Note: due to how much interest this article generated, we have since ended up building a whole new website just about wicking beds you can check out here: www.WickingBeds.com.au

We’ve created a sequence with all the info you need to get started building your own wicking bed – i.e., a veggie bed that waters itself from below. It’s based on our years of experience installing wicking beds in Melbourne, Australia. We sincerely hope your water wicks well and your garden grows green and lustrous. Let’s start with the basics—and wonders—of wicking beds:

On this page:

Elsewhere, on our wickingbeds.com.au site:

Adrian's apple crate wicking bed
Our web-guru Adrian’s wicking bed

When we first started Very Edible Gardens (VEG) back in early 2009, we had no idea what a wicking bed was. Then, after a year or so of installing raised vegetable garden beds all over Melbourne, someone whispered the words into our ears. “Wicking beds,” they said. “We want some wicking beds.”

“Wicking beds” we thought, smiling and nodding, then scratching our heads. “What on earth is a wicking bed?” So we did some research and, equal parts intrigued and skeptical, we started to experiment. Up till then, all our raised veggie beds had been either hand-watered or set up with ‘dripline’ irrigation. But now we started setting up wicking beds in old bathtubs:

bathtub wicking bed
A bathtub wicking bed
example

…and then, using plastic liner, in our raised VEG beds which are assembled from sleepers of locally harvested golden cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) timber:

Rowville wicking beds just finished…
And a few months later

So, What the Heck are Wicking Beds?

Invented by an Australian named Colin Austin, the idea with a wicking bed is that you prevent water from leaving the bottom of the bed with a waterproof liner or layer. This creates a water reservoir underneath the soil. Then, rather than having to irrigate by watering from above (via drip irrigation, a hose, watering can etc), the water literally wicks up into the soil from below, keeping it nice and moist.

Now, with all that water, this could easily get messy and even stinky. But, you prevent the weight of the soil from squashing all the water out – and making a muddy mess – by having the water sit within a layer of small stones, which is able to accommodate the water whilst bearing the weight of the soil (and your prize pumpkins!) without collapsing. You prevent the soil from washing down into gaps between the stones with a sheet of something that lets water wick up, but stops soil moving down.

The VEG Wicking Bed concept sketch

Photo of the Wicking Bed Reservoir
A little helper adds stones to the wicking
bed reservoir
water wicking up through stones
The wicking process in action: water moves
up the stones!
Cassie with geotextile fabric
Cassie from VEG explains the geotextile
fabric layer which separates the soil (coming
next) from the water reservoir

Then you have your happy soil and plants on top of this.

Jeremy and friends plant out wicking bed
Jeremy and friends plant out VEG Wicking Bed

The last essential piece of the wicking bed puzzle is that you need an overflow point (usually a pipe) so that the soil layer doesn’t get flooded, which would kill the soil life and plants by rotting their roots. (With the VEG Wicking Bed style ones you install them before you add the soil or stones.)

wicking bed overflow pipe
Our overflow system (now industry standard)
lets you also observe water levels
and periodically drain & flush your bed

As you’ll know if you’ve researched wicking beds online, the available information is scattered about the web in dribs and drabs and often with advice that contradicts what the other site said. So, taking it all with a grain of salt, we set out to learn by doing, our initial intention to prove to ourselves that wicking beds didn’t work. We gave it a pretty good shot, and in the process we learned a lot, and refined how we go about them enormously.

We’ve condensed all this knowledge into our How to Make a Wicking Bed sequence. But before you rush out and build one, take a moment to consider the pros and cons…

Pros and Cons

Q. “How do I know if wicking beds are right for me?”

Let us level with you here. Yeah, we sell these things. And we love them. But, we’re not interested in selling them to anyone where it’s not the right solution. Jeremy (our sterling Wicking Beds Manager) needs some days off to practice his drumming anyway. So this is our truest, honestest, bestest list of the formidable pros, and some realistic cons of wicking beds. So read on, to help decide whether or not wicking beds are the right choice for you.

Pros

  • Easier gardening. In the garden, overwatering can be just as big an issue as underwatering. With wicking beds, the observation pipe eliminates the guesswork of knowing when and how much to water!
  • Happier, healthier, more productive veggies. Veggies love wicking beds because they a provide low-stress environment of constant, optimal moisture, good for soil life, and good for your plants. You’ll get more food, from less space! Here’s an easy visual to help:

     

    The Wicking Bed H2O sine wave

  • Less weeds. In wicking beds, the surface of the soil is relatively dry, making it more difficult for weeds to germinate.
  • Use less water. Oh, we haven’t mentioned this yet? Wicking beds flourish with a lot less water than normal raised beds. Think something in the ballpark of one third to one half less water for each kilogram of produce.
  • Water less often. Wicking beds need watering much less often, meaning plants will survive and thrive for days, or even a couple of weeks, even if you go away during in a heatwave.
  • Grow on any surface. Wicking beds are a great solution for spots where eucalypt or other vigorous tree roots might invade the bed. As water and nutrients are prevented from soaking through the bed base, the trees won’t even realise the veggie bed and its rich soil is there! Wicking beds can be built on top of concrete, paving or contaminated soils, while keeping the soil in the bed separate from what’s underneath.

