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Once your self-watering container garden is built and planted, your next task for at least a couple of months is to maintain your garden. This means, among other things, making sure that your container reservoirs have enough water. You can top them off by pouring water down the PVC pipes into the reservoirs. You know they are full when water starts to come out the weep holes.
You also need to monitor your garden for pests. You will not have to worry about some pests, like gophers, burrowing up from under your plants and eating their roots. Inside a container constructed from two 5-gallon buckets, gophers and other burrowers have no access to your plants. This is even more so the case in self-watering container gardens on rooftops, balconies, and paved areas.
Other pests, however, can come into your self-watering bucket containers from above or by crawling into them. Squirrels, rats, and bugs can still find your plants. So can molds, rusts, blights, and other plant diseases.
One simple treatment is to spray a mixture of 1 part baking soda to 3 parts water on your plants and the surrounding soil. This changes the pH of the surface soil, which discourages egg-laying by certain harmful insects and changes the taste of the plants to anything that tries to eat them. It also changes the pH of the surface of the plants, which, along with the changes in the pH of the surface soil, creates an environment that is inhospitable to many spores and diseases. Simply wash your produce well after it has been sprayed with baking soda water to rinse the chalky white residue away and your produce will be perfect for eating.
Another safe treatment for insects and animals is a combination of the liquid produced from chopped garlic and onion that has been strained with water, combined with cayenne pepper and a non-petroleum soap; this mixture can then be sprayed onto your plants, making them taste terrible to bugs and animals but leaving your fruits and vegetables safe for your consumption once they have been washed.
You can mix up your own batches of safe treatments for pests in your kitchen with your concrete learner. Just be careful with the juices from the garlic and onions, as well as the cayenne pepper, when making the garlic-onion-cayenne treatment. Adult supervision and assistance should be provided at all times and safety glasses are warranted.
Hand-held spray bottles are inexpensive and, so long as safe ingredients are used, easily cleaned and reused. Larger pump sprayers may be more efficient than small hand-held bottle sprayers if your garden has more than 10 containers. Be sure to spray the undersides of your plants’ leaves to protect against insects, as this is where they often like to lay their eggs and/or hide and nibble.
Teach your learner how to operate the spray bottle and spray the plants. Be sure that you both wear safety glasses or goggles while spraying and that you and your learner are careful to wash your hands before touching anything, particularly with the mixture that contains cayenne pepper.
You do not want to get either treatment in your eyes, nose, mouth, or genitals. Make sure your learner washes his/her hands well after handling any treatments before taking any bathroom breaks. Better yet, wear disposable gloves or work gloves while handling your treatments to prevent them from getting on your hands in the first place.
Despite the precautions you must take as the responsible adult to keep these activities safe for your learner and others, there is a valuable lesson in learning to handle relatively safe but still potentially painful substances. The real-life context makes safety rules and precautions suddenly make sense and have value. One smell of the garlic-onion-cayenne mix should be enough to compel a concrete learner to wear safety goggles.
Promoting the use of safe pest control methods will give your learner an appreciation for the practical applications of chemistry through a concrete demonstration of its use. The whys and hows of safety will not be esoteric abstractions; they will be common sense responses to real events as they happen. Explaining these concepts alone may not mean much to your learner, but demonstrating them as you explain them will drive the points home.
A safe treatment to prevent whitefly infestations, as well as infestations of other kinds of creepy-crawly pests, is to treat the soil in your containers with beneficial nematodes, which you can purchase through organic garden suppliers both online and in walk-in store locations. Simply mix them in water and pour some into the soil of each self-watering bucket container. Soak it with water from the top well to help the nematodes travel down into the soil. Any excess water will drain into the reservoir. Treated soil will usually remain thriving with nematodes for up to 10 years without the need for additional treatment. The nematodes eat any gnat eggs and larvae, preventing them from becoming adults.
Another safe product is diatomaceous earth. If you purchase the “food grade” quality of diatomaceous earth, it is safe for humans and small animals. For bugs and other creepy-crawlies, not so much. Diatomaceous earth is a soft, sedimentary rock made from fossilized diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae that is easily ground into a fine, white powder.
