Sunday, July 27, 2008

Product review- The Grow Box by Garden Patch

(Bottom view of jury-rigging)
(Top view of jury-rigging)
Back in early spring, I bit the bullet and bought twelve (yeah, I know) self-watering containers, also known as SWCs. There are plans online for building your own, but I really didn't want to go there. Besides, most of the homemade ones are ugly... and, though it vaguely shames me to admit it, aesthetics are important to me.
So, what's a self-watering container? I bought a model called The Grow Box, by the company Garden Patch. Basically, it's a horizontally divided box: There's a compartment for dirt on the top, and a reservoir for water beneath it. Poking down into the reservoir are two little "cages" for packed dirt. The dirt in the cages wicks the water up to the top layer of planting medium. The reservoir must be kept filled with water for the boxes to work, but you use a lot less water than in an ordinary container garden- or in a traditional in-ground garden (one exception might be the in-ground, no-till method). The design is quite ingenious. Other designs of these boxes tend to be more complex- say, they have cloth wicks in them for water uptake. But I liked the simplicity and the good looks of this design.
Garden Patch claims any vegetables that grow in the ground can be grown in their Grow Box. It might be true, and the issues I experienced could be due to operator error. But some plants are definitely doing better than others. An admission here: Each box came with a plastic mulch cover and some pelleted mystery fertilizer attached to the underside of it; I did not use it. I prefer using organic fertilizer, homemade compost, and my own worm castings; never mind that I'm highly distrustful of plastic mulch. I prefer instead to mulch heavily with leftover, uneaten bunny hay- there's never a shortage of the stuff in my house. And it's so much better for the soil. Plastic mulch cuts down aeration and solarizes the soil, which can kill the beneficial critters in the soil food web (but that's another post altogether).
I'll start with my pride and joy- my tomatoes. I must say, the tomatoes are doing no better then when they were in my Really Big Pots (50 gallons, give or take). But, here's the benefit: I am growing eight tomato plants in only four boxes, with much less growing medium. Remarkably, my yield per plant appears to be about the same as last year, even in the considerably smaller containers. The plants do need a lot more food, and the roots are really crowded, but the tight growing conditions don't seem to stress the plants too much. Thank goodness they are short-season annuals.
Peppers, Eggplant, Basil, Lettuce, Spinach
The peppers, eggplant, and basil LOVE these boxes, especially now that it's high-summer hot. These heat-lovers had struggled in the Grow Boxes through our unusually long, cool spring this year, as the water reservoir keeps the soil temp much lower than in ordinary pots. Now they are loving the combo of cool feet and hot leaves. Early in the season, lettuce and spinach did very well in them, too. The spinach did not bolt nearly as quickly as it usually does; I'm certain it's because of the much cooler soil temp. I will start late season lettuce and spinach in the boxes shortly- I'll report again at the end of the season regarding my fall crops.
Big Leafy Greens (Brassica rapa and Beta vulgaris)
The big leafy greens did not do well in the Grow Boxes. The Fordhook chard remains quite dwarfed. About a month ago, I moved the Silverbeet chard out of the SWC and into one of my ordinary big pots, and it quickly grew to it's normal, giant size. The Red Russian kale fared a bit better, but three plants is the maximum for these planters, and the plants are still quite small. The Asian greens (Happy Rich, Vitamin Green), being equally kale-like, didn't do well either. The naturally deep root systems on these plants just can't adapt to such a shallow box. Live and learn.
The other disappointment is squash. No, I'm afraid "disappointment" is just too subtle a word. It's been a flat-out, heart-breaking, abysmal failure. The instructions claimed that I could grow two squash plants in one box. Maybe I could have grown one plant. I've had only eight zucchini fruit between two (!) plants. I'm ripping these sad puppies out today. Again with the live and learn. Last year in the Really Big Pots, I had exactly what you expect with zucchini: Way-too-freaking-much. It was glorious. That's how zucchini should be. This year I'm actually buying zucchini at the farmer's market, which is darned depressing for a gardener.
My #1 issue with these planters (see pics above):
The biggest problem with these planters is the utter lack of an external trellising system. Because the dirt is all of seven inches deep in these planters, you simply cannot stake into them. In most photos of these planters, folks have them sitting directly on terra firma, and so are able to stake their trellises right into ground soil below. Since mine are effectively on a rooftop, we had to improvise a way to externally trellis the tomatoes. I ordered 4-foot and 7-foot lengths of bamboo without anything resembling an actual plan. My husband came up with a clever solution that works well, involving zip-ties and more zip-ties. Even still, it's what you'd call jury-rigged.The trellises need weight on the bottom for stabilization against our rooftop winds; this year we used bricks, which are not ideal. Next year, I'll probably use sandbags. The company really should offer a solution, particularly if they are aiming their main sales at tomato gardeners. Which they do. Just look at the home page:
I have no idea what sort of cage is hidden under all that fabulous tomato-y goodness on their storefront page, but if it's a couple of those dumb round wire cages, this pic was obviously taken in early June. All gardeners know those round cages are utter, useless crap. Ok, one exception: I hear they're workable for determinate tomatoes (but who grows those?). Honestly, how those cages are still sold year after year is a mystery to me.
Garden Patch company, I implore you- how about a really big, free-standing external trellis? Or one that connects directly to the planter; the planter is certainly heavy enough, even with my rooftop wind. Or a couple of types- say, one for vining plants, and one for climbing plants. Pleeeeze?


