When we travel, we love food tours, spice markets, and farm tours. You get to see the raw materials that go into crafting amazing food.
The general rule for delicious food is that the fresher the ingredients, the better the taste.
Nothing tastes better than veggies from your own container garden — like vine-ripened tomatoes that have never been transported or tender leafy greens freshly picked just a few minutes before you want a salad.
Being in Brooklyn, having a real dirt backyard is a luxury we don’t have. So for the past few years, we’ve been doing some urban farming through a sub-irrigated container garden on our terrace.
Container Gardening in Brooklyn
When we started our container garden, here’s what we aimed for in our terrace garden:
- Grow food we like to eat
- Have lots of it to eat
- Do as little daily work as possible (I gots other shiz to do)
The first few years, we had around 30+ containers on a 9’ x 12’-ish terrace — it basically took over the whole space. We grew what we liked and had lots of it. Here’s the garden at it’s peak.
Yeah yeah, it looks a little excessive. But we had lots of variety and bountiful harvests — tomatoes, kale, lettuce, ground cherries, eggplants, and lots more.
It’s surprisingly easy how seed + soil + water + sun = delicious food.
Automating Container Gardening
As far as doing as little work as possible (but eating as much as possible, NOM NOM NOM), the solution was to have the terrace garden self-water.
Woah there, how can you train plants on your terrace garden to water themselves?? Our solution was in two parts: 1) Sub-irrigate the container garden, and 2) Automate the watering via a water timer.
All the containers (5 gallon Home Depot buckets and plastic bins) were sub-irrigated. This meant water was supplied from the bottom up through a reservoir. So instead of watering the plant from the top, you just keep the reservoir topped off. The reservoir would only need to be watered during the peak of the growing season.
Water was supplied through a McGyvered (seriously hacked) together water supply line from the top, and the system was connected to a watering timer.
Problems With Automating Container Watering
Like all things hacked together, they typically get the job done but not very well. The main issue automating was around the water supply line.
The top problems were:
- Some containers received too much water
- Some containers received not enough water
- Tubing and barbs (the t-connectors) would come off when the water pressure was too high
- Hanging planters were not automated had to be manually watered
This season, we looked to solve some of these container gardening problems and found a surprisingly easy solution through drip irrigation.
Drip Irrigation + Container Gardening
Drip irrigation is a system of tubes that deliver water directly to a plant. Well apparently, there’s a whole category of products around drip irrigation. Geez, could have solved this problem a long time ago just by Googling better.
Here’s what our drip irrigation system looks like installed. We got our materials from Drip Depot, an online drip irrigation store. They had helpful videos, free shipping, and cheap prices.
The base is a water spout that connects to a water timer, backflow preventer, pressure regulator, and then to the drip irrigation mainline tubing.
I used lots of elbow connectors here for the mainline. Nice and tidy. Leakproof too.
Drip line tubing (the thinner tubing) is connected to the mainline, each with an adjustable water emitter. For our sub-irrigated containers, the water emitters go directly into the reservoir via the white pvc pipe.
For the hanging containers, we use stakes to position the water emitter in the right place.
These are adjustable so you can really crank out the output on a per emitter basis.
Cost of Drip Irrigation Container Gardening
Our current container garden has 19 containers. You can buy a kit from Home Depot or from Drip Depot (cheaper and more customizable). Drip Depot has a ton more education and videos so I bought from there.
Here’s my drip irrigation shopping list on Drip Depot. I started with a basic kit and then added/removed items based on a rough sketch of the new system.
- Polyethylene Tubing 1/4” @ 100ft
- Polyethylene Tubing 1/2” @ 50ft
- Perma-Loc Tubing x Female Swivel Adapter 3/4″ FHT to 1/2″
- Adjustable Dripper, 180 Degree
- J10 Hose Vacuum Breaker
- Perma-Loc Tubing Tee 1/2”
- Senninger 3/4″ Hose Thread Pressure Reducer, 25 PSI
- Perma-Loc Tubing End Cap 1/2”
- Perma-Loc Tubing Elbow 1/2”
- 6″ Micro Tube Stabilizer Stake
- Barb Tubing Tee 1/4”
- Barb Tubing Coupling 1/4”
- Goof Plug 1/4”
- Standard Punch
Total cost of the new drip irrigation system from Drip Depot was about $50ish, excluding the water timer ($25). This ends up being about $4 per container. I’m estimating an estimated useful life of 3 years. This makes it an amortized $1.33 per container per year. Also, we can scale up with capacity of up to about 150% of current.
All in all, we typically grow well beyond $1.33 worth of food per container per season. A conservative estimate would be around $20 of value per container. Also, I’m estimating this would save at least 20 hours of labor time per season (via manual watering and hacking), well worth the $50 we spent on the new system.
Benefits of Drip Irrigation Container Gardening
There are YUUUGEEE benefits when it comes to a real drip irrigation system instead of a hacked together piping system for container gardening.
The main benefits include:
- Long-lasting commercial grade materials instead of hacking it together
- Pressure regulator and end caps to seal the watering system so there’s consistent water output at each container.
- The water emitters are adjustable so you can increase/decrease water volume to water hungry plants (like tomatoes).
- Easily scalable if you want to add additional outputs for a container or add more plants.
- Reduced a three zone system with three timers (old system) into one zone with one timer.
- Saves space and tidied things up.
Super excited to share more as summer comes along and the veggies start flourishing.
Even if you don’t have a ton of space or time, I’d highly recommend trying out growing your own veggies this season so you can have your own deliciously free food.
Next up for more automation would be to put in some soil moisture sensors and have a smarter system for watering, but that might be overkill. We will see!
PS: Want someone else to grow fresh veggies for you? Check out Square Roots, urban farming with weekly veggie delivery in NYC or check out your local CSA.2