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It’s all rubbish, smelly wicking beds and a future plan


Colin Austin 12 Jan 2014

Some days just don’t go well

Ever had one of those days when everything you do seems to go wrong and you ask yourself “what the (insert naughty word here) I am doing with my life?”

Well I have been going through a period like that.  I prominently display my email on my web site so people can easily write to me and ask me questions about wicking beds. 

This is more of a hobby than a business and I get questions from all over the world which is really quite helpful as it often gives me ideas about wicking beds I would never have thought of. And as it is not a business I don’t have to worry about the cost of providing technical service, it’s my life and I can choose to do whatever I like with my time.

However -

My wicking beds smells, what do I do?

I would have to be pretty dumb not to notice a trend, I seem to have had a wave of emails from people telling me their wicking beds are putrid and smelly and asking what they should do about it. Another other common problem is in lack of water for plants in beds with a ‘soil finger’ going into a water chamber.

If you are one of these people who have recently asked me a question on these lines please don’t feel bad about asking these questions, you may well have just done me one of the biggest favours of my life. You see these questions are making me face a major decision about my life.

If you want to read a couple of technical file on smelly beds then try



The birth of wicking beds – a cheap way of storing water

Let’s go back some fifteen years ago when I first started to play with wicking beds. Now it is fine to have 20/20 vision with hindsight. My original interest in wicking beds was to find a cheap way of providing sustenance food in Africa during droughts. African subsistence farmers do not have the income of a NY derivative trader, the extreme wealthy may manage a couple of dollars a day so making wicking beds cheap has become an obsession with me.

I have seen some really cheap but effective wicking beds, old bath tubs, fridges, wheel barrows, burying an old tyre and covering with plastics bags - all cheap and effective.

In those early days there was never any question of wicking beds being a commercial operation. Since then I have been taken aback by how rapidly and widely they have been adopted. Let me be honest - I simply did not see this growth in wicking beds coming.

Commercial suppliers

Many of the people asking about smelly wicking beds or their plants not getting enough water have bought their wicking beds from commercial suppliers, (often at a high price).

It seems that these commercial companies provide little if any technical support on how to operate a wicking bed; it seems to me they are primarily manufacturers who just want to turn out product and really have little understanding of how wicking beds actually work.

There is a real paradox here. When I first conceived of wicking bed the ‘experts’ told me that they would not work because the water was stagnant and would go putrid.  In principle they are correct, plant roots emit gases like ethylene which are growth inhibitors and the roots also need oxygen.  If the roots are immersed in water for too long the plants simply die.  They drown in the same way that we would if immersed in water for too long, not because the water kills us but because there is no oxygen.

Consequently much of my effort in the early development of the wicking bed was to work out how to ensure the roots had that combination of access to enough of both water and the oxygen (which stops the beds from going putrid).

Achieving this is one of the basic principles of how a wicking bed should work.  I took steps to protect this technology through the patent process but here in lies the paradox - you cannot patent wicking, that is a natural phenomenon, neither can you patent self-watering pots, they have been around since the first cave man put a saucer under his plant pot.

The essence of my intellectual property is how to ensure the plants have access to oxygen so the beds do not turn putrid and end up a sticky smelly mess.

So there is nothing to stop anyone, an individual or a commercial manufacturer, promoting self-watering pots that are likely to turn putrid.

There are two issues here.  

Petty and personal

The first is petty and personal, I have spent the last fifteen years of my life developing and promoting wicking beds, there has been no financial gain to me but I do feel proud of the technology and the benefits they obviously give to many people.

I certainly do not want them getting a bad image by not work and turn smelly. This is one of the reasons I am happy to provide the technical support and answer all those emails.

If the materials in a wicking bed is inert e.g. inert stones or sand and sterilised potting mix there is less risk of them going putrid. But any food grown in this sterile environment probably has less nutritional content than produce from the supermarket.  But just add a little compost and stand back for the smell.

