My 2022 Garden: Automated, Ancient, & Modular!

Anyone who knows me well knows that I try to do a little gardening every summer. And not just that but I always use my garden as a way to combine my love of technology and automation with my appreciation of nature and the environment.

Last year was our first growing a small garden in the new (at least to us) climate of New Mexico. We had to contend with high winds, high temperatures, and a monsoon season. After growing a small garden on our deck in Colorado Springs, we discovered that the biggest challenges of gardening in New Mexico are the aforementioned extremes. However, a big benefit of growing in New Mexico is that the growing season is much longer. Oftentimes, in Colorado, with late spring snowstorms and the occasional cold snap in the middle of fall, it sometimes felt that if you blinked, you could miss the entire summer growing season! Out here, you can get started as early as February and go as late as November, or even just grow all year round if you have a way to cover your plants (that won’t get blown away in the wind).

Of course, these are all things we learned last year, often through mistakes. We started late in the season, lost quite a few plants at the height of summer when it was hottest and we missed a day or two of watering (not realizing just how quickly the plants would guzzle down the water in their reservoirs or the air would dry it right off the top of the soil before it could even reach the roots of our plants), and called the season over before it had actually ended!

This year, we endeavored to learn from those mistakes.

While, admittedly, we once again got going a lot later than we’d intended (I’m technically working 3 jobs at the moment, one full time and two part-time while Ryan is taking classes and preparing to earn his real estate license) because we’ve been so busy but we did finally get the bulk of our garden together, which so far this season, includes:

  • A weather station (gifted to me by my sweet father-in-law), I’ve been using it to gather environmental data about our backyard’s climate since it arrived and I had my husband install it atop our rickety pergola.
  • 1 mid-size compost tumbler
  • 2 connected Rain Barrels (converted from 32-gallon trash cans)
  • 2 – 3’x6′ galvanized grow beds (one of which is being irrigated with a system of DIY’d “ollas”) – These were gifted to us by my in-laws as well!
  • 3 (soon to be 4) DIY “Earthboxes” made from 30-gallon storage totes (connected with PVC pipes and auto-irrigated with a combination of Wifi controlled sprinkler timers and a flood/water sensor)
  • A small handful of planters of varying sizes

Our yard is… admittedly quite a mess and definitely needs some landscaping done BUT we’re in the process of paying down some debts so that will have to be dealt with later. For now, we’re focusing on getting our garden growing in the hopes that we’ll continue to build it out (and eventually beautify it) as we go!

As with just about every endeavor I undertake, I put all my ideas down on paper in a visual way. (Obviously, I have ideas/plans for the longer-term but you can also see where I’ve laid out different elements of the garden and how we’re starting to realize them).

I may still write out much deeper explanations or guides to how I’ve put these things together but for now, I just wanted to highlight some of the things I’m most proud of when it comes to our unassuming little garden. We’ve barely begun growing (we still need to get ALL our seedlings transferred from our little indoor greenhouse into the ground outside) but I’m pretty psyched to see how my ideas and efforts will (hopefully) ultimately help to keep our garden alive (maybe even thriving) through automation and neat little elements of engineering/building.

Modular

Last year (and the year before that when we were still living in Colorado), Ryan and I started growing plants in our own DIY “Earthboxes” – they’re essentially sub-irrigated planters built out of storage totes. You can find guides to building these things just about everywhere but they’re all based on the same concept: a reservoir of water below the soil with a small container that dips into the water which allows the dirt to pull water up into the soil through capillary action. As your plants grow and their roots lengthen, they’ll eventually reach the water and pull it up to the rest of the plant more readily. Ultimately, as long as the reservoir is filled, the plant always has access to the water it needs. The chances of overwatering or underwatering are decreased and you ultimately conserve more water because you’re not losing extra moisture to evaporation or wind.

