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 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.

For further information of help just email me