Back from my mission in Algeria

Dear visitors of my blogs,

It took me a while to tackle all the classical problems of a longer absence : correspondence, reports to write, reply to emails, etc. But now I am back at my blogs and hope to catch up as soon as possible.

For now, let me tell you something about the success of our UNICEF project in Algeria “Construction of family gardens and school gardens in the refugees’ camps of Tindouf (S.W. Algeria – Sahara desert)“.

The Sahrawi people are extremely motivated to get their small gardens ready as soon as possible. From 208 gardens in 2006, the number of gardens grew to more than 1200. These gardens are treated with our soil conditioner TerraCottem (<>) to stock a maximum of saline irrigation water in the upper 20-30 cm of sandy soil. Seeds of vegetables are provided by UNICEF ALGERIA. Young trees are offered by the Forestry Services of Tindouf. Local schools are also participating in the project. Follow-up is assured by a Technical Committee and several agronomists.

In August 2007, I launched an action of seed collection in Belgium. With the help of the media (newspapers, radio, television), I invited my compatriots to send me the seeds of tropical fruits, which are normally thrown in the garbage bin (melon, watermelon, pumpkin, papaya, avocado, sweet pepper etc.). There was a massive and remarkably positive reaction of the Belgians ! For the first time, someone is not asking money for development cooperation, but only garbage seeds.

I received already more than 100 kg of seeds, half of which were already taken to the refugee camps on my last trip, or send by the Algerian Embassy for use in Algerian school gardens (another nice UNICEF project, called : “Schools, Friends of the children”).

It is really fantastic to see, for the first time in 30 years in these camps of the Sahrawis, vegetables growing in small desert gardens. What a splendid contribution to human health in those extremely difficult conditions ! This is the best way to provide continuously fresh food and fruits with vitamins and mineral elements, in particular for the children.

You look for success stories ? This is one of the best ! I will soon show you some more pictures.

Team with UNICEF seeds   Family garden Layoun  Family garden Layoun 2  watermelons in Dahla

(Click on the pictures to enlarge)

Unicef team and Sahrawis engineers carrying seeds from UNICEF / Some of the family gardens at the end of October 2007.

Young maple trees growing in a plastic bottle (Willem)

I am really happy with the good results of my experiments with growing young trees in plastic bottles.

Here are a couple of images of young maple trees (Acer pseudoplatanus L.), grown for a couple of months in my garden. I want to take it to S.W. Algeria as a present for my friends the foresters of Tindouf, who are building up an arboretum.

Have a look at the nice development of this young tree :

p1010329-crop.jpg Young mapple in abottle

(Click on the photos to enlarge them)

Young maple tree growing with a minimum of water and fertilizer in a plastic bottle, ready to be transfered to the arboretum of Tindouf (S.W. Algeria).

Bamboo nursery with plastic bottles (Willem)

We intend to grow many young bamboo plants in a nursery in S.W. Algeria.  These plants will then go to the Sahrawis refugee camps, where they will be used to produce a dense living hedge around the small family gardens.  Thorny mahogany shrubs will also be used in the hedges.

I did some experiments with tiny little bamboo plants (pieces of rhizome of only 1-2 inches/2-5 cm), which I planted in plastic bottles (see different former messages on this blog to see how we prepare these bottles).

 Bamboo in a bottle  bamboos grow well in bottles  p1010327-crop.jpg

(Click on the photos to enlarge them)

This method to launch a nursery with plastic bottles has given already some remarkable results.  I am getting convinced that this will lead to a series of opportunities to grow young bamboo plants in bottles, that are very easy to transport to the plantation site (anyway, much easier than the classical black grow bags used in nurseries).

Moreover,  it is much easier to cut the bottle vertically without breaking up the rootball (one of the current problems for people in forestry).  We recommend to bury the two bottle halves in the plant pit to get rid of the plastic.  So, we will create living hedges and meanwhile take care of the environment by eliminating plastic from the surface.

Non-flowering strawberries in window boxes (J. TOLLEDOT)

Here is a question coming from my friend Joseph TOLLEDOT :

“I remember you had a flowering and fruiting Strawberry plant in a bottle…I planted some 10 bare-root Strawberry plants in March in window boxes – only one plant flowered and gave some fruit only once and then stopped. All the others have produced plenty of healthy leaves and many runners but no fruit – very disappointing! – What can I do now? Any ideas? I have seem much contradictory advice on the internet so I am unsure what to do!”


