Scot’s Product Review: SimGar The Simple Garden

I have wanted to review a self-watering/fertilizing container gardening system ever since I started writing for SurvivalBlog. I was thrilled when SimGar contacted me and offered to let me borrow one of their SimGar Plus kits. It goes for about $150.00. SimGar stands for The Simple Garden, and it has only been on the market for about a month.

I’ve gardened off and on for thirty plus years and have had both great and rotten results. While I’m lucky enough to have some decent space for a garden where we live now, my soil isn’t very good for vegetables without a lot of amendments. I also chose the site poorly when we arrived here, and it has since become shaded. Because of this, I had to move it a few weeks ago to the other side of the yard. I have issues with bugs, birds, and mammals. I’m hoping that something like the SimGar will prove an efficient supplement to my garden in the yard and help bridge this period while I’m reestablishing it. Additionally, it will be really nice to have some things located immediately next to the house, and I’m hoping that being that close will make it less attractive to critters.

As well as loaning me a kit, I got a chance to visit VizCO-US– the company that makes the SimGar. It is a new firm launched this year by longtime Florida resident Christopher R. Cantolino. He is a man with a clear passion for both his product and gardening. He worries that very few people know how to garden these days and made the point that before WWI, most people in the United States had gardens. When the call came for Victory Gardens during both world wars, there was no problem producing them. Since WWII, however, home vegetable gardening has fallen from favor, and few people have the knowledge to grow a tomato or carrot. He hopes his product will help change that by making it easy for people to be successful.

The basic idea is that you have a system that recirculates water and nutrients through plant containers. I’ve seen a couple of approaches to this idea, but I really like SimGar’s scheme, which has a 30 gallon water tank that can be mounted on castors. There is a small pump that circulates water through the bottoms of two containers that sit on the top of the tank. The pump is powered by a solar panel, so you don’t have to mess with batteries or a power connection. This is a bit like a hydroponic system, where the plants grow in circulating fertilized water, though it also resembles growing plants in pots using soil.

One of SimGar’s claims is that their containers accelerate plant growth, since they can be kept well fed and properly watered. That makes sense to me as surely a consistent, rich supply of food and water will allow them to grow rather than just survive. Cantolino says that with the water and fertilizer circulating it is “almost like an IV to the roots” and adds that it is hard to overfeed plants with his system.

Another feature of this system is that the containers are elevated a bit on the top of the tank. As I get older and feebler by the second, it is very nice to not have to bend as much.

A big part of the appeal to this type of system, as opposed to regular containers, is that it waters the plants for you whenever there is enough light to power the pump. I’m not good at remembering to water containers, so you can see why that excites me. SimGar says you can go up to 30 days before needing to replenish the tank. They also say that the water flow helps keep the soil cool, which I think answers a problem I’ve had with container plants not doing as well as they should over the summer.

This type of system is excellent for those with limited space, particularly if they cannot have a regular garden in the ground. You could even use it inside with grow lamps. I could see it being rolled inside to protect young plants from a cold snap as well as being used as a nursery to start plants that will then be moved to an in-the-ground garden. Cantolino has had a lot of success growing from cuttings with the SimGar, since it maintains a moist soil. I see a lot of uses for this thing.

When the kit arrived and I picked it up, I told the young lady at the UPS store that it was plastic, so it would be very light. Oops. It is made of very heavy-weight plastic, thank you very much, and there are some steel reinforcing tubes in the platform it sits on. Further, it has heavy-duty castors. Heavy duty means heavy in weight, and then you add in the solar panel, which isn’t a flimsy piece of junk, either. In other words, old and feeble here had to actually use some energy to get it to the car. The box is pretty bulky but easily made it into the back seat.

It took me about an hour to put it together, but had I followed the instructions better (I’m a guy, you know what that means) I think it would have shaved off five or ten minutes. The only thing that was a little hard was getting the two plant containers apart. It took a minute or two of patient prying. A bit of packing between them might have made it easier to get them apart, but it looked as if something heavy had been put on top of the box in shipping, so they might have been squashed together. I found the great assembly video after I put it together. It would have made it go a bit faster as well as guaranteed that I got everything right the first time.

