human cost of bad diet

Newsletter (Feb 2015) Wildswans Health and wicking beds
or as .pdf

Newsletter (Jan 2015)
Once upon a time about soil for wicking beds
or as .pdf

The hungry beast inside - why it is so difficult to control appetite

or download The hungry beast inside as .pdf


Details of the grower scheme


About the Bundaberg Trials



Newsletter_July_2014 Fresh food and the Health Epidemic

Newsletter_22_June_2014 .pdf Ying Yang Food

Newsletter_8_May_2014.pdf Shanghai talk

Newletter 14_april_2014.htm
de-boggling in China

Newsletter 12 Jan 2014 
About smelly wicking beds and future plans

Decemeber 2013
Comments on Gardening Australia segment on self watering containers

Newsletter 20 November 2013
About the toxity of liners

Newsletter 1 Nov 2013

The evolution of wicking beds and their future
Web page

Newsleter October 2013

Web page

Newsletter 19 September 2013  The Biology Revolution

Newsletter 15 August 2013

Looks at the science behind wicking beds based on a note to Premila, our Ph. D student at the Uni of SA

Newsletter 20 June 2013

Looks at the process of science and innovation and how using the knowledge that there are two hormones which indicate we are full or hungry we can help find a diet which is best for us.

or for download

diet scams and science.pdf

Newsletter 25 March 2013

Looks at our understanding of soil science and how we can generate good soils, particularly for wicking beds

or for download


Also previous article on healthy food (pdf only)

diabetes and phytochemicals.pdf



For further information of help just email me colinaustin@bigpond.com