Joseph referred to my former posting:

My very simple strawberry bottles (Willem)

Strawberries flowering and fruiting in plastic (PET) bottles

I don’t have see a clear reason for the fact that Joseph’s strawberries are not flowering in the window boxes.  I can only make a couple of suggestions :

1. Can it be that temperature is sometimes becoming too high in the boxes?

2. Can it be that inside the boxes (behind the window) there is a lack of UV rays?

Who can help us out ?


Food production in transparent plastic bottles and cups (C. ASH, J. TOLLEDOT, Willem)

Here is nice additional comment of Charles ASH on :

Recycling plastic bottles and pots (Charlesash / Willem) August 3, 2007

“You don’t really need to cover the transparent plastic because there appears to be no harm or set back to the plant if you don’t. It’s mainly cosmetic. Not only that, seeing the roots creates more interest. When we used them we got many youngsters interested because we could explain easier and show “what grows underground” of a plant. It created huge interest and some of those youngsters went on to a career in horticulture. So my suggestion is, don’t permanently cover them. Enjoy a sight you do not normally see.

We don’t have any problems removing plants, even well established or large plants, from plastic plant pots. They always come out with the root ball intact and unharmed. They may need a gentle tap once or twice but they always come out ok. And we get to use the pot again!


Thanks, Charles !  It encourages me to continue my efforts introducing plastic bottle gardening in schools of developing countries.  I strongly believe that every kid in developing countries should set up its own vegetable garden in plastic bottles and shopping bags, not only at school, but also at home.

At school, they can be helped by the teachers, at home, by their mothers.

The result would be :

1. A remarkable enhancement of fresh food production, particularly in desertified areas.

2. An interesting improvement in the situation of food security, malnutrition or famine.

3. A very profitable improvement in public health (less deficiencies, less diseases.

4. Better environmental  conservation and protection (less littering of plastic).

5. Enormous educational value.


Will this appeal on all stakeholders (decision makers, authorities, donors, NGOs, local people, …) one day be heard ?  I hope it will happen before the end of my days, with all my heart !

Who can resist the beauty of vegetables and fruits growing close to or even in our house or school ?  Look at this beautiful picture of Joseph TOLLEDOT :

Party cup Pepper

Black manaqualana Pepper growing well in a recycled party cup (J. TOLLEDOT, July 25, 2007)

TOLLEDOT’s container gardening experiments (Flickr)

News from Joseph TOLLEDOT’s container gardening experiments :

“Here’s the link to new photos on my Flickr page –

I agree with the root growth in the bottles, as you will see. Also, the party cup is excellent – I usually make small holes at the bottom and stand the cups in a tray and water once a day with a small amount of water to keep them just moist. To transplant, you just squeeze the cup a bit and out the root block comes!

I am now working on a cheap, recycled, vertical system which I will photograph as soon as it is set up…”.


Thanks, Joseph, I am looking forward !


A special container form : the grow tower (Willem)

Years ago, I visited a colleague in Beijing (Prof. Dr. WANG Tao), who showed me a peculiar way of growing garlic plants on vertical “poles”. In fact, the poles were PVC pipes, about 10-12 cm (4-5 inches) in diameter, in which a series of 4-5 cm (1 ½ to 2 inches) holes were drilled. The holes were spaced randomly around the pipe, about 4-5 cm (1 ½ to 2 inches) apart.

An impressive series of pipes were standing as “grow towers” in a greenhouse, so that in a relatively small space a maximum of plants were kept growing from floor to ceiling. Each pipe was filled with potting soil and the pipes were watered with a sort of drip irrigation system. In every hole of each grow tower a garlic bulb was growing splendidly (flowering towers !).

This brought me to the idea that a smaller number of plants could also be grown on PET bottles. It suffices to cut a number of holes in the wall of the bottle, filled with potting soil, to create a small grow tower (see my first experimental designs) :

Vertical grow tower

Bottle with 3 holes at one side. The same number can be cut at the opposite side. (Click on the picture to enlarge it).

Bottle grow tower

Mini grow tower : holes cut in the bottle wall fashioned with scotch tape.


I intend to set up some experiments with similar grow towers next week and I will post the results as soon as possible.


