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.


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.

9/12/2013 12:23:06 AM

I am looking forward to trying out this planter! I suppose you could, after cutting a hole for the plant's stem, you could cut the lid in half. Then you could fit each half on separately. A few small holes drilled on opposite sides of the cut would probably allow the two halves to be wired together if desired.

chad glucksman
6/8/2012 5:02:03 PM

Similar to the AQUEOUS planter I bought on a year ago. WORKS LIKE MAGIC!! I LOVE IT!

8/8/2011 1:28:26 PM

here is a self-watering cup proposed to quirky. If you vote for it by August 12th will manufacture it! . It's the small, ready-made answer to large self-watering pots, for sprouting seedlings or growing small bunches of herbs on the counter top.

gene c.
4/1/2011 8:47:28 PM

Many 'designers' have recently modified their instructions and videos, eliminating of the fill tube altogether. Since you need the overflow hole in the reservoir bucket, simply make a 1" or 1 1/2" hole instead and fill directly into the reservoir until water runs out the larger hole. You need about an inch of air space between the water and the base of the interior bucket (or platform) so very little volume is lost in the reservoir due to the enlarged hole.

ida jackson
2/23/2011 1:04:32 PM

I like this and make them all the time. I cut the bottom out of a 24oz pop bottle to make a funle to add watter, if bottle is not as tall as container add pipe to make it as tall as container. The bottle will go into a 3/4 hole. This takes less pipe and less potting soil and gives you a bigger hole to hit with your hose.

bill goodrich
2/23/2011 10:47:52 AM

The mix is not covered in this article so if you make your own, use potting mix. If the package says soil, don't use it for this application.(The dirt will clog the resevoir, and will not wick the water properly.) It is a little more expensive than soil, but is the core of a successful container plant. Add a little liquid fish emulsion fertilizer. Better plan on a support for the growth of your plants. Check your PH. Add a little lime if too low. (Best around 7.0) Too high and the plants can't pick up the nutrients. You can make your own mix with 1/3 peat, 1/2 soil conditioner (A really fine mulch), and the rest in perlite/vermiculite. Don't cheat the peat. (Hate to use peat but it is crucial to proper wicking.)

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