Cons

  • Trickier to install. Wicking beds require some technical understanding and skill to be built properly; they can leak, or over-saturate the soil, either due to poor design or being installed incorrectly. (Our kits are designed to make it easier and come with clear instructions though, so you get it right the first time!)
  • More expensive. Wicking beds typically cost a bit more to set up than non-wicking beds.
  • More materials. Wicking beds generally require some non-renewable materials, i.e. poly pipes and liner, as well as screened crushed rock which is probably fairly energy intensive to produce. (We minimise this by using food-grade poly liner, and poly components, rather than PVC, for human health and environmental reasons.)
  • You can break them (if you try hard enough). Wicking beds are not quite idiot-proof once installed. For example, it is possible to pierce the liner if you drive a tomato stake into a wicking bed too deep and enthusiastically. Trust us, we’ve repaired damaged beds, and it’s not fun to dig everything out to replace the liner!
  • Some training required. Wicking beds do require a little bit of knowledge or training to be used properly – what we mostly mean here is keeping the water level topped up through the inflow pipe rather than surface watering, draining the reservoir occasionally, and not hammering in tomato stakes… It’s actually very easy! But they may not be appropriate if a wide variety of untrained people manage the beds.

If you think they are for you, you can jump straight to checking out our kits, or contacting us about installation services.

They just work!

Ok, so you do want to consider your options, but here’s what one client, Rosalie, said about her beds:

The original two wicking beds were so successful that I had the other three converted. One of the original two was planted with silver beet when I went away in Sept 2014 and another non wicking bed also planted. I was away for four weeks. When I came back the difference between the two beds was amazing. One was lush, the other just OK. This was what convinced me to convert the other three.

As for water usage, they are a miracle. I have only a 3000L tank and it would regularly run out in the first month of summer. Since the wicking bed installs I have had two summers and the tank hasn’t run out for either. I know this has a lot of other variables like temperatures and rainfall, but anecdotally they save water. I fill them once a week, or twice if we have baking heat in the high 30s+. It takes far less time to fill them than if I had the dripper system running – i.e., minutes as opposed to hours.

@ VEG Wicking Bed
headquarters

The reason we recommend and install so many wicking beds is that they work. In Melbourne’s hot dry summers the veggies continue to thrive with a fraction of the water otherwise required. On the two occasions we have installed or converted one or two of a larger number of raised beds as wicking, the customers have both in short order got us back to convert the rest. The difference in plant health and growth is just so stunning.

Getting a Wicking Bed

Righteo then! If you’d like a hand getting your wick on in your backyard, then there are three main ways we can help:

  • Go it alone option. First, if you are anywhere in the world, you can read and apply for yourself our unique process of installing wicking beds: How to Make a Wicking Bed (free – yay!)
  • VEG Wicking Kits option. Second, for anyone in Australia, we can post you one of our wicking bed kits (including detailed instructions) so you can convert or build your first wicking bed knowing you have the right components.
  • Fully installed option. Third, for anyone in Melbourne, we can come and fully install raised wicking beds at your place where we supply everything (if you want we can even supply and plant the veggies). Alternatively, we can come and convert your existing raised veggie beds to wicking in most cases. Just drop us a line!

 

Note: due to how much interest this article generated, we have since ended up building a whole new website just about wicking beds you can check out here: www.WickingBeds.com.au

Authored by VEG director Dan Palmer with much-appreciated help from VEG team members Cassie Carter and Carey Priest.

Thanks to our mate Todd from the Deep Living Project for producing this lovely little clip in which Dan from VEG talks through some of the first stages of implementing the whole-farm design...

Regenerative Agriculture- Broadacre Farm Design from The Deep Living Project on Vimeo.

 

Last week Dan had a lovely few hours finishing off the implementation of ediblising the tiny backyard of Bev & Graeme in Rowville, Melbourne. You can read about phase one of the project here. With the grass out of the way and the two big VEG wicking beds in place, Dan's job was to plant out the fruit trees and perennial understory plants in the remaining space. Here's a short clip of the process (including what Bev and Graeme saying what they made of it all at the end) followed by a few photos...

 

 

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The before before photo... 

