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Introducing the "Wine and Dine" Bottle Garden: Recycled Wine Bottles with Dinner Herbs (and a Side of Art) UPDATED TWICE

Posted Jan 22 2012 6:57am
So I see these Grow Bottles (where the top of a cut wine bottle is inverted to create a hydroponic growing system) for 35 bucks and, remembering I had a bottle cutter when I was a teen, I wonder if I can make something like this.  I look online (where cutting a bottle in this way is something many people have done) and find a bottle cutter (just $25, and eco , to boot!), and then hint to the family that that would make a nice holiday gift.  After receiving it, I ask a few friends to save wine bottles for me.  One owns a restaurant.  Another runs with a wine-tasting crowd.  The bottles start coming in cases. 

So this idea starts growing, that maybe we could figure out how to make something like this (I purposely don't read exactly how Grow Bottle does it so that our system is not a copy of it), sell them, and raise money for micro-grants for food pantry clients to start their own gardens at home (about which friends of mine and I have been talking since our community garden opened two years ago--we already started a separate garden specifically for them so they can harvest every single week when they come to pick up food at a local church food pantry), or to fund that beautiful little garden that miraculously provides fresh food to about 20 families each week, even when it looks like it's been picked to death.  Somehow it always provides.  Here is a photo from this week, in January, for goodness sake.

So I spend a solid month trying to create a prototype, with many emails back and forth to my friends Bob and Angela , who both have bottle cutters now, too, and to Nicole, who is as insatiably curious as I am and is a terrific researcher.  I burn myself.  I cut myself.  I break many, many bottles, with a zero success rate of a clean cut.  I keep at it, goggles on, teeth clenched.  I view online videos.  I switch methods.  I get better at applying just the right pressure during the scoring process.  I pour boiling water slowly, slowly, slowly, and start to know when it's time to stop (if I pour too long or too fast, stress fractures appear).  I even pray a little.  And finally, finally, it works.  I scream and run around the house pronouncing this.  And then more of them (but not all of them) work.  I'm only at a 33% success rate, but I'm heading in the right direction.
I see hydroponic systems use little clay balls, which cost something like $50 for a bag.  I don't have $50 for hydroponic clay balls.  I live in Georgia.  I have red clay outside my door.  I make clay balls. 
I ask the local grocery store manager where I can find food-safe string, and he gives me 50 feet of thick butcher string for free.  I rig a wicking system, anchored by a clay ball in each bottle (I'm up to seven bottles now). 
After painting flowers on the front of the bottles, I realize they'd be way cooler if really good artists, professional artists, painted them instead, and I start thinking about who to ask right about when an artist friend of mine, Nancy , volunteers, and the church's food pantry leaders, Kathy and Mary Louise, tell me they have a big artist community and an upcoming art retreat at which they'll try to recruit more artists.  I get another idea, a big idea, but I don't act on it . . . yet. 
I plant herbs that I uproot from my home garden (lemon balm, cilantro, peppermint, and spearmint are all growing right now, with oregano just a week or two away) and tuck them in with county compost.  
I fill the "bottle reservoir" with water and some organic liquid fertilizer to provide nutrients to the plant via the wicking system (or at least that's the theory).  
I recruit people (Bob, Angela, Nicole, Mary Louise, Kathy, Page, Rebecca ) to be "foster parents" to these prototypes and start to deliver them, with the simple instructions to see if growth appears healthy, if the water seems like it needs weekly changing, and if anything "funky" starts to grow anywhere in the system.  In the meantime, a team of six people in less than 12 hours have volunteered to "de-label" cases of bottles (and I get in trouble for using the community garden Google group to ask for volunteers since this is not a "board-approved" project--ouch.  Lesson learned while pouring boiling water--know when to stop).  I quickly relocate the project "home" to the church where the food pantry garden exists, and instead of having the bottles delivered to the community garden, I arrange for them to be left there to be picked up.
And now I wait.  I wait for clean bottles.  I wait for results of the foster parent/prototype test.  I wait for oregano.  And I wait to see, as always, what else is possible?

UPDATE: The first de-labeled bottles arrive and I can cut a deeper "grow space" as a result, which seems to be an improvement (see comparison in photo between 1.0 cut and 2.0 cut).  Plus, I start cutting bottles with stress fractures below the fracture (hence, recycling the recycled bottle) to create vases, which we'll fill with fresh cut herbs for sale as well. 
I have created a separate site specifically for this project as I think it's going to have a life of its own. 
My dream?  People all over the world do this as well to raise money for vegetable gardens at food pantries in their communities and micro-grants for food pantry clients to start their own gardens at their homes.

UPDATE 1/25/12: The first prototype results are back and they reveal some, shall we say, flaws in the system.  See details (and next steps) here .
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