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Building an earthbag wicking bed garden…

May 20, 2012 | Appropriate Technology, Building, Community Projects, Gardening, Natural Building, Off-Farm goings on, Urban Permaculture, Vegetable Gardening | 17 comments | Author:

Earthbags are a great idea for building raised garden bed surrounds because of their simplicity and their strength.

Recently Nick led a community workshop to transform a townhouse patio into an edible landscape, with earthbag surrounds for a set of bathtub wicking beds…

The patio before the install
Wicking bed bathtubs arrive! And patio is cleared and ready for action.
Our mate Charlie from Ecolicious helped out, delivering a truckfull of earth left over after a pond had been dug for one of his current aquaponics installs…
Monique (patio owner) doing some prep by compacting the earth prior to the workshop…
The plan – a series of bathtub wicking beds, surrounded and supported by earthbag walls…
‘Tamping’ down the earth to compact it prior to laying the bags, using our trusty earthbag tampers…
Filling the first bag!

Nick did hourly explanations of the process to the rolling roster of workshoppers throughout the day…

Tamping the bags flat…

First course laid, with barbed wire on top to improve tensile strength between layers of earthbags…
Laying wire on top of the second course of earthbags…
Cuppa time!
Towards the end the daylight ended, but a stalwart crew pressed on to finish the job…
Fabulous workshoppers looking forward to pizza and beer appearing shortly after a big day…
The result the next day – raised bed walls are finished and sturdy, with bathtubs installed!

Following on from this workshop, Monique will be hard at it in the coming weeks installing the innards of her bathtub wicking beds, and planting up her garden! She’ll also need to render the outside of the bags to protect them long term, using some sort of waterproof render. Options for this include:

Hessian-crete – hessian bags dipped in a rapid-set cement slurry and then draped over the walls- we’ve never tried this, but we rekon it would work well, and use the least cement! > link to Burlap-crete project

Ferrocement (often used in rendering outside earthbag installations) – ferrocement garden beds in the Milkwood Farm kitchen garden, and an earthbag seat project using ferrocement

Hempcrete – with a stiff mix, this might be a possibility… Hempcrete Australia website

Many thanks to everyone who contributed their time and efforts towards a great day, from all across Sydney – it was great to have you all there! Thanks particularly to those stalwarts who stayed on past 4pm to finish the job… you all rock!

This workshop was held as part of the celebrations for International Permaculture Day, which is all about getting involved in community resilience, whether by touring a garden, attending a picnic or getting grubby whacking great long bags of earth…

Lastly a note from Monique, whose patio this all occurred in: Thanks to Nick Ritar from Milkwood Permaculture for facilitating this amazing Earthbag building workshop; Charlie Bacon from Ecolicious (aquaponics systems, ponds and organic gardens) for helping me move over a tonne of clay; Peter Wright from Gaia Gardens for picking up and delivering 3 bathtubs from Kimbriki for me at very short notice + Kirsten Bradley for co-creating the idea of having a workshop on National Permaculture Day (and volunteering her husband to run it).

And thanks to all the fabulous volunteers / participants throughout the day : Adriana, Andre A., Andrea C., Andrea Pape, Craig Duckmanton, Daniel C., Diana E., Diana Watson, Dianne M., Ian H, Joy J., Julio B., Kat T., Linda S., Marcelo B., Margo C., Martha M (in Sydney for a wedding for a few days, and who’s partner demanded that she pop in to see what was going on so she could tell him all about it when she got back to Turkey… love it!), Michael C., Mike M., Misa Z., Monika B., Monique Unger, Nathan C., Peter W., Phillip E., Robin S., Sarah B. & Stu R.  Awesome job everyone! Thank you!

A small sample of the many fabulous folks who attended the workshop – thanks everyone!

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  • Mark Fuller May 20, 2012 at 8:12 am | Reply

    Awesome! I was just thinking about doing a similar thing in my back yard. You’ve given me some good ideas. Thanks. Mark (wwoofer winter 2011)

  • narf77 May 20, 2012 at 8:42 am | Reply

    And again! I have been trawling the net to look for exactly this to show my lecturer and you guys post…Love you guys! ;)

    1. milkwoodkirsten May 20, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Reply

      wow, ca-chink! :)

      1. narf77 May 21, 2012 at 6:22 am | Reply

        Yup :) I am starting to think I should send you guys a list of my units and we can do a deal! ;)

  • Frances May 20, 2012 at 9:32 am | Reply

    But why can’t things be grown in the earthbags???

    1. milkwoodkirsten May 20, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply

      the earthbags, once tamped, are as compacted and hard as bricks… not very good for planting into! They’re intended to be structural…

  • Sylvia May 20, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Reply

    I reckon hay bales are much easier to install. Make a rectangle with several bales leaving space in the middle for some straw on the ground then fill hole with soil. The outside edge of hay is prickly to sit on but then what are cushions for? When the bales rot down it’s time to extend the garden with more bales outside. I saw this idea at a nursery. Another good one, at same nursery, was a pyramid of tyres. Big truck ones are good. Half a tyre sticks out each row to plant up. Great for small spaces like courtyards too. Cheers!

    1. milkwoodkirsten May 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Reply

      Hey Sylvia, yes we’ve made gardens with bales (and they’re great for their purpose), but these needed to be structurally sound long-term… also it’s a patio, so no room to expand when the bales break down! :)

  • Nancy Sutton May 21, 2012 at 5:15 am | Reply

    Why aren’t the bathtub walls sufficiently ‘structural;? Are the earthbags for ‘looks’ ?

  • Mary May 21, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply

    Reblogged this on Upwey Permaculture Class Notes Feb-Mar 2012.

  • Irina May 27, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply

    Yeah, I also don’t understand the need for all that work with the earthbags. what is their purpose, besides taking up space?

  • Nowaste June 15, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Reply

    I used 10mm gravel to a level of 100mm. I put it in a glass jar and poured water to 6mm. I used a cotton cloth (instead of soil) on the gravel, to see how fast the water would wick. It did not wick at all?? The water remained at the same level. I am looking for another material as the base material…

  • Nowaste June 15, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply

    I poured water to 60mm not 6mm!!! :-o

  • nerdgirls.Com February 11, 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply

    I’ll certainly digg it and personally recommend to my guys.

  • Reb February 24, 2013 at 9:13 am | Reply

    I love the idea of using bathtubs for wicking beds, but I also don’t see why the earthbags would be the best solution for added support. It’s a lot of work and a lot of dirt just for structure. Why not build a wall around the tubs using salvaged wood or blocks? If you could find salvaged cast-iron bathtubs, then you wouldn’t need any other structural support.

  • Daz June 16, 2013 at 9:47 am | Reply

    Could you please explain
    A – the need for earthbags which:-
    1 waste space
    2 need a lot of materials
    3 are work intensive

    B – how the bathtubs are flushed to prevent salt buildup in the water reservoir or it becoming stagnant

    1. milkwoodkirsten June 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply

      Hi Daz, sure thing :) – part of the point of this build was to skill folks up in earthbag techniques, which can be used of all sorts of applications. There was no ‘need’ as such to use this technique…

      Like any building technique, it depends what your goals and your resources are. Earthbag is great for some situations, and no so much for others.

      The bathtubs are flushable via their plug hole, which you can pipe to an external point and put a tap on for flushing…


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