Build a Self-Watering Container

Self-watering containers make growing fruits and veggies a breeze and are ideal for gardening in small spaces. Construct your own reliable waterer with a few easily scavenged materials and about an hour’s worth of time.

| February 21, 2011

  • The Urban Homestead
    Unleash the homesteader within! “The Urban Homestead” is brimming with ideas and projects that affirm the simple pleasures of life, even in the heart of a big city. Written by city dwellers for city dwellers, this fun, hands-on guide offers instructions for everything from building a raised garden bed to getting started with chickens to whipping up your own delicious butter, cheese and yogurt.
    COVER: PROCESS MEDIA
  • Self Watering Container
    These containers make it easy to grow vegetables in pots. They are ideal for apartment gardening, but are so useful that everyone should consider using them to maximize their growing space.
    GREGG EINHORN
  • Self Watering Container Pipe
    Step 7: If necessary, cut the pipe that feeds the reservoir to a good length. You want it to poke out of the top of the container for easy watering. Seventeen inches is just about right for this project. Cut one end of the tube on the diagonal, and put this end down in the bucket. The angled end will allow water to flow freely out of the tube and into the reservoir.
    GREGG EINHORN
  • Rooftop Garden
    Melons grow from homemade self-watering containers on a Chicago rooftop. Using the instructions provided in “The Urban Homestead,” members of the organization Green Roof Growers built these self-watering containers from recycled kosher pickle buckets donated from the Chicago restaurant Vienna Beef.
    HEIDI HOUGH
  • Wicking Chamber
    Step 6: Attach the wicking chamber to the bottom of the top bucket. This is a very loose affair, consisting of four twist ties. Just drill holes at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions just below the top edge of the cup, and drill corresponding holes near the edge of the large hole you cut in the middle of the bucket. Thread plastic twist ties through these holes to secure the wicking chamber so that it hangs beneath the holey bucket.
    GREGG EINHORN
  • Hole In Container
    Step 3: Cut another hole in the bottom of the same container, anywhere near the outside edge (anywhere but the center). This hole is for the pipe that will refill the reservoir and should be sized accordingly.
    GREGG EINHORN
  • Kara Green Roof Growers
    Kara, aka “little green girl,” is a member of Green Roof Growers in Chicago and started growing her own heirloom vegetables from a self-watering container last year.
    DEBBIE KONG

  • The Urban Homestead
  • Self Watering Container
  • Self Watering Container Pipe
  • Rooftop Garden
  • Wicking Chamber
  • Hole In Container
  • Kara Green Roof Growers

The following is an excerpt from The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Process Media, 2010). Homesteading from their bungalow two blocks off of Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, Coyne and Knutzen offer up scores of tips and step-by-step projects for sustainable, self-reliant living in a bustling metropolis. With more and more urbanites looking to become farmers and gardeners, Coyne and Knutzen’s fantastic guidebook couldn’t be timelier, and the duo’s lighthearted, thrifty approach to self-sufficiency shows there is greater power and happiness in creating than in spending. This excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Essential Projects.” 

These containers make it easy to grow vegetables in pots. They are ideal for apartment gardening, but are so useful that everyone should consider using them to maximize their growing space.

The problem with growing food in pots is that pots dry out quickly and it’s all too easy to forget to water. Irregular watering causes all sorts of problems for sensitive fruits and vegetables. Container gardening is also water-intensive. During a heat wave it may mean visiting the plants with the watering can two or even three times every day — obviously not a practical scheme for someone who works away from home, or someone with any kind of life at all.

An elegant solution exists in the form of self-watering containers. Rather than having a hole in the bottom of the pot, a self-watering container (SWC) has a reservoir of water at the bottom, and water leaches upward into the soil by various mechanisms, keeping it constantly moist. The top of the pot is covered with a layer of plastic that discourages evaporation. Depending on how deep the water reservoir is, it’s possible to go about a week between fill-ups. This arrangement, combined with the plastic layer, prevents both over-watering and under-watering that can occur with conventional pots. In other words, it takes the guesswork and anxiety out of watering.



Kelly says: I’m going to tell you right now that you can buy yourself a self-watering container at Earthbox. It’s great to make SWCs with found materials and all, but if these instructions make your eyes cross, or if you just don’t have time, there is no shame in trotting off with your credit card and ordering a couple of these ready-made. They start at about $40.

Erik says: Au contraire, ma petite amie! All it takes is two 5-gallon buckets, a few other easily scavenged items and about an hour’s worth of time. Those Earthboxes are damned expensive and my time is cheap.

Helpfuljosh
9/22/2015 9:38:07 AM

I saw a great installation the other day on a rooftop, very hard to reach, where someone was growing some marijuana plants in pots. He used a large bucket on some tiles and some flexible pipes as a continuous dripper for his plants. Which seems to work fine. The pot was an old IKEA plastic washbucket with a whole for the tube underneath. More easy tips about growing guerilla style on: ilovegrowingmarijuana.com


DavidGK
5/23/2015 4:09:33 PM

HI there - nice design! I'm a rookie gardener and have been using SWCs on the patio of my apartment this year, though it's a slightly different design using crushed rocks for the reservoir covered by a screen (like a window screen) to separate the reservoir from the soil. So far the plants are doing well! One note: I have been trying to save money by using compost (which is available for free in my city, Montreal) mixed with organic black soil and a bit of soil-less potting mix. It seems that I'm defying the conventional wisdom of more experienced container gardeners who swear that anything less than potting mix is basically murder for your plants. I figure that people were probably growing plants in containers before mixes of peat moss, perlite and the other stuff of commercial potting mediums became easily available at local hardware stores. Didn't such a time exist? Sometimes I think a lot of this talk about potting mix results from really successful marketing. We'll see if my plants actually thrive I guess. Wish me luck!


Digger James
2/4/2014 2:58:10 PM

Interesting! Can you just use any type of potting mix? I've heard heavier mixes aren't the best and a soiless mix works better for aeration etc. These are really similar techniques used in a planter I just bought on www.zerosoilgardens.com and this came with a type of soiless mix made with what looks like coco coir and perlite.






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