 

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 The VEG wicking beds going full steam ahead...

 

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 Bev thinned a few carrots as Dan dug...

 

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 The space before Dan started...

 

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 And after! For more photos of the whole process see here.

 

 

Dan and his family visited Michael at Yandoit Farm a few days back for a leisurely stroll to see how the recently completed earthworks are all coming along (completed with much help from designer Darren J Doherty and top-notch dirt-pusher Graeme Jennings). Very gratifying to see two of three dams fill to overflowing and the third about halfway there (one of the inlet drains just needing a tiny bit of cleaning up before it also works a total treat) and all the roads settling down nice and firm as they gently flow around the break of slope through the entire property. Here's a short vid of some of the entry driveway and homestead dam:

 

 

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The stunning homestead dam 100% full...

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A few more pics are here.

Today we knocked off this lovely little VEG chook system (house, strawyard and run) and raised VEG bed in Thornbury. Came up a treat and here's some shots of Will (in a very good mood, as usual) with the freshly finished setup.

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 Behold Will Power!

 

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 Drink anyone?

 

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Very snazzy - automatic door!

 

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Lovely detailing of the gate and run fence here...

 

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Err, Will, ahh, not such a good look man - an escapee already? Quick get it out of the way before anyone notices and let's make sure we never share this photo ;-)

 

These & more pics here:

 

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  • Today we (Matt, Josh, Will & Trevor) finished four beds on a job in Hampton. Here's the design we completed for the property, way back in 2012:

     Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 7.47.52 pm

     

     And here are some shots of the beds that have just gone in (after the tank and prior to the paving which starts tomorrow!):

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    Four rectangles and one custom-shaped to wrap around the fence. All wicking.

     

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    Nice lines!

     

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    What workmanship!

     

    A few weeks back Dan completed a VEG preliminary permaculture design consultation in Woodend. Here he shares the process.

    The VEG Design Process

    The below diagram summarises VEG's approach to permaculture design, and unless you are particularly interested in such matters, just notice the four main phases - observation (of people and place), design (concept then detailed), implementation, and management. Here we'll show how we went through the first two phases with a little bit of the third and forth thrown in too (it just so happened that VEG's Will and Josh constructed a VEG compost bay system as the design unfolded, and that they are now in use).

    The VEG Design Process

    1a. People Analysis & Assessment

    So step one after a quick first impression (and in this case downloading an aerial photo on the train on the way there) was to share a cup of tea with our lovely customers Elvira and Jan. Again I won't bore you with the details, but the most important thing this resulted in was first a stated purpose for the design in terms of the flavour of the space the design was intended to help realise, and second a wishlist of desired items.

    With the stated purpose I started by asking for some words Elvira and Jan would like to be true of their garden. They said “colourful, green, relaxing, light, kid-friendly & welcoming, eat from garden most days, private, free of ivy, full of life, multiple spaces

    As it was only a prelim consult and we had to push on I quickly worked these into the sentence:  “Our garden is a colourful, green, relaxing and private space that is full of life, fruit, and veggies. With multiple spaces to explore, it is welcoming, safe and friendly to kids, and free of ivy.”  I read this out to Elvira & Jan and asked them if it felt good and right and true to what they both wanted (it did - based as it was on their own words - in fact they got quite excited to hear their future garden described!).  This sentence gave the whole consult a solid grounding - once you have a statement like this, you can assess all of the subsequent details to make sure they fit in with and contribute to it.

    The other important bit was the wishlist, which Dan grouped into the following areas:

    • berry patch
    • veggie patch (salad greens & kitchen herbs as well as main crop beds)
    • fruit trees (were keen on both deciduous and evergreen)
    • natives
    • utility area (greenhouse, propagation, outdoor sink, compost bays)
    • possible future tank
    • lawn
    • entertaining areas

    1b. Site Analysis & Assessment

    Here is the basemap of the site, with the legal property boundaries overlaid on an aerial photo (accessed from nearmap.com which we subscribe to - is generally more recent and higer resolution than google):

    Basemap

     

    Next here is a rough sketched summary of the site analysis focusing on relevant forms on incoming energy (wind, views, sun) and the microclimates or differences across the site, diagrammed as overlapping bubbles, blobs or clouds with rudimentary labels: 

    Microclimates

     

    2a. Concept Design

    Having done the people and site analysis & assessment minimum justice, we moved into the design phase where we start by locating, shaping and sizing the required areas (as opposed to the individual bits and pieces). The concept design looks much like the microclimate analysis - with overlapping blobs. To paraphrase Christopher Alexander, here we are massaging crinkles into the site, though what we are largely doing is relabelling crinkles that the site actually massaged into us! (during the site analysis). Here is my concept design for this site:

