Introduction: Vermiponic Garden

About: Fixer, Finder, Fabricator. I teach engineering to high school students, at St Marys Secondary College in Nathalia VIC Australia
If you read this your probably thinking WTF is a Vermiponic Garden.  Basicly  is a cross between a traditional soil garden and Hydroponics. I'm not a fan of Hydroponics as some food tastes "not right" . Buying chemical nutrient and having to disinfect the system does not appeal to me. Also some crops may not able to be grown Hydroponicly (root vegetables)  I had a look at an Aquaponics and though I quite liked the system there where some things I didn't like about  it such as the energy consumption of the pumps and that amount of fish in a small amount of water can cause problems with all the fish dyeing. edit  26/7/12 Just a note on growing root vegetables. A number of readers have pointed out that some people have successfully grown root crops in both a hydroponic and aquaponic systems. I have also spoken to "experts" who have told me no way, there are problems with crops going rotten. give a short description on how to grow potatoes in a hydroponic system. I'm not able to grow a traditional  garden, as  we have extremely poor soil, water restrictions, low rain fall, and extreme weather events such as week long heat waves of 45C or 113F which will kill any veggie within hours.   I started this project about a year ago and at the time it was an experiment to try an address the above issues, I had never heard of vermiponics, and there is still not a great deal of info about it. It wasn't until a few weeks ago I found that it had a name and there are some similar systems out there. Stupidly I didn't take a lot of photos and it is now July and the middle of winter so the garden doesn't look that good at the moment. I will up date photos every month for the next year or so.

Step 1: How It Works

At first glance you might think its just a garden in a box, but there is a little more to it than that. The IBC containers have had the liner removed from the cage and cut in half. The bottom half is put back in and the top half is put on top but upside down. Small holes are drilled for drainage and the bottom have become water storage. The bottom tanks are joined together with poly pipe and a solar pump, pumps water to the top storage tank. The top storage tank has a siphon inside it and that trips off around every half hour in full sun, which waters the plants. The plants are grown in soil and taste fantastic (no sad watery acid hydroponic tomatoes here) The soil in this area is very poor and aqua-phobic ( will not absorb water) so  I use a mixture of soil, animal manure, lawn clippings, leaves, food scraps,wood ash and a box of worms to get it started. The worms have gone mad and turned the soil in to rich dark loam and the plants have thrived. Below the soil is several layers of shade cloth to keep the soil out of the layer of gravel which is at the bottom of the top tank and to provide drainage and a home for microbes. The water then drains into the bottom tank and the process starts again. I had a problem with mosquitoes in the bottom tanks when first set up, a couple of gold fish in each tank soon fixed that. Another problem when first set up before the worms became established was the soils poor nutrient level as the plants were not growing very well, some organic liquid fertilizer helped in those first few months As the worms started working the water became so full of nutrients that it became possible to grow leafy greens in a gravel bed. Here is my first crop of lettuces grown in gravel.

Step 2: Stuff You Will Need

  • IBC containers can be purchased cheaply and some places give them away, just check the condition, (holes or UV damage)  and contents as they may have been used to transport some nasty chemicals or herbicides which wouldn't be good for you health.
  • Poly pipe and fittings are cheap as chips, and can be purchased almost anywhere
  •  Irrigation grommets are a little harder to find, try a big irrigation suppler
  • Solar panel and pump ebay is great for this sort of stuff but make sure that it has a good head height at least 2 meters
  • 60 to 100 litter plastic drum
  • Tech screws
  • Gravel
  • Compost, soil, manure, worms
  • Shade cloth or similar material to keep dirt out of the gravel, but allows water to pass through
  • Tools cordless drill, jig saw, hole saw etc

Step 3: IBC Modifcation

The IBC are around 1000 litres and about 1 meter high without the forklift pallet on the bottom. I  found them too high with the pallet  attached so I removed it and sat it flat on the ground. First thing to do is to drain any of the product out of the tank and wash it out. Most  IBC have 2 bars on the top holding the liner in so just remove the bars and drop out the liner. Mark out and cut in half and tech screw the bottom liner in place to stop the top of the liner collapsing. Next  tech screw the 2 bars you removed from the top and fit half way up the cage, and drop in the top, upside down. Tech screw this into place and drill some drainage holes in bottom. Repeat to as many IBC you think you will need. Connect the tanks together with the grommet fittings and poly pipe (you will need the right size hole saw for this)

Step 4: Making the Worms Welcome

Once you have your growing bed in position and is reasonably level, throw in a layer of gravel, then shade cloth or similar material  to stop the soil getting into the gravel. Then layers of straw, soil, wood ash, grass clipping, tip mulch, leaves, food scraps, animal manure, sawdust, even paper and cardboard worms will eat most things. Perhaps surprisingly I found that worms favourite food is wood ash, just a thin layer of each, seems to work best. top of with a layer of mulch and throw in some worms

