Monday, May 2, 2011

Horse Trough Gardening

land on San Juan Island, rocks, moss, madrona, trees

Our land is bed rock and not level. So to make a garden, we needed to terrace a sloping, south-facing hillside, making level areas for the beds. Also, since we're both seniors now, the need to save wear and tear on our backs sent us looking for a system of raised beds. Finally, we wanted a system that would conserve water because we rely on rain for our only water supply and face a 3-month dry spell every summer..

A good friend with decades of gardening and countless hours of garden magazine-reading under her belt, told us about an article she had read in Mary Jane's Farm about horse trough gardening. We found a pdf file on the internet showing amazing pictures from the experimental garden using this system (here). We decided to try it!

This raised-bed system features a 4" reservoir of water in the bottom of each trough, a feeder tube for adding water and an over-flow indicator hole in the trough. Although one must top-water a little at first, the plants soon begin to take their water from the reservoir. Less water is required than top-watering or drip-hose systems. Methods of planting, rotating crops and spacing follow the principles of "intensive gardening." More on that subject in later posts.

horse trough garden, animal watering trough garden

We ordered the troughs from our local building supply place. They come "nested," one inside the other, making one of them slightly smaller than the specified 2' x 6' x 2' deep.

The next step was to get PVC pipe for the water reservoir system at the bottom of the troughs. For each trough, we cut about 22 pieces of 4" perforated PVC pipe, 4" high. To make "soil legs" we cut 5 pieces of 4" non-perforated PVC pipe, 6" high and then drilled about 30 quarter-inch holes in each piece. We spaced these out evenly on the bottom of the trough.

Following the specifications from Mary Jane's Farm, we found a source (McMasters-Carr) for polypropylene screen, 3/16th inch thick with staggered 5/16th inch holes, to place over the PVC tubes to separate the water reservoir from the dirt above, and still allow the water to wick up into the soil. We made cardboard "patterns" from the shipping carton and then used a jigsaw to cut the screens to fit the troughs. We also cut five 4-inch holes in the screen for the "soil legs" and a 2-inch hole at one end for the filler pipe. Finally, we drilled a 1/2-inch hole at one end of each trough. We'll know when to stop adding water to the reservoir when it begins to drain out of this hole.

horse trough garden, animal watering trough garden

The assembled trough-innards look like this. The screen fits over the "soil legs" (which get filled to the bottom with dirt and help the water to wick upward) and rests on top of the 4" sections of PVC. The filler tube is inserted through the 2" hole in the screen. Now it's ready for the dirt. I'll write more about that in the next post.

By the way, we decided to fill only 2 troughs this year, our first attempt at gardening. But we created pads for a total of 8 troughs and plan to add more next year if it's working for us.


Tillie said...

I'm very interested in your progress. I'm in the Phoenix, AZ, area and was looking for a raised bed idea when I found your blog. I've never gardened successfully before. I hope this method will help me know how much to water and when. Do you just add water every day til the drain hole overflows? What vegetables are you growing? Thanks, Tillie

Bob Demar said...

Hi Tillie,
Thanks for reading our blog and good luck with this concept in Phoenix! We can't answer your questions by email because there's no link on your profile. So, we're going to write a post.. check out June 1 or 2.

Short answers:
Yes, we fill every day or every other day until drain hole overflows. Most days it takes VERY LITTLE or none. We are still top watering a little most days.

We are growing 5 varieties of lettuce, beets, carrots, spinach, 4 types of summer squash, sweet red peppers, cherry tomatoes, roma tomatoes, radishes, potatoes and strawberries.

Heidi said...

Hi! I'm planning to build 4 wicking beds in galvanized steel stock tanks this spring. I've seen two different concepts - one where the bottom of the tank is filled with gravel to create the water reservoir and this one where there is a plastic screen and pvc pipes to create the reservoir. Can you give some advice - if you had to do it again, would you use the method you did?

Bob Demar said...

Hi Heidi... Yes, we like the pvc/plastic screen method and would do more troughs the same way again. We also have a neighbor doing it this way and liking it. If finances are an issue, the gravel would probably work and be less expensive and easier. However, we believe the "soil legs" help significantly to wick the water upward even to youngish plants. Since we have water shortage issues, it's really good for us that we don't have to top water much, even with young plants. Good luck, whichever way you decide to go.

Mr. Joanides said...


Would love to email you about how your raised beds system is working out. I have a small area in which to garden that needs to be gopher-free, long-lasting, conserve water and attractive.

Stephan (Central Coast California)

Melissia M said...

How did your troughs work? Thinking of setting a couple up...however, it gets HOT where I am so I'm worried about cooking the plants. Please email me

John said...

Howdy the horse trough instruction link is not working can you post or send the pdf to my email.
thanks john o

Nicole Hopkins said...

anyway you could send that PDF via email for the irrigation as the link is not working? thanks!

Maggey said...

This is awesome!! Can you please email the pdf of the instructions? Thanks!!

Marca Walters said...

Hi Bob, we live near you on San Juan Island. We have a very sunny spot for our vegetable garden. Do you feel that the horse throughs get too warm in the summer?

Also, the link for the PDF seems to be gone. Is there a different site for finding it?

Thanks so much for posting this, it will give us ideas of what to expect on the Island.


Florian said...

horse trough garden, animal watering trough garden ...

Peter Link said...

Do you happen to have a link for the irrigation system? Garden looks amazing!

An Organized House said...

Hi Bob - This is exactly what I want to build for our raised bed. My husband already bought a trough, I'm just trying to piece together tow we'll make it. Do you have any suggestions or ideas for the barrier between the water & soil other than what you've used? I'm concerned about using polypropylene as a barrier since it has BPA, which could leach into the soil. We're in WA too - so glad to see your post!! Thank you!

Dreamin' Girl said...

I've used these same wicking trough designs - and left them when we sold the house. They work fantastically! We used them in the high heat, low water summers in the midwest. I had strawberries thrive in them, year round. I would intersperse with other crops through the seasons. Since it was hard to source the 'flooring', I used what I had on site - gutter guard mesh strips, covered by landscaping cloth.