Diagram of how a sub-irrigated planter works. Artistic rendering of a planter cut in half to show a water reservoir at the bottom, wicking fabric, growing material, and a plant at the top. There's also a fill tube on the side which goes all the way down into the water reservoir.
Image via “Inside Urban Green International”

Now, every guide I’ve seen has shown how to build each of these sub-irrigated planters and their own individual setup. Unfortunately, something Ryan and I discovered last year is that when you have to refill the reservoirs of multiple planters like this – it can take a good while. This also means that the more you scale your garden, the longer it’s going to take to fill all the reservoirs. You also can’t really automate watering when you have to transfer a hose from one planter to the next as each reservoir is filled.

So, my solution was to connect the planters to one another.

I built 5 (these photos were taken before I added the last two) of these planters using 30-gallon HDX storage totes from Home Depot.

Three plastic, navy blue storage bins are sitting side-by-side on the ground, connected by white PVC pipes, lined with bright blue fabric and filled with dirt. They're surrounded by grey rocks on the ground.

Two navy blue, plastic storage totes sitting side-by-side on the ground, connected by a white PVC tube. They are lined with a bright blue fabric and filled with soil and a few plants.

(last year, we used a handful of 18-gallon Sterilite storage totes from Target. Unfortunately, because of the dry heat of the New Mexico summer, they didn’t make it to this season. The plastic became super brittle and started to crack easily. So we decided to try and upgrade to heavier-duty storage bins this year. I wanted to use Home Depot’s super Tough 27-gallon storage bins but Ryan convinced me not to since they only come in black and we weren’t sure that having black storage bins wouldn’t ultimately “cook” our plants in the summer heat. This season, we’ve also placed our storage totes up against the house where they’ll get a little more shade later in the day).

I set up 2 bins designated as the “Start” bin and the “End” bin. The start bin would have the fill tube inside (a piece of 1″ PVC pipe cut at an angle (to prevent it from sitting flat on the bottom of the bin) and inserted into the corner of the bin – I used a zip tie to secure it. At the top of the pipe, I added a reducer (1″ slip x 3/4″ threaded) at the top so that I could screw a garden hose directly onto it. This bin (as well as the “End” bin) only had 1 hole drilled into the side and a 1″ Uniseal bulkhead adapter inserted into it.

Here’s where the system gets modular.

With a Uniseal bulkhead added to each side of the remaining storage totes, I can then insert a 1″ PVC pipe into each hole and then use a straight slip connector to connect each of the storage totes to one another (of course using PVC pipe also means you can do things like run two 90º angles to create a “U” so you could line up the bins along their long edges to fit more of them into a space). As long as all the storage totes are arranged on the same flat surface (or set up so that any slope runs along the connections so that gravity pulls the water to the end), then you can connect as many of these bins as you like and fill them all from a single point! MODULAR!

An inside view of the storage tote sub-irrigated planters. A hand is pointing at a PVC pipe sticking out through a hole in the side of the bin. The pipe is protected by a small plant pot and you can see segments of the drainage pipes on either side of the pot. A view of a storage tote from above. Inside are 2 segments of drainage pipe with two planter pots between them.

This isn’t an element of their modularity but I’ll add that, unlike previous years when I used the lids of the bins to create the divider which helps hold the soil separate from the reservoir, I opted to use segments of 4″ perforated drainage tubing to create the reservoir – I added 2 smaller segments to cover the pipes inserted into the bin so that when I added the divider which would hold the soil (in this case, an old shade sail that I cut into pieces to line each bin), it wouldn’t just slide in between the drainage pipes and block the water pipes from being able to fill the reservoir or allow overflow to move to the next bin.

I feel like each time I build one of these sub-irrigated planters, I find some new way to do it.

Ancient

I mentioned above that, in one of the galvanized planters, I’ve built a system of connected “Ollas” to help irrigate the planter. Apparently, the use of “ollas” or unglazed clay pots, to irrigate is a very ancient technique that’s beginning to make a comeback, especially amongst gardeners in desert climates.