Step 5: Setting Up the Irrigation

The solar pump and panel are easy enough to set up, just put the panel on a stick and throw the pump in the tank with a hose on it. (make sure its a submersible pump!) if you use a non submersible pump make sure you put a filter on it as the gold fish like to swim up the pipe and get stuck in the pump (don't ask how i know this) stop laughing! The hard part is setting up the syphon system. These little pumps don't have the flow to run all the sprinklers at once, and that would not be a good thing as the plants would drown.  A siphon gives the plant a drink about every half hour for 2 or 3 minutes in full sun, less on cloudy days and nothing at  night or rainy days. I was hoping to find a few good GIFs to explain, sadly that's the best I could find. The siphon is commonly used in aquapnoic systems and there is loads of info on youtube and other websites. The GIF is a bell siphon and is basicly the same principal for all siphons, I have used the 2 loop siphons shown in the diagram, the internal siphon inside the top tank, and the normal loop on the gravel grow bed. They can be tricky to set up but once working they require no maintenance and are very reliable. Here are some pointers.
  • Use tube that keeps its shape (does not crush) as even a small amount of flatness in the tube upsets the siphon.
  • Use clear tube so you can see the water flow and how it works.
  • The path of the tube needs to be circular as shown
  • It s important for the siphon to get a big gulp of air at the end of its cycle as this stops the flow of water
  • Attach the end of the siphon to the side of the grow bed not the bottom as shown in the diagram as it works better on the side.
  • The siphon requires a high flow of water to get started and to stop, so if you plan on having sprinklers attached  you will have to have a bleed off  to keep the flow rate up. This can also regulate the amount of water the garden beds get. It also helps to get the tank as high as possible.
  • It will take a few tries to get it right
  • On the internal loop siphon that  I made is circular ( like the loop siphon)  and tied some elastic to the top of the loop to  give the tube a bit of "spring" this makes the siphon stop more reliably as it jumps up a little when it gulps some air.

Step 6: More on Irrigation

Just a couple more things on the irrigation. I fitted a ball valve to a  bottom tank which keeps the water from over flowing when filling up. As the system uses very little water it can be several weeks before the level goes down. The water turns a light tea colour and the fish seem happy enough they have certainly increased dramatically in size Here is a couple of photos of the siphons, the one inside the top tank is hard to photograph but the elastic is shown at the top of the tube. The "sprinklers" are just 2.5mm holes drilled in the tube which are easy to keep clean and very cheap. To link the tanks together I used these rubber grommets that I got from an irrigation supplier, the work well and don't, leak just drill a hole and push in the grommet and then the fitting.  And finally some quick cad drawings of the siphon system with the bleed valve. I found that it certainly was worth the effort and we have had a huge amount of food from this small garden. We were able to grow capsicum  (bell peppers), basil, egg plant, tomatoes, zucchini lettuces, melons, beetroot, spring onions, cucumbers, in amounts that we gave much of the veggies away. The last photo is of the cover that was put on to stop the frosts, (thanks piks) in spring and summer it had no cover and the small amount of rain helped kept the tanks topped up. The cover has small holes in it, again so when it rains  it helps fill up the tanks.

Step 7: July (Winter)

July is the middle of winter here and we have had record frosts and rain fall, so the garden is not doing much, the worms and fish are working well and I have been putting lots of food scraps and mulch down for the worms which  they are consuming very quickly. Some self sown potatoes have popped up, the tomato and capsicum plants are looking a bit second hand as the frosts got them. The celery has gone mad as has the lettuces. Broccoli  plants have just started to grow and the parsley and spring onions are doing well. I will pull out some of the older plants and get some new crops in the ground when the weather settles down.

Step 8: August (winter)

It has been a long, cold and wet winter so the plants have been a bit slow. Some lettuces and tomatoes have been planted and so far have survived the frosts. I've made a new grow bed and filled it up with worm food and worms. The self seeded potatoes are growing very well

Step 9: September (spring Kind Of)

The weather is starting to warm up but still getting frosts, and cold days. The big changes is I made an ebb and flow gravel bed, just like the aquaponics systems have. The pump runs from a solar panel and a  battery, and I've just planted some lettuces, basil, and beetroot. The tanks are all connected together so the gravel bed will be getting its nutrients  from worm juice, and a little bit of fish poo, as there is only 12 gold fish in the tanks.

Step 10: October (spring)

October has been very cool for this time of year, and the garden has not had any water since I put in the new grow beds. It has also been very windy which blew the plastic sheet  off the green house so I pulled the remaining plastic off. The gravel grow bed has worked well, and we have had 2 or 3 salads a week for some time now. The leafy greens thrive in the gravel but the cucumbers and tomatoes  don't seem to like the  gravel grow bed and look quite yellow and stunted. I have also thrown some seeds in the gravel bed which have all germinate and has the bonus of the birds not wanting to dig up the new plants, I guess they don't like gravel. The Fish are becoming more active as the weather warms up and are keeping the insects down. The plants that are in the soil grow beds are doing well, but I have always had problems growing broccoli  as they attract all manner of pests and this year is no exception, they were attacked by pest unknown, I suspect rat, bat, possum  or a starving hobo.

Step 11: November (spring)

The weather here is still very cool for this time of the year. We have had 3 or 4 hot days follow by some very cool weather which has made the lettuces bolt. Almost every day we have been able to pick something out of the garden and have had 3 or 4 salads a week. in the last 3 week or so the zucchini s have really started producing and we are having them ever second night or so and already started giving excess  away. I had some success with potatoes but some of the plants were attacked by slaters which was a disappointment,  I need to be a bit more careful with the mulch introducing pests

Step 12: December January Summer

We have had some very hot and some unseasonable cool weather in December and this has made some of the plants bolt, If you look at the tomatoes you can see they have been sun burnt, and are now looking a bit sick. In January we had a heat wave with several days above 40 degrees C and high winds so some plants didn't survive.  I should really put some shade cloth over the garden. Egg plants and zucchinis are doing well but most other plants are struggling with the heat even the water melon are not happy. The fish are thriving and have increase dramaticly  in size, some have even become tame and you can now hand feed them. The warm weather has also increased their appetite they seem to be always hungry. 
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