This brings me to the really big issue - nutrition.

Now the issue is nutrition

In the early days my focus was simply on water, how to grow sustenance food with an erratic rainfall and of course this is still important.  But for me things have changed - my wife Xiulan has developed diabetes which is truly a horrible decease. It’s not the decease itself - it is the side effects.

Your retina can become detached so you go blind and your extremities, your arms and legs can, in non-technical language simply go rotten with the excess sugar and have to be chopped off.

The problem is simply the balance in our diet, our modern diet has too much energy - sugar, fats and carbohydrates and not enough nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. Our bodies don’t feel satisfied so we keep on stuffing ourselves with more and yet more high energy food.

World food production

The world is facing a major crisis with the quality of its food delivery system - too much energy not enough nutrients.

Stuffing ourselves with vitamins and dietary supplements is no solution; - expense is just the start of the problems. Pills cannot provide the complex range and balance of nutrients that healthy plants can.  Balance and a broad spectrum are critical; - many of the trace compounds we need are highly toxic in the wrong proportions.

 Pill popping is not the way; we simply need more nutritious food.

This is a major worldwide problem affecting billions of people around the world. The world is facing a major crisis with the quality of its food delivery system - too much energy not enough nutrients.

I have no delusions that anyone, even powerful Governments, are going to change the worlds food system, the trans-national food conglomerates are simply too powerful.



Grow your own food

But growing a proportion of your own food, with a high nutrient and the essential vitamins and minerals is a practical solution so my main project over the last five years of so has been to refine the wicking system so that virtually anyone, even if living in an apartment  can grow their own food.

Steps to nutrition

There are three simple steps in this process.

First is to grow the right plants, there are a wealth of plants which provide high nutrient value, even common plants like tomatoes and spinach are naturally high in nutrients while the more specialised herbs provide essential vitamins and the phytochemicals which have major health benefits which we are just beginning to learn about.

Secondly the soil must contain the necessary minerals, there is a basic law of physics called the conservation of mass, if the mineral are not in the soil then the plants can’t make them out of thin air.  True they can capture carbon out of the air but the trace elements, like selenium, iodine etc. must be in the soil in the first place.

Some young volcanic rocks are full of a range of these essential minerals which are easily added to the soil - but here comes the snag.

Thirdly there must be an active soil biology to condition the soil and make the essential minerals available to the plants.

Soil biology is a complex subject, modern science is only now beginning to recognise its importance and has only really started to learn how to manage and farm soil biology - this is still as much an art as a science.

If you want food with a balance of nutrients, minerals and vitamins you have to learn how to manage soil biology so it releases the minerals without smelling you out of house and home.

(If you want to read up about trace elements I recommend the WHO report on trace elements available as a free download. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/1996/9241561734_eng_fulltext.pdf)

Back to that lousy morning

This is where I get back to that lousy morning where everything goes wrong and you ask yourself what (add naughty word) am I doing with my life?

The bald facts are very simple, the majority of people now live in cities and their food supply is dominated by a handful of transnational corporations, who make megabucks by selling fatty, sugary, greasy hydrocarbons which taste great.  Now I am not having a go at the food giants, we live in a capitalist society and their responsibility is to make profits for their shareholders (and of course the directors only accept their multi-million dollar fees with great reluctance).

The solution is simple; people can grow a small proportion of their food in nutrient rich soil. You don’t have to become a member of some weird extremist sect or permaculture fanatic, just grow a few tomatoes, spinach and herbs etc. in nutrient rich soil.

But there is one snag, now many people are living in apartments with no garden and even in the conventional suburbs blocks are getting smaller - houses are getting bigger - so gardens are shrinking.

This is a situation which I have recognised since Xiulan (my wife) was diagnosed with diabetes about five years ago.  Since then I have been refining an upgraded version of the wicking bed (I am currently calling it a wicking bed basket) which would enable people to grow nutritious food from a rich biological soil, reprocessing their food waste and adding mineral and trace elements to the soil (without being stunk out).