Amanda said...


I have to compliment you ingenuity and stamina. I would have ripped them all out long ago in a shrieking swearing fit.

In these cases it isn't about the money, it is the fact that you put your bets on their product for the whole year---by the time you figure out the shortcomings of their product, it will take until next year to figure out how to do something different!

I feel your pain.

Still envious of your garden overall though. And those eggplants...oh wow.

ilex said...

The boxes really are great... for some things. This year, it's been worth it just for those glorious eggplants. Next year, I'll probably set up shadecloth to try and keep lettuce growing through summer. The cool soil in the boxes could be ideal for extending lettuce season.

Robbyn said...

Great review, and your breakdown of types of plants that do and don't thrive in them is really helpful to me. We've contemplated getting or making some grow boxes in the past. Some of the Aussie bloggers I've read make their own with great success. Cutting down on the watering alone would seem to be a big plus. The biggest thing, besides the cost, that has kept us from investing in them was the unknown...we, too, did not want to use the chemical fertilizers that came with the package set, nor all that plastic. And their claim that everything does well was pretty bold. At this point we don't have castings or manure from our own place to amend soil (we need worms, bunnies, and chickens!)and we're holding off this season to see what our land-trade pursuits might reap before doing anything else here. This review is realllyyyy helpful...thank you! It saved me trying greens in them, and it lets me know that the basils and peppers can get some real enjoyment in this heat :)

ilex said...

Robbyn, I think these boxes are ideal for hot places like Florida and Oz. I've heard that a few tomato growers in the US South are changing over at least some production to boxes like these and their yields are considerably increased. For those of us in the Great White North, I suspect the season may actually be shortened because of the cooling effect of the water, but I'm hoping the tradeoff is higher yields in a shorter time.

Rabbits' Guy said...

Ho, great review ...

Seems like over the winter a design for a free-standing trellis that can be clipped down to some small screw-eyes in the deck flooring can be done! Or to a lightweight board that the container sits on. Maybe a take-a-part for easy storing. The bamboo should work well for this project!

Or heck ... hire a crane to lift a huge stock watering tank up there. Fill it about 1/8 full of gravel, drill some holes just below the gravel line to squirt water in, fill it with dirt, but put several topless-bottomless cans unright in the gravel to allow dirt to be in there and do its wicking thing, build a deck canopy complete with wires so the shade cloth can be drawn as needed and the trellis can be slung downward from the canopy wires. Whole thing will be cost effective over a few years! No, huh?

It has been a great garlic year here!

Whimspiration said...

Thanks for the review, love your blog, and your trellis is more lovely than anything I've jerry-rigged!

Simply beautiful.

From one citysteader to another, thanks, for being an inspiration to the neighbors. They need it. 8smile*

Carolyn said...

I was looking at these boxes for possible purchase. Thanks for the review!

PJ said...

Thanks. It's really helpful when people like you and Carolyn make these "how-to" posts. We had such a mixed bag of results this first year and there is so much for us to learn. My biggest problem has been trying to decide how to use pesticides. I've been so reluctant that a lot of plants were simply destroyed, especially squash and zucchini. We're going to go ahead with a fall planting but we still see it as part of our learning curve.

ilex said...

