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 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 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.

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:

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 and this came with a type of soiless mix made with what looks like coco coir and perlite.

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