Now this is where that terrible morning syndrome cuts in.  Wicking beds are a potential solution to the shortage of nutrients but they must be widely adopted.  But we live in an age of high pressure adverts and scams, dietary scams are two a penny, the web is full of them, so people are naturally sceptical of grand claims.

If wicking beds are going to be widely adopted they must work and be seen to work and and give real benefits to users. If the view spread that wicking beds are smelly or don’t grow healthy food they will there use will be limited to a handful of experts gardeners who really understand how to operate them properly (or have taken the trouble to email me with their problems).

Learning from mistakes

There is an old adage which says that both fools and wise men make mistakes, the wise man leans from his mistakes while a fool keeps on repeating his.

Now I have to recognise that I have made mistakes in the promotion and support of wicking beds.

I have put all the information up on my web so it is available to anyone and everyone.

The coach system has many benefits but from what I see coaches are a bit like me - they put the effort in because they enjoy working in their garden and playing with wicking beds but they are not really receiving adequate rewards to justify much technical support.

Ignorant poachers

The technology has been poached by commercial organisations (and individuals) who have little technical understanding of the real technology underlying wicking beds and they offer no follow on technical support on how to manage the bed.

(I have just written an article ‘how water moves through the soil’ to explain the science and mechanisms underlying wicking beds, dead boring if you are not turned on by inter and intra molecular forces but you can email me if you want a copy.)

The results are that some users (fortunately still a minority) have beds they don’t work as they should.  Some end up putrid and smelly pretty smelly while other just do not growing healthy plants. This could be disastrous for the whole image of wicking beds and so they will not be adopted by the millions of people around the world who could really benefit from growing health food - people like my wife Xiulan suffering from diabetes.

There are millions of people suffering from a dietary imbalance - for example there are some three and a half million sufferers of diabetes in Australia alone. The US is far higher, 26 million and China is catching up fast and Latinos appear to be the most sensitive to diabetes.

Most people should be growing some of their own food, and that means millions of people.

Our health and the recycling of waste are major social issues.

I just don’t see us, with our current rather amateur way of operating, having the impact and scale that is really to be able to help these millions of people.

I have been brooding on this problem for some time and see no alternative but to make changes in the way we operate.  We must find a way of providing technical support to users so they get genuine satisfaction from their wicking beds. They really have major benefits if operated properly but a few failures from incorrect operation spells disaster for their acceptance.

If people are satisfied and get good results they will tell their friends about wicking beds so the adoption of wicking beds will spread, if they end up being a smelly mess wicking beds will die.

Fortunately at this moment most wicking bed users seem to be getting good results and only a few are having problems.  I hope I have been able to help the people who have taken the initiative to contact me when they have problems so at this moment I think the situation is under control.

The next generation of wicking beds

However I have been busy developing the next generation of wicking beds, which I will call for now the ‘wicking bed basket’ which is designed for use in apartments and small back yards.  I would hope that these will be adopted and successfully used by literally millions of people around the world to grow healthy food.

I have to recognise that if they achieved the success I am hoping for with users in the millions there is no way I could provide the technical support for all these people myself, certainly on the current voluntary basis.

We already have the coach system in place which could be expanded to provide the needed technical support and education.  For this operation to be successful there needs to be a way they can be financially rewarded for their efforts, we need a new business structure.

Upgraded business model – legal basis

The new wicking bed technology gives us a way to change the way we operate.

We can upgrade the basic coach scheme to form the basis for a more formal structure based on intellectual property.

Most people are familiar with intellectual property but tend to think in terms of patents and copyright but there are many other forms such as plant breeder rights, registered designs etc. but the simplest and most commonly used system is licensing of know how.

Licensing know how does not necessarily mean having a patent, although a patent may help by defining the intellectual property but patents are expensive, slow and tedious.  With a fast moving technology like software and wicking beds the technology has changed before the patents are granted, this makes them a clumsy tool for commerce.

