Growing vegies in the desert is tough

In central Australian remote Indigenous communities and outstations, its very tough to get a vegie garden to grow well. Gardening in arid climates is difficult due to very hot summers and very cold winters, and to manage these. The soil needs to have more organic matter and the vegies need protection from the strong summer sun. Also the water is scarce and evaporates quickly in the summer and plants die quickly without water. Plus winter is very cold. The issue of how to grow and maintain a successful garden is not a new problem and there are a variety of ways to tackle growing food for yourself & family out bush.

About a year ago, the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) started to talk to people living in Yuendumu, Alparra, Ulpanyali communities, as well as a fewAlice Springstown camps, to look at ways to make gardening easier. The feedback from community members was generally that people were very keen to grow fresh vegies for health as well as have fruit trees but were unclear about how to make the process easier and more workable.

Making vegetable gardening easier

Out of this community engagement process, the CAT team developed a raised garden bed product that is designed specifically for remote indigenous communities located in arid environments. This product is called the CAT Wicking Bed. It is a modular raised self watering garden bed 1.3 metres wide by 5 metres long (the size is changeable) A wicking bed has two main parts: the bottom half is a contained reservoir filled with gravel & water, and the top half is filled with soil, plants and mulch. This works like a soak in a river, watering plants from below rather than from the top. The soil acts like a sponge moving the water upwards to the plant roots - this process is called “wicking”. All soils wick in different ways and its important to get the soil ingredients right so it does the best job possible in moving the water upwards.

Features of the CAT wicking bed

There are many features in the CAT wicking bed design that help make the process of successful gardening easier for people in remote locations. It is designed to be extremely water efficient. You only need to water the plants in the bed around once a week during summer, and every two weeks in winter. Families are able to go away for business, funerals, visits and weeklong trips to town without the hassle of the veggie garden drying out and dying.

The wicking bed can be placed neatly close to your house and/or outdoor cooking area making it easy to use the vegies in your cooking. Because the garden bed is close by to your house, you’ll notice when it needs watering or weeding, and when things like tomatoes are ripe to eat. Shade from the house can protect the plants from harsh summer sun or winds. As the bed is shipped as a flat pack, you save money on transport costs and it can easily be put it together by yourself/ family. Because the bed is built to sit higher off the ground (table height), old people and people with bad backs can garden comfortably. The height also stops rabbits and deters dogs from eating and digging around it for food, keeping the growing area more hygienic too.

All gardens need management & maintenance for them to live & flourish, this wicking bed makes the process of arid zone gardening easier but there does need to have locally agreed arrangements for plant care, maintenance and watering overtime. CAT will provide information & technical support to help you with this .

Increasing availability of locally grown fresh food

Currently, the CAT wicking bed has been installed and is being used at Yuendumu Old Peoples Program Centre. Aboriginal staff at the Centre, maintain the wicking bed, and once the vegies grow, the food will be used in the kitchen for healthy meals that are cooked daily for the old people living at the community.

The CAT wicking bed is now available for fabrication and installation orders. There are a number of add-on features for the CAT Wicking bed available such as clip on shade structures or pest mesh .

For more information, please contact CAT on ph: 08 8959 6100 or email: info@icat.org.au