“Because water seeps through the walls of an unglazed olla by using soil-moisture tension, one can use ollas to irrigate plants. The olla is buried in the ground, with the neck of the olla extending above the soil. The olla is filled with water, and plants such as tomatoes, melons, corn, beans, carrots, etc are planted around the olla.” (Source: Wikipedia).

A galvanized growbed with 4, upside down terra cotta pots, lined up and sticking out of the dirt. They are connected by a PVC pipe across the top of them.

The idea of connecting the ollas is not an original one. Global Buckets has already been connecting them to irrigate their bucket growing systems and I saw an image on Pinterest which showed how it can be done with PVC pipe (as opposed to irrigation hoses). I built my ollas using the clay pots and plates you can find at just about any hardware store (or Walmart) in the garden section. I found some threaded PVP reducers (much like the ones I used to connect our garden hose to the storage tote planters that I discussed above) which fit through the drainage hole in the bottom of the clay pots and screwed that onto a T-fitting (with the straight ends smooth and the center fitting threaded) with the addition of some silicone adhesive in between. Then I simply used the same adhesive to glue the clay pot, upside down, onto the plate. I then added a layer of clear silicone caulk to make sure all the seams were sealed and leakproof.

A terracotta pot is placed upside down on top of a terra cotta drainage plate. The pot's drainage hole has a PVC T-fitting inserted inside of it. It's sealed with Silicone caulk.

From there, I just had to place the ollas where I wanted them, and then connect them with lengths of PVC pipe. At the end of the system, I added a small segment of flexible tubing so that any excess water would flow down into a planter that we placed at the end of the grow bed. (I will note that we discovered that we needed to add a 4-way fitting to the end of the system, between the last olla and the flexible pipe, in order to allow air to escape as the ollas fill).

Automations

I still have plans to really build out the automation and data capabilities of my garden using various sensors and Arduino builds but that will have to wait until a growing season when we’re not so busy so I can get it all built out and setup!

Because we’re in the desert and we don’t get a lot of rain most of the year, we’ve opted to try and use our rain barrel for water storage which will help keep the ollas full. The hose that fills the rain barrels is set up on a Wifi sprinkler timer, which I’ve got set up to switch off for approximately 3 days when the forecast predicts rain and to switch off entirely during monsoon season. The rain barrel will have a special timer added to it (fun fact, if you don’t have enough water pressure, most water timers won’t work. If you’re using a gravity watering system – like you typically would with a rain barrel – you’re unlikely to reach high enough water pressure to use most timers). I found a timer on Amazon made specifically for gravity systems. This will make it so we can refill the ollas automatically (once we figure out the amount of time it takes for the majority of the water in the ollas to seep out).

An outdoor garden hose faucet with a 4-way connector attached. On 2 of the outputs, there are yellow valve devices controlled by Wifi.

I’m also using 2 Rainpoint Wifi Sprinkler Timers (and the included, required gateway, of course) along with a Govee Wifi Water sensor (again, there’s an included hub required for this to connect to wifi as well). One of the Rainpoint timers is connected to the water sensor via Homebridge which I have running on my little Raspberry Pi. We’ve determined that it takes abount 5 mintues to top-up the DIY “Earthboxes” so, that’s what I have that timer set to, and at the moment, I plan to run it every other day (once I’ve transferred the rest of the plants). Note – there ARE sensors you can get that go along with these timers, but in the interest of saving some $, we opted to just aim to keep the totes topped up with water for now. However, I’ve also got the water sensor set up so that when water begins to come out of the overflow hole in the last bin, it will hit the sensor.

These water sensors are technically made to alert homeowners of potential water leaks or flooding basements, etc. Most of them just play a loud alarm when they detect water. The Govee Wifi sensor can be set to just send a text alert – I’ve set it up to send an alert to my Homebridge which will switch off the Rainpoint water timer!

Now, the ultimate question: will this all work? Really only time will tell. At the moment, it’s all set up and functioning as expected BUT as far as whether this will all result in maintaining the health of our plants through a long, hot, dry, summer? Only time will tell but I’ll definitely post updates!

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