Introduction: First-timer Hydroponic: the Wick System Incl. Vermiponics and Major Fail

About: I am just a guy who love making things Proud father of 2, I cook, build lots of things, learn new things (CAD, Arduinno...), gardening etc... Oh yes, I love cardboard, skateboards and Hydroponics/aquaponics! …

I have been growing a garden on my balcony for years now. Started to show my kids how plants were born, from seeds to fruits, it slowly turned into a kind of funny way to have fresh food at home. As a side effect it also appears to be a wonderful way to soothe me after a day of hard work.

Thus this year we decided to turn pro but I am a first timer. What is below is the fruit of active readings of books, internet websites, conversations with some very passionate shopkeepers... So please, let me know if I did something wrong or if you have lessons learned to share ;-)

Having an urban garden on a narrow balcony is not that easy. Especially when speaking about weight. A couple of research showed that, in France at least, the max weight allowed on a balcony in order to avoid issues (such as collapsing) , is 350 kg/m². This has to be understood as taking into account wet material.

In order to be sure to have a safe installation I decided to test new methods of growing vegetables.

Hydroponics has my favours as it has 2 main advantages regarding my situation:

  • it is lightweight,
  • it is efficient regarding the required space / production ratio

So hydroponics will allow me to grow more vegetables on my balcony while staying in the required safety conditions.

This is my first I'ble about my hydroponics projects. I have 2 more coming and will be posting the links here as I will post them.

As a first project I propose my very own version of the very classical Wick system

I like to recycle/upcycle material in my project. So is this one ;-)

What you will need:

  • 2 buckets (I have taken 5 liters, best with same diameter. Such buckets are widely available in restaurants. I got mine from my wife's school restaurant),
  • A PVC tube a bit longer than the height of your bucket,
  • An old synthetic fabric,
  • Expanded clay balls ( as growing medium, but you can use whatever you want from classical earth to dedicated hydroponic medium)
  • tools
    • hot glue gun
    • drill

Let's build it!

And if it happens that you like it, please vote!

You can also check my collection about my organic urban garden

Step 1: What's the Wick System

An hydroponic wick system is the most simple and reliable hydroponics system.. ever.... forever...

As it doesn't have any moving parts, you have little chance of failure. It doesn't normally require air pump even if some people still like using an optional air pump in the reservoir. Because it doesn't need electricity to work, it's the perfect candidate for my balcony (where I have no electricity...)

How it works?

This system wicks up nutrient from the reservoir to the plants using the process of capillary action. With 2 buckets, one on each other, water doesn't need to travel up very far to get to the growing media with plants. Be careful, capillarity action fights gravity thus water can't climb more than 50cm.

What to grow in?

As you have only the wick to provide food and water to your plant, at least until they have grown enough roots to reach by themselves the nutrients solution, wick system are not suitable for hungry thirsty plants. Prefer lettuces and herbs.

I will grow lettuces.

Step 2: Setting My Hydroponic Installation

Our 2 buckets will be stacked, one acting as a reservoir, the other one acting as growing area. Thus we have to drill holes in order to have the water going up (by capillarity) and to be able to feed the reservoir with fresh water using our PVC tube.

Flip one of your bucket up side down in order to have the bottom facing you. Place the top of the second bucket on the it (also up side down). Center them in order to have something straight and good looking.

Take your drill with a standard broach (I use wood-style 6 mm).

Make two holes:

  • One on the center,
  • One on the side with respect to your PVC tube outer diameter (so not too close from the walls neither too much on the center, you should be able to drill a larger all to place your tube)

Change drill to the hole saw. Choose a diameter suiting your PVC tube. Drill two holes using the previously made ones.

Place the top on the second bucket with the first bucket over it. Align the holes.

Take your glue guns and fix the assembly.

Step 3: Fix the Feeding Tube

According to the distance between your feeding hole and the wall of your bucket, cut a spacer in whatever medium you have. I personally used a wine cork as it is convenient, easy to cut and I have plenty of them ;-)

Fix your spacer on your tube, not to low in order to stabilize the tube but not too high neither in order to fix it to the wall. Use your best friend: the hot glue gun.

Once done, place the tube in the bucket and fix the spacer to the wall. I have then used my glue gun to fix the tube on the bottom of the bucket to strengthen the assembly.

We are almost done.

Just drill holes at the desired max level of water in the feeding bucket. This will act as a safety if it rains, avoiding your plants to be over-flooded.

Step 4: Allowing Water to Climb Up ;-)

A feeding line is necessary to allow water and nutrients to reach the roots of your plants: that's the wick.
After a while you can hope that roots reach the water surface but in the meantime you need a feeding line.