PJ- have you considered row covers? Johnny's Seeds sells a great selection of them, for all weather.

lamarguerite said...

Ilex, how about you start your own urban gardening supplies company? :)

ilex said...

Marguerite- I haven't quite embraced my inner capitalist, but I'm working on it. :\

d. moll, said...

Thanks for review, I have tried to get Boyfriend interested since we have alot of things in pots and it is always good to conserve water, will continue to work on him.......

GC Tester said...

It is cool to see other experiences with these boxes. I bought 10 of them this season and have had great results overall. I need something that would make my life easy as this is/would be my first shot at gardening ever. I live in Idaho and the season is short.

I have had great success with straight neck squash – in fact in one of my boxes I have 2 plants of straight neck squash (I have picked about 40 squashes). In that same garden box I also have 2 plants of Atlantic giant pumpkin, and 2 plants of watermelons (Navajo variety). All growing well. My tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, 5 different varieties of watermelons, cantaloupes, and 6 different varieties of peppers are doing well.

The only thing I am fighting and that has nothing to do with the boxes are those aphids that are trying to take over everything. They are driving me nuts. I have got to the point of taking out one of those BBQ starters and burning the suckers to death for pleasure.

Catherine Slezinger said...


I found your blog through an Internet search and love it! I am new to container gardening and hoping to get a good start this spring/summer. Can you help me? Have you ever heard of The Smart Pot? I am looking into getting some- and wondering what sizes you would recommend. I'd love to do tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and strawberries, and maybe melons. I don't want to go overboard, but I want to do everything just thinking of it! What would you recommend as Step 1 for me? We live in Kansas City MO which I believe is growing zone 6. My plants will also be getting full sun. It is about 100 degrees here in summer with serious humidity too.
Thanks in advance for your help!

BookwormBev said...

Thanks for your great review. I only heard of the Garden Patch boxes from someone in the store today. I just was at their website, writing a note to the company asking if their system could be adapted for organic gardening - and you pretty well answered my question. I'm a little north of San Francisco - sometimes we have coastal (cool) temps and sometimes inland (HOT). No rain all summer, so the self-watering thing seemed attractive. Nonetheless, we do have a yard, although not much sunny space. Do you think I should stick with my raised beds and the terrific organic/topsoil mix I get at our local dump and just use a drip system or the like?

Jim said...

Thanks much for the review. I wondered if these boxes are any good at all and it's good to know that they do work at least for some people and places and plants.

Mariah said...

Hey, just a question. Ok, I have three garden patches going now, and the other day I noticed that the water in one of them was teeming with mosquitoes. I dumped out the water, and hordes of them flew out. Can I use mosquito dunks in the water, or will that work it's way into the food I'm growing? They say they are safe for fish and plants, but it doesn't mention food crops. In the short term, I taped weedblock cloth over the hole to seal it off. Do you ever run into this problem? What do you do?

ilex said...

Mariah, add a little olive oil (about a tsp) to the water. It breaks the surface tension and prevent mosquitoes from laying their eggs. You can re-add a tiny bit of oil every couple of weeks.

Another solution, if you are sure to keep the water full- add a few guppies. They go completely nuts for mosquito larvae. Used to be that folks put guppies in their rain barrels.

I'd avoid the mosquito dunks unless their being food-safe is specifically mentioned.

Debi said...

Debi Said....I ordered these and customer service was TERRIBLE, said credit card didn't work and have been using it with credit score of over 850 for years! Never bothered to call and let me know, so waited and waited and finally called for my order....girl on phone was not nice and could care less if ordered from them or not so unfortunately ordered my 4 boxes from Earth Box and very satisfied with their product. Should have gone there right away as set me back TWO WEEKS waiting!!!

Mariah said...

Ooh, the guppies are a very good idea. The only thing I wonder is if the water is too acidic; I added a lot of peat moss to the soil, and the water that comes out of the reservoir looks like tea. (and stinks) And if they don't make it, how do I get them out of there? (or, maybe just leave them?) We've also had a ton of rain lately. I am thinking that once things heat up, the plants will be using more water and it won't go stagnant sitting there for weeks. I wish they had a little drain valve like on ice chests so you could periodically change the water out. In the meantime, I'll try the olive oil, and I have also taped a piece of landscaping cloth over the hole. Not terribly attractive, but it seems to work so far. Thanks!