Today, I was reading an interesting description of other types of grow tower, made in wood. Here is the text that I found in The Tucson Gardener (2004) :

The Homemade Strawberry Tower
ou would think by now that I’d be out of new strawberry plants but I wasn’t. I still had about 50 young, healthy plants that needed to find a place in the garden or were destined for the compost bin. I happened to read where someone suggested drilling holes in a whiskey barrel filling the barrel with potting soil and the holes with strawberry plants. That’s when I decided I’d build a grow tower from inexpensive wood just to see what would happen.

Using cedar fence boards and lots of screws I made a four foot tall by about 15 – inch square container. Then I drilled a bunch of evenly spaced inch and a half diameter holes.

I then treated the outside of the wood with a water sealer and moved the whole thing to a place in the vegetable garden where I placed it on four concrete stepping stones to keep it from sitting on the ground. I ran a loop of soaker hose down to the bottom of the four foot tower and hooked it up to the watering system.

Then came the hard part – planting the strawberry plants. I filled the container with a good potting mix and some slow release fertilizer putting plants in the holes as I filled the tower. At the top I added a few more plants. Eventually I had to replace three plants that didn’t make it because I may have planted them too deeply covering the crown.

I had plans to make a removable cage that I could slip over the tower with the beginning of fruit production to fend of birds and rodents but production wasn’t so great that I needed to build the cage. I did construct a simple frame to support shade cloth to help the plants make it through the hot summer.

I must admit I like the looks of my tower but it hasn’t been a big strawberry producer. My biggest fear is it may fall apart sooner than I’d like. I’m hoping it will last for three years. The verdict isn’t yet in. Until then the strawberry tower makes and interesting addition to the vegetable garden.(2004)”


Looking at all these possibilities to construct “grow towers” from pipes, bottles, barrels, wood etc., I am wondering if some of you would come up with more interesting ideas. I am looking forward to your descriptions and preferably with photos.

What a wonderful world, this container gardening, in particular for people living in the drylands, who can grow vegetables and fruits without needing to install gardens in desertlike soils, saving a lot of water and getting fresh food with minimal efforts !


Different ways to use plastic bottles for gardening (Willem)

There are numerous ways to use plastic bottles for growing plants with a maximum of water use efficiency.  Here are some of them.

1. Bottle top covering the bottom

Bottle top at the bottom
(Click on the picture to enlarge it)

a. Perforate the bottom to create a drainage hole (2-3 mm wide is sufficient).

b. Cut the top (cone), make one slit in the lower edge of it, and slide it into the bottle so that it covers the drainage hole.

c. Fill the bottle with potting soil (possibly mixed with a water stocking soil conditioner like TerraCottem, see

d. Leave 5 cm (2 inches) from the top to form a cavity for irrigation.

e. Seed or plant a seedling.

Papaya seedlings
Papaya seedlings in bottles with top cone as an air chamber over the perforated bottom.

2. Bottom part of a bottle as a reservoir and a wick

Use a wick

a. Cut a bottle in half and use the bottom part as a water tank (reservoir).

b. Take a second bottle of the same dimensions and cut 2-3 cm (1 inch) of the bottom.

c. Leave the stop on top, but perforate the cone (2-3 mm) to create an opening for the wick.

d. Push the wick through this opening, so that it can hang in the water tank and run through the bottle to hang over the top (see picture above).

e. Fill the bottle with potting soil (possibly with the water stocking soil conditioner TerraCottem).

f. Position the bottle with soil on the water tank with the wick hanging in the water.

g. Seed or plant a seedling.

Bottle with wick and mint
Bottle with wick on a water tank (reservoir). Mint cutting develops well.


Joseph TOLLEDOT told me that he simply had cut a bottle in half, used the bottom half as a water reservoir and the top one as container for plant growth (see his pictures on
3. Perforated top and bottle sitting in a water tank

a. Perforate the cone of a bottle top at two opposite sides (holes 2-3 mm).

Perforated cone
Cone perforated at two opposite sides.  Leave the stop on top.

b. Cut 2-3 cm (1 inch) of the bottom.

c. Fill the bottle with potting soil (possibly mixed with a water stocking soil conditioner like TerraCottem, see

d. Seed or plant a seedling.

e. Position the bottle in a water tank (lower part of a bottle or simply a plastic pot, e.g. a yoghurt pot)

Perforated cone in a water tank
Bottle with perforated cone in a pot (as water tank)

Should you have more interesting ideas to use plastic bottles for gardening, do not hesitate to send them to me (see comments).