The tank, as mentioned above, sits on an optional mobility kit, which has some serious castors. I have often gotten things on castors that couldn’t handle much weight, but these are going to be fine. They do need a hard surface to roll on. Inside the tank is a box that holds a pump and some filtering elements in three separate compartments. The first holds a washable filter. The second gets some rocks and a charcoal filter that can be replaced, and the third gets the pump. There is also some tubing to connect the pump to the two containers and the wire that connects the solar panel to the pump.

The rocks and charcoal are intended to add filtration to the water. The rocks also help keep the pump on the bottom of the tank. The filtration will help keep the water clean enough to go through the pump. I can imagine that things could grow in there, particularly since fertilizer is going to get into the water. Even if you don’t use a liquid fertilizer, there will be nutrients in the soil and the water flow will pick some of them up and carry them into the tank.

I was impressed with the quality of the components, particularly the wiring connections to the solar panel. It screwed on tightly, and I’m pretty certain will keep moisture out. Everything felt as if it will hold up sitting outside in the sun and weather. SimGar confirmed that the plastic parts are UV resistant, which cheered me up. I’ve had a number of things just not last long in the sun here. The hardware is stainless steel, which also provides longevity.

The whole thing was now about four feet wide, thirty inches deep and two feet tall to where the top of the soil resides. The solar panel came to about four feet high, and it resides on the top of a tube that projects from the tank. Most of the parts are a pleasant tan color, and the lid of the tank is a nice brown, so it should blend in attractively in most settings.

I was intrigued by the ribbing in the various parts of the unit and particularly in the growing compartments. I assumed some were for structural strength while others were to help lock components together in the right position. There seemed more, however, than were needed for those purposes. Cantolino explained that they play a role in directing water through the system. Although the company is new, Cantolino has spent years working on how to make sure the water would flow through the containers without eroding the soil. Erosion was something I had wondered about, and it impressed me that it had been taken care of. Ridges are molded into the containers that create a capillary action to make water climb the walls, which speeds its distribution to the plants. Very neat.

Once we have picked our location, which should be relatively level, SimGar says we should put some water in and make sure the pump works and everything is properly connected. Mine worked just fine. I was very a bit surprised with how much water began flowing. Not only that; it flowed pretty well even when it got cloudy, which surprised me even more. It didn’t pump much during a thunderstorm with very dark, heavy clouds, but I didn’t see that as a problem. I have often been disappointed with solar gadgets but not this one. I didn’t fill the tank all the way until later, when I put in the soil, just in case I had to change something.

Speaking of rain, Cantolino said that one of the design features of the SimGar is that it catches most of the rain that falls on it and directs it into the tank for use later. That struck me as a good thing, too.

While talking about water, I should mention that Cantolino says that the pH (the measure of acidity or alkalinity) of the water is important, more important than that of the soil even. Since the water is continually working through the soil, the soil will take on the pH of the water. The containers are small, closed systems and can be quickly affected by whatever is going on in the water. I’m going to use a pool chemistry kit to keep tabs on the SimGar. Those are good things to have, by the way, as they also check chlorine levels when you use it to sterilize water for domestic use.

If you need to lower the pH (make it more acid), Cantolino suggests vinegar or sulfuric acid. Potassium hydroxide is a chemical frequently suggested to raise pH levels in hydroponic gardens. I also saw a number of products intended to raise and lower pH in a local store that carries organic and hydroponic gardening supplies.

Cantolino also suggests a couple of other things that can be added to the water. The first is Epsom salts, which contains magnesium and sulfates that plants require. The second is hydrogen peroxide, which does a couple of things. It adds oxygen to the water, which promotes plant growth and kills some of the harmful bacteria that can grow in the water tank. As I researched hydrogen peroxide, I noticed there is some controversy about using drugstore varieties, which have extra chemicals to stabilize the peroxide. You can get stronger solutions intended for gardening without those stabilizers at some hydroponic stores.

