Food security and wicking beds

Posted on: 18 November 2019 by Ian Collins

Last month I went to a ‘Farm Chats’ evening at Pocket City Farms in inner city Sydney to listen to a panel of experts discussing the challenges of food security. I was actually quite surprised to hear of the extent of food insecurity in the developed world. If you haven’t heard the term before it is “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food”. According to Foodbank Australia an estimated 15% of the population, or 3.6 million people, have experienced food insecurity in the ’lucky country’ over the last year. Of these only half are unemployed. In other words, food insecurity is not just the domain of the homeless and unemployed in Australia, it pervades our society and can be present in seemingly “normal” family environments.

Urban agriculture plays a huge role in feeding the populations of the developing world, with urban and peri-urban agriculture producing almost 90% of the fresh food. However, this is not the case in the developed world. In countries like Australia only 15 to 20% of food is produced in or on the perimeter of urban areas. With the identification of the climate impact of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the transport of food, and the recognition of the value of fresh organic produce in our diets, greater efforts are now starting to be made to increase food production in our cities. In fact, the landscape design industry leaders themselves forecast late last year that 2019 would be a year of climate change focus and increasing demand for sustainable design. Importantly, they predicted an increasing use of edible plants and a demand for a more organic approach to landscape design.

The increased focus on edible plantings has to date been spearheaded by individuals, community gardens and schools. In Australia, the growth of commercial food farms in our urban centres lags well behind other countries like Canada and the United States. We have been much slower to embrace the utilisation of roof tops, industrial wastelands and common areas for growing food. The challenges of food production in such locations however have not been related to a lack of technology, but probably more the result of legislative constraints and the lack of foresight from our government bureaucracies. One very prominent trend has been the adoption of raised bed gardening using wicking systems. This has solved many of the problems of soil pollution in historic industrial locations and of reduced water availability. A majority of community gardens in Australia now either have wicking beds or are considering the installation of them.

Two of the most prominent commercial urban farms in Australia, Pocket City Farms at Camperdown in Sydney and The Melbourne Food Hub at Alphington in Melbourne, both utilise wicking bed technology in their food production. 

Pocket City Farm’s first wicking beds in early 2019, Camperdown NSW

Additional wicking beds being built at Pocket City Farm in July 2019

This is also the case at Macquarie Point on the old Hobart docks site, where the largest ‘edible precinct’ in Australia is being constructed on the 9 hectare site. Macquarie Point will represent a great example of closed loop gardening and the recycling of organic waste. European species are being planted alongside native bush foods in fully transportable timber wicking bed planters.

Macquarie Point Hobart TAS. The wicking bed in the foreground was planted on 27th May 2019

The same Macquarie Point wicking bed containing kale, beetroot and broccoli ready for harvested in mid October 2019

In a regional context, on the outskirts of Wagga in NSW, the first of a forecast 750 timber wicking beds have been built at Hildasid Farm. For disability services group, Kurrajong Waratah who run Hildasid, the decision to use wicking technology was based on water saving and crop health considerations.

Hildasid Farm, Wagga NSW. Pegging out some of the many wicking beds planned for the farm in November 2018

Some of the WaterUps® wicking beds being installed at Hildasid Farm in September 2019

WaterUps® is proud to be associated with these organisations and to be involved in each of these projects. We are continuing to partner with them on further research into many aspects of wicking bed technology.

The Melbourne Food Hub recently installed a number of in-ground wicking beds to trial their productive and water saving capacities as an integral part of their market garden initiative. 

Melbourne Food Hub, Alphington VIC. Raised timber wicking beds being used for food production.

Melbourne Food Hub, Alphington VIC. Building frames for the in-ground wicking bed water reservoirs in November 2019.

Many of you may not be familiar with in-ground wicking beds. Unlike a traditional wicking bed built in a fully contained environment, such as a raised bed, planter or an IBC, in-ground wicking systems comprise water reservoirs buried under rows of soil mounded over the in-ground wicking cells. As a consequence they are able to ‘wick’ both vertically as well as laterally. They are, therefore, ideal for market garden environments where long rows of mounded beds are planted. The use of sub-irrigation or ‘wicking’ makes them much more water efficient and encourages deeper root growth, resulting in potentially higher crop yields.  

In-ground wicking beds are ‘open system’ wicking beds. They are much more efficient than non-wicking beds, but are not as efficient as ‘closed systems’ such as planters and raised beds. By ‘wicking’ both laterally as well as vertically, an in-ground system is watering a much larger area than the reservoir base and, therefore, the water reservoir will not last as long as with a ‘closed system’. In terms of water usage, however, they use approximately 1/3rd of the water that a traditional mounded bed using spray irrigation requires. 

We are already seeing examples of wicking bed technology being used in urban agriculture. However, with urban agriculture itself still in its infancy in Australia, we have a long way to go. In any event there is no doubt that a combination of “closed system” and “open system” wicking bed technologies will play a key role in the future of urban agriculture and in helping tackle the problem of food security, particularly in the developed world.

We will continue to report on the above urban agriculture projects and on others that we become involved with in the future. If you have any comments or questions regarding these projects, or if you would like to discuss collaboration with an urban agriculture project that you are involved with, please contact us at info@waterups.com.au.