As I want to keep it simple, I have use a piece of synthetic fabric as wick.

From that piece, I have made a roll which is maintained by zip ties. On the side which will be feeding the roots and thus will be in contact with the medium I have cut bands in order to spread water and nutrients evenly.

When filling your bucket with your growing medium, take care to spread the feeding lines all around.

Step 5: Preparing the Growing Medium

As growing medium I have chosen expanded clay granulate.

I have read a lot of books about hydroponics and it seems to be one of the most versatile, easy-to-use, mutlipurpose and sustainable medium available.

My choice ended on this one. I choose this granulate because I have read that having different granulates diameters is important in Hydroponics. It allows water and oxygen to reach more easily the roots, thus avoiding rotting.

To prepare my medium I have :

  • measured the needed quantity of medium by filling the bucket (this is to avoid preparing too much medium and thus wasting time and energy),
  • washed the granulate in fresh water to clean all clay dust that could still be present due to the manufacturing and transporting processes.
  • Let them in fresh water overnight

Some are adjusting the pH and so, I haven't done that, it is Hydroponics level 2 ;-)

Our growing medium is now ready.

Fill your bucket with iit alternating granulated and wicks in order to have a constant watering of your medium.

Step 6: Planting and Initialising the Process

I have poured a little amount of granulate into my bucket.

I transfer my plants from their seeding and germinating pot to the hydroponic system. To do so, trying not to arm too much the delicate roots of my plants, I have made a hole into my medium and slowly, I have filled it with granulates. Seems to work fine.

As the wick as to be wet in order for capillarity action to start, I have poured wate. In addition, to start the process and start to feed my plants, I water them with filtered worm tea.

Everything is now reading to start.

Step 7: Note on How I Feed My Plant

Traditional hydroponics use mineral nutrients. I have issues to use them. I am not keen in using not sustainable nutrients solutions. In addition I feel bad at using those kind of products as I want my "production" to be organic...

I have read a lots of books about hydroponics an even if the nutrients themselves are natural, it is for me still chemicals and I feel strange being obliged to clean and disinfect the whole things after a round...

So I chose to go to vermiponics*. I have a wormery at home delivering good worm-tea. Worm tea is well known to be a wonderful nutrient solution. I will just use it. Most of the time, instead of filling the reservoir using the tube, I simply pour filtered worm tea on my plants and growing medium.

Works good even if I think it is certainly more risky regarding possible diseases. However I am not pro enough to take that thing into my plans right now.

I use filtered worm tea in order to avoid too much big parts of worm compost to be mix with my medium, providing potential home for unfriendly organisms.

As I am starting in hydroponics, if you have some feedback to share, I am in ;-)

*vermiponics is still a bit blurry for me. does it refer to using worm tea as nutrient solution or embedding worms into the growing medium (which seems strange to me as they are not amphibious...). Let me know if you know more than me (I am sure some do).

Step 8: First Results : a Total Fail

Three weeks later, all my lettuces are dead. I have dismantled my system and tried to evaluate the root causes.

  • Design of the system
    I don't think my design is faulty. I have used basic and used design from various sources around the web and books. The only thing I would do differently is to use net pots. Placing the plants inside the granulate bed is not that easy without pots. As it is very important to take an extreme care to the roots, net pots are a much better way to position the plants
  • Materials used
    I have washed my granulates with care and they are specially made for hydroponics. When Dismantling my system I realized that the key part of this kind of soil-less method, the wick, was dry. This is a pity because it was supposed to carry water from the reservoir to the roots. But the water stopped at a certain level, much lower that the actual size of my plant's roots...
  • Plants
    I did germinate myself the seeds and I did much more than necessary. All my other plants are alive so my plants were healthy. The only thing I would make differently on this side is to wait a little bit more before transplanting the plants in order to have stronger elements.
  • Fertilizers
    It turns out really early in the process that my production of worm tea will be too low to insure a good feeding of the plants. I decided to move to fertilizers and I bought some at my local grow shop. This will be one of the major challenge for the next try.

I will try to find a better material for the wick because I think it was the main reason of this fiasco. And I will try this again soon.

Let me know if you have some feedback, remarks or commentaries to share :-)

Step 9: First Timer Hydroponic Serie Summary

First timer hydroponic is a serie of three projects I have made regarding hydroponic. You will soon see them on I'bles.

I have had 3 systems running in parallel but I kept only two of them.

In the summer I plan to grow other vegetables on my existing systems such as paprika.

This is a great endeavour for me and my sons. They love taking care of our balcony garden and I hope it will worth all that love.

You can find the 2 other projects here:

  1. the DWC system
  2. the raft system
Gardening Contest 2017

Participated in the
Gardening Contest 2017