How to Build a Wicking Bed for Square Foot Gardening

Are you thinking of putting in a garden bed but aren’t sure what design to go with? There are lots of options out there, so many it can be overwhelming. Here’s what we decided on for our first garden bed in a new home and why.

Cherry Tomatoes Ripening on Vine Inside Tomato Cage

What garden bed did we go with in our new roots? A wicking bed.

Why? We decided on this method because it is set up to allow for the plants to have a constant supply of water which is great for areas where drought is a possibility – such as the hot, hot summers in Texas!

How? Follow the steps and images below to see how we set up our new wicking bed.

Materials

  • organic soil (Though this can get expensive quickly, I highly recommend not skimping on soil. Soil will be a large factor, if not the largest factor, in the success of your garden.)
  • 4mm – 8mm plastic sheet
  • gardening fabric or weed barrier
  • rocks or pebbles
  • drain pipe (We used PVC pipe.)
  • watering hole (We used PVC pipe.)
  • perforated drain pipe
  • finishing nails
  • hammer
  • jute
  • clamps *not necessary but super helpful

Step One

On a sunny day, observe your yard to select a good spot that will provide adequate sunlight for the seeds or plants you selected. We picked a spot that receives full sun though some of our plants will need us to provide shade in the hotter months.

Step Two

Construct your raised beds. You only need the walls at this point. We will use other materials to create the bottom of the bed. We remodeled our kitchen when we moved in last fall, so we repurposed the old kitchen shelves to be the walls of our garden. Feel free to get creative to save money on this part, just make sure whatever material you use wasn’t previously treated with chemicals.

Step Three

Place the bed walls in the area you selected in step one to get an idea of the space. If you are particular, go ahead and measure out the area exactly because this is where you are going to till. We didn’t mind if it wasn’t spot-on, so we dug right in and went a little wider on all sides to sort of sink the walls into the dirt. You just need to till the soil enough to create an even surface for your bed. We will be laying down both a plastic sheet and a weed barrier, so don’t worry too much about pulling up old roots, etc.

Girl Standing on Pitchfork Inside Walls of Raised Garden Bed

Pile of Soil With Earthworm on Top
We found several worms while tilling (a great sign!) that our girls (chickens) quite enjoyed!

Step Four

Once the surface is even, lay down the plastic sheet so it covers the entire bed and folds over a bit around every side. Use the clamps to keep the plastic in place, so it won’t move around when you pour the soil in the bed. At the end, you can take these off and trim the plastic.

Garden Bed with Plastic Sheet Inside to Create One Layer of Wicking Bed

Step Five

Put a layer of weed barrier down over the plastic. *This step is optional. We did so to help protect the plastic from being cut by the rocks, but if you are using small pebbles this step might be unnecessary.

Garden Bed with Plastic Sheet and Weed Barrier Inside to Create One Layer of Wicking Bed

Step Six

Lay your perforated drain pipe in the center of the garden bed, so that it reaches most of the bed. This is what will hold the water at the bottom, allowing the plants to have a constant water supply.

Step Seven

Gently dump the rocks in the bed on top of the weed barrier (or plastic if you opted out) and use them to hold the perforated drain pipe in place. You will have to manipulate the materials to do this because the rocks will most likely try to sneak underneath the pipe.

Wicking Bed with Rocks and Pipe Added and Soil in the Background

Step Eight

Cover the rocks and perforated drain pipe with the weed barrier. This time we are using the weed barrier to protect the soil. You want the soil to be used for the plant roots, not to fall in the cracks on the rocks. With this said, it will work best if you have the weed barrier go up about an inch on each side to ensure no soil falls below. Remember (I didn’t!), because the soil will weigh down the weed barrier, you’ll need some extra on each side.

Step Nine

Cut a hole to insert  the PVC pipe into the perforated drain pipe. You’ll want the PVC pipe to stick up above the soil, so you are always able to access it. This is where you will both water your plants and check the water level. (I forgot to take a picture of this before we dumped the soil. If you are following along, don’t dump your soil yet.)

Wicking Garden Bed Full of Soil

Step Ten

Cut an additional hole in the perforated drain pipe to create a drainage pipe. This will keep your bed from overflowing and those seeds from washing away! Before you insert the PVC pipe, be sure to cover the hole with the weed barrier so that only water drains out and not your soil.

Drain Pipe with Weed Barrier for Wicking Bed in Garden

Step Eleven

You’re ready for the soil! Dump the soil in the bed and watch as your bed starts to look like the real deal.

Adding Soil to Wicking Bed in Garden

Step Twelve

Water the soil, and let it settle for a day or two before sowing your seeds.

Hand Watering Soil in Wicking Bed

Step Thirteen

The last step, before planting, is to measure out each square foot and create your grid. There are all sorts of different ways people do this, including buying grids at the store.  I used measuring tape, finishing nails, a hammer and jute to create my grid because we already had these materials on hand. Do whatever works best for you. If you need more information about square foot gardening, I highly recommend checking out this book, All New Square Foot Gardening: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More in Less Space.

Square Foot Grid on Wicking Bed in Garden

Step Fourteen

Use your planting map to help you sow your seeds! If you didn’t make a map, be sure to mark your grid somehow so you know what is sprouting when it comes time. If you are an experienced gardener, you may not need this step. When I was first starting out, I couldn’t tell a tomato sprout from a squash sprout, so I labeled everything!

Step Fifteen

If you are a super eager gardener or just a bit impatient, you might want to check the seed packets again to see how many days until the seeds emerge, or sprout. This should save you some disappointment since some seeds take longer than others. If you have kiddos that will be helping you garden, I suggest incorporating some radish seeds. The seeds are large for little hands, and they will sprout really quickly!

Step Sixteen

Relax! You did it!

Update

Below are some pictures of a few of the seedlings three and a half weeks after they were sowed.

Tomato Seedlings in Wicking Bed

Cilantro Seedlings in Wicking Bed

Kale Seedlings in Wicking Bed

Here is a video tutorial from the Food is Free Project on creating a wicking bed that is fun to watch and will give you other ideas for starting your own!

Update – 2016

We now use a drip irrigation system for our garden that is set up with a timer to ensure watering is consistent and we can head out of town for the weekend worry-free. I still recommend wicking beds, if you think it matches your gardening goals. 🙂

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