In its powder form, each grain of diatomaceous earth is jagged and sharp like a tiny shard of broken glass. To tiny insects and other crawlers, this is a dangerous thing. The jagged edges cut through insect exoskeletons and the softer bodies of worms and caterpillars. Not only is diatomaceous earth jagged, it is absorbent, so, once the creepy-crawler has been cut, the diatomaceous earth draws the moisture out of its body, much like pouring salt on a slug or snail.
In addition to pest control, your plants will need to be fertilized once every six weeks. You can purchase organic fertilizer as well as make your own compost.
While some people have the space for a trash heap-style compost area, most people putting in self-watering container gardens due to space limitations are not so lucky. There are small composters on the market that are suitable for backyard and patio gardening that have the added benefit of drainage systems to collect compost tea. A compost heap sitting on the ground does not allow for collecting compost tea; all its liquids soak into the ground beneath your compost heap each time you wet it.
If your space is seriously limited, you may need to choose a composter that can double as a stand upon which a self-watering bucket container can sit when the composter is not being filled, turned, or watered. This, however, means manually moving the container each time you need to open your composter. You need to weigh the inconvenience against how badly you really want both the composter and that one extra self-watering bucket container in your garden.
You and your learner can always make your own small composter out of a 5-gallon bucket and a lid. Just drill holes around the outside of the bucket near the top to let it breath and a drain hole near the bottom so you can run water through it to dampen the contents for composting and to drain off compost tea for your plants.
With the lid on it, you and your learner can stack a self-watering bucket container on top of it easily and still take up only 1 square foot of space. If you have a corner that is dark lower to the ground, stacking a self-watering bucket container on top of a 5-gallon compost bucket with a lid could raise the plant up high enough to get enough light, solving two problems at once.
You and your learner will have to shake the compost bucket occasionally to mix up its contents and promote the composting action, which can be messy if the contents are still wet. It’s best to shake it when it’s fairly dry and then wet the contents. Be sure to have something into which you and your learner can drain off the excess fluid as compost tea when you wet the compost.
Another factor to consider, though, is that composters can sometimes smell pretty bad and you don’t want them sitting close to people’s living spaces, particularly open windows and patio or balcony doors. You may find that making your own compost just isn’t that feasible, in which case you can buy fresh compost from many local organic farmers, feed and seed stores, and garden centers.
You can also combine organic fertilizer and a few handfuls of dried straw into your containers when you change them over from one crop to the next. It’s also helpful to put live earthworms in your containers to help aerate the soil and break down chunkier bits left over from compost or bits of straw. In the process, the earthworm waste becomes additional fertilizer for your plants and as old worms die, their bodies fertilize the soil, as well.
If you do choose to purchase a composter, consider a vermiculture composter that relies on earthworms to help compost your waste. You can’t put citrus or too many coffee grounds into a vermiculture composter, as the acidity may kill your earthworms. Keep your vermiculture composter healthy and, as the earthworm population increases, you can transfer a few worms to each of your self-watering bucket containers to improve your plants’ soil.
If you compost, do not put any animal wastes other than eggshells in your composter or you will draw rats and other vermin. Limit your composter to green wastes such as lawn clippings (provided they aren’t covered with chemicals), kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, leftover grain dishes like oatmeal and cooked rice, old bread, fruit and vegetable juices, the leftover water from steaming or blanching vegetables, etc. You also need to add dry waste, such as dried fallen leaves, shredded cardboard, old newspapers, paper grocery bags, or dried straw.
Feeding good nutrients to your plants will promote their healthy growth and development. It should be pointed out to your concrete learner that this is the exact same effect that eating healthy foods has on a human body and that fruits and vegetables grown from healthy plants become healthy foods for humans. By the time your fruits and vegetables are ready to harvest, your learner should be eagerly awaiting the opportunity to eat the healthy foods that he/she has helped you grow.