There is a widespread image that someone has a brilliant idea and runs off to the Patent office, but this is not the way innovation works in practise.  There may be an initial bright idea that starts the process but after that there is on ongoing process of refinements and further innovation.  Innovation is not static it is a dynamic process with a steady stream of new technology over time.

Licensing of know how is a far simpler and more practical system.  Someone develops a technology which they cannot fully exploit themselves so they license other people or companies to exploit that technology in exchange for a royalty.

Often the licensing agreement will have provisions for the rapid change of technology so may cover future developments so improvements (by the original licensee or licensor) are also covered by the original agreement.

Commercially this is very desirable as it works like a club with everyone sharing ideas and improvements.  This can put the ‘club’ in a very strong technical position.

Upgraded business model – in practise

I am sure that wicking bed enthusiasts do not want a complex legalistic system; they want a simple system which is fair and equitable.

The model of a wicking bed club is simple and easy to operate.  When a customer makes or purchases a wicking bed they become a member of a club which automatically entitles them to the use of all patents and know how while they are members.  They pay a joining fee which entitles them to use existing technology and an annual membership fee which covers technical support and access to advances in technology.

The first line of support would be the web site which would have a registered customer section containing technical information and an on line help. Registered customers would access by signing in with a password, just like many other sites on the web.

Coaches would complement this web base support with a personal service and would receive part of the fees for recruiting and supporting their customers. Customers can select a coach to provide technical support when the coach will receive a payment from the membership fee.

But some coaches may choose to offer additional products and services.

These could consist of

-manufacture of basic wicking beds for sale to the customer ready to inoculate and plant

-production of live wicking beds already planted and inoculated

-supply of quality soil

-production of BioPacks for the initial inoculation of wicking beds

-supply of minerals and trace elements for the ongoing fertilisation of wicking beds

-supply of plants and herbs, (probably the more specialised medicinal herbs and plants)

These products could be sold directly to customers or to other coaches.  For example the production of BioPacks is a tedious process requiring setting aside an area of land for growing the biology.  I would imagine that some coaches supplying live wicking beds may be very happy to purchase from a coach specialising in producing BioPacks.

Other products, such as the soil components, are expensive to transport in small quantities. My associates are producing some 5 cubic metres a week of worm castings.  This makes an excellent soil base but would only be economic to transport in bulk to coaches acting as distribution centres.

Next steps

What I have just described is more of a thought bubble rather than a detailed plan.

At this moment I am preparing the next round of patents to protect the new technology and am working on the draft of the business plan.  This needs to be a circular process with opportunities to comment on and make suggestions to this draft plan.

There would have to be a measure of control over the technology for example by confidentiality agreements and proper accounting as with any technology licensing arrangement.  I have no intention of setting up a legal monstrosity like Apple and Monsanto but there does need to be recognition of the intellectual property rights. I see the analogy of a club as far more appropriate than a complex legal organisation.

Any club needs a defined set of objectives; this is my first draft-

‘Current food production provides low cost food high in sugars, fats and carbohydrates but often lacking minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals for health.

The aim of the wicking bed club is to enable members to improve their diet by supplementing their current diet by the production of phytochemicals growing medically beneficial plants in soil enriched by nutrients, minerals and soil biology.

This will be achieved by the sharing of knowledge and expertise within the club with appropriate recognition of intellectual property rights’.

The working of the club needs to be discussed with all interested parties. At this moment I am working with my legal and business advisors to prepare plans which can be circulated to the interested parties. This discussion needs to be carried out in confidence so that the organisation and technical issues can be freely discussed internally.

An appropriate confidentiality agreement is currently being prepared but will not be some awe inspiring legal document.

Your next step is to email me, letting me know of your interest in participating when I will email you back a copy of the confidentially agreement for you to consider. I look forward to hearing from you at colinaustin@bigpond.com