    ConceptDesign

    2b. Detailed Design

    Once the customers have been talked and perhaps walked through the concept design, and their feedback incorporated, we then detail the design, moving from the placement of overlapping areas to the placement of distinct things, taking into account the site and its microclimates, access and circulation patterns, and making as many positive connections as possible. Here is the detailed design Dan next knocked up (whilst still on site - design rendering is much easier when you're still there!):

    DesignSketch

     

    Note that while the detailed design might look more impressive, the germ of the design, the underlying pattern, is in the concept design. The rest is details, variations on an underlying theme. I also like to record a short video clip talking through the design before I leave, often a great idea and much easier for many people to get a flavour for the thinking behind the design and what the garden will look like post implementation:

     

    3. Implementation

    So the compost bays were implemented in conjunction with the design, and here are some photos of that process:

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  • Elvira and Jan also have a working bee in a week or so and look forward to making some major progress on the rest of the design with 20 or so helpers on site.

    4. Management

    Great to hear from Elvira a few days back that the first compost bay has been filled and is steaming away and the microbes do their thing.

    Anyways that's one example of the VEG design process which in this case unfolded over about 4 hours on site and 1 hour off site, and which included a report (32 pages though much of it generic) talking through the details of the design with plant suggestions and whatnot.

    A short clip of a VEG Chook system VEG's Will & Josh installed in an Aberfeldie backyard a few months back. Quite a remarkable number of cords, ropes and pulleys involved in this one!

     

     

    This morning VEG's Josh & Dan had fun leading a workshop with Craigeburn residents in which we installed and planted out a wee roughsawn cypress VEG bed. Here's some happy snaps that were taken along the way.

     

    Yikes - no pressure!

     

    Step one is always getting there. Big thanks to Carey for having the ute ready to roll with absolutely everything we needed.

     

     After some discussion we decided this was the best spot for the bed. Enough shade and wind protection and one leap from the cafe kitchen!

     

    Whilst Josh got the wonderfully diverse group of participants putting the bed together...

     

    Dan explained the logic behind our chosen spot

     

    The final touches were put on the bed...

     

    And Dan got to know a shovel again...

     

     

    Many hands making light work...

     

    After a bit of barrowing we realised the trailer was a big barrow!...

     

    Bed full and mulched Dan demonstrated best practice in seedling planting...

     

    Then everyone went nuts!

     

    And cafe goers couldn't resist a peek ;-)

     

    Josh was in his element!

     

    It came up a treat and will look fantastic in about three or four weeks when everything reaches harvest-stage

     

    The crew - great vibes of excitement and several participants wanted to have individual photos with us. It was like being mistaken for Jamie Durie or something! We enjoyed the brief burst of popularity while we could though, don't you worry about that.

     

     ...and with cafe owner Mario

    All in all a ripper morning - more photos here and thanks to Sophie Grainge from LaunchBox who took and kindly shared several of the above pics.  

     

    Last Saturday VEG met some of the nice folk at Dunkley Village in Highett for a herb growing workshop, and today Matt, Josh & Will went back to up the ante. Matt & Josh installed another lovely wicking bed, while Will enthused everyone with not only a workshop on growing your own veggies, but sent participants home with a freshly planted timber planter box to keep on growing.

    These two "Grow it Yourself" events have been part of the broader Good Living Project setup by Kingston & Bayside City Councils, with more workshops coming up.

    Here's a photo of the bed going in:

     

    And boy-oh-boy didn't it come up right purty!

     

    And here's a photo of the workshop during which participants got to plant out and take home their very own mini VEG beds to nurture and enjoy.

    This week we started a fun transformation of a small backyard in Rowville.

    Here's the design we completed last year...

     

    And here's how it looked Tuesday morning when we arrived with our shovels...

     

    Let the digging begin!...

     

    One by one, the (wicking) beds go in...

     

    And the stones are coming through...

     

    Matt in the zone...

     

    Trellis posts going up...

     

    And the first stage is complete (we'll come back when the weather cools for a plant-up)...

     

    Bev & Graeme admiring their new wicking beds...

     

    And being shown how to drive em!

     

    Thanks to Bev & Graeme for being such lovely customers and to VEG team members Matt, Will & Josh for making such a lovely job of it. Also thanks Bev and Graeme for subsequently sending this feedback through (and giving us permission to share it):

    "Also want to say 'Thank you" again. Delighted with everything so far and we look forward to having the team back to do the planting. Just fantastic that nothing was too much trouble and being told, "We want you to be happy"  was just wonderful.  Also amazing and heart warming that all concerned shared our concern, and made such a great job  of keeping our little "foster" dog in and safe"