Okay. Everything went together. It all works, and it looks solid and durable. I found a place on our patio that catches a lot of sun. Now what? Thankfully, SimGar offers a lot of information on their website. The first thing we need to do is add some soil. Hmm. Dirt. It is, as serious gardeners know, pretty critical stuff and needs to be suited for what we intend to grow and the conditions in which we are working. SimGar Soils and Potting Mixes webpage gives us guidance as to what we need in the conditions of the SimGar containers. The most important elements appear to be a soil that allows water and air to flow through it. It can come from your yard or from a bag, purchased at the garden store. My dirt is not a good thing for the SimGar. I live on a lake, and the top layer is fine silt, while the layers below are a hard reddish clay based mixture. Neither meets the needs of growing things in the SimGar, so I had to go to the store. I chose one of the suggested organic potting soil mixes and found that a two cubic foot bag nicely filled both containers.

The soil was rather dry when I put it in, but I was pleased to note that moisture worked up to the top in about ten minutes, which meant that those ribs must be doing their job as this went faster than I thought it could move up by simple absorption. I was also happy that it was fairly easy to move around on the paver patio where we plan to keep it. At this point, with water and soil, it has to weigh over 200 pounds, so that’s some serious weight to push about.

After we get water and dirt, we need to consider fertilizer. While the soil we start with probably has nutrients in it, it will need to be replenished. As mentioned above, the SimGar folks like liquid fertilizer. It can be a commercial one or if you have access to manure or compost, you could make a tea with it and add it to the tank. I don’t think it would be smart to add anything to the tank that isn’t water soluble, though. Cantolino likes Miracle Grow, which has a widely available line of fertilizers. I’m probably going to go back to the organic garden shop and buy one of their liquids for the time being. I do plan to make some teas from chicken manure, as I want to be able to run this without store-bought fertilizer. I also don’t see any reason you can’t add solid fertilizers to the soil, but you won’t obtain the quick results you can get with liquids fed directly to the roots.

One very nice advantage of this system is that if you add fertilizer, it is going to stay in the system until the plants eat it up. The water flow may take some with it on the way back to the tank, but it will just get pumped back through over and over so the plants get another crack at it.

So what are we growing anyway? Well, most anything, though we do need to consider acidity and test the pH before we plant. While you can grow ornamentals in the SimGar, I suspect most of my readers will be using it for vegetables or herbs, like I am. Most vegetables need slightly acidic conditions. Be prepared to make changes as needed. It will be a lot easier to change it in the SimGar than in your in ground garden.

SimGar provides a nice planting guide on their website. It doesn’t cover everything, but it is a good starting point. I like the inclusion of what plants are good to plant together and what should be avoided in the same container.

I decided to plant black-eye peas (cowpeas to Yankees) in one container and green peppers in the other. It is very hot here now and not a good time to plant most things, but these two should be ok. Green pepper can be grown as a perennial if you can protect it in the winter, so they are a great plant for a container. I am pretty sure, short of my letting the tank run dry, that they are going to do well, and I plan to provide updates on how they are going through the growing year. At this point, I’m very encouraged and have high expectations.

The routine maintenance of the SimGar will mainly consist of making sure the tank doesn’t run dry. If it does, you might get an airlock in the pump, but Cantolino says it will clear up if you power cycle it by unplugging it from the solar panel. The other maintenance will be cleaning the sponge filter every couple of months. He does say that folks who use organic fertilizers may need to pay closer attention, as more stuff can grow in an organic solution. They might benefit a lot from the hydrogen peroxide mentioned above. The charcoal filter will probably need to be replaced every year or so.

Cantolino promises continued improvements in his products and is very interested in suggestions from users. There will also be upgrades to the website. He has some additional products coming to market, including indoor kits with reflective covers to maximize the grow lights as well as screens to use outdoors. Besides protecting your plants from bugs and critters, the screens can help with temperature control. Cantolino says that it gets too hot to garden normally in Florida summers, but the white screen combined with the cooling effect of the circulating water will change that. There are also some neat little clips that allow you to attach tomato cages to the plant containers. He is working on some other exciting ideas he isn’t ready to market yet. If you are a gardener and this approach interests you, it might be a good idea to keep tabs on SimGar. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie