Self Watering Containers


Today, something for our apartment homesteaders. If you’ve got a patch of sun and want to grow some food crops container gardening is the way to go.

But container gardening has several drawbacks. Containers dry out quickly and if you forget to water, especially with vegetables, you can easily kill your plants. In fact inconsistent watering is probably the number one cause of container plant failure. Container gardening also uses a lot of water and can be messy, as the excess water flows out of the bottom of your pots leaving muddy stains on decks and balconies.

Thankfully, there is an elegant solution in the form of self watering containers. The principle is simple. Rather than having a hole in the bottom of the pot, there is instead a reservoir of water. Potting soil is suspended above the water reservoir by means of a perforated barrier. Circular “wicking chambers” reach down into the reservoir and draw water up to the plant’s roots. The reservoir is refilled by means of a pipe that comes out of the top of the pot and the soil in the pot is covered with a layer of plastic that acts as mulch. Depending on how deep the water reservoir is, it’s possible to go many days without having to add water. This arrangement, combined with the mulch layer on top prevent wasteful over-watering that can occur with conventional pots.

Best of all, while commercially made self watering containers such as the Earthbox┬« are available, it’s possible to build your own with these detailed instructions (warning–long pdf) by Josh Mandel. Or take a look at our how-to video:

We built our self watering container with an old plastic storage bin. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket also makes an excellent choice. Clever and water-wise folks may want to pimp out their self watering containers with overflow tubes to carry excess water out of the drainage hole and into a plastic milk bottle. Instructions for doing this can be found here (another pdf), and this might be wise for those considering placing these things on a roof.

Speaking of roofs, one drawback to self watering containers is that they are heavy once filled, so make sure that what you put them on can support the weight. Also, fill them with soil and water only after you have placed them where they need to go, since they can be a bitch to move once full.

Now, we don’t have much sympathy for the aesthetically minded, but some might consider a bunch of five gallon buckets or plastic tubs ugly. Personally we like the meth lab/cannabis farm chic this type of gardening suggests, but for the yuppies out there it’s also possible to put your home brew self watering container within a larger and more attractive pot if you’ve got the dough to blow. Fill the extra space between your self watering container and the pot it’s sitting in with gravel. Check out our instructions on how beautify your self watering container.

Now, apartment homesteaders, get out there and grow your own damn food!

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20 Comments

  1. This is great! I’m starting my first container garden in my first Condo… unfortunately our HOA has strict regulations about what can be sitting outside, so I’ll have to pretty up my containers so they definitely look like “pots” instead of plastic storage boxes.

  2. I’m linking to this great post from my blog, eatlocal.wordpress.com, and wondering if it would be OK to use the image above, giving full credit to the artist, of course. Thanks for considering.

  3. I find the valuable information is provided by you.
    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  4. @Mallo:

    Thank you for your note! I hope you don’t mind if we re-posted your comment and picture today so everyone could see your beautiful SWC and be reminded that they can make them too!

  5. Is there any concern of leaching from the materials? Looks like you are using PVC pipe as your tube. I have heard bad things about PVC exposed to the elements breaking down and releasing bad things into soil. Any comments or alternatives would be appreciated.

  6. hello

    I love reading your blog and thought you might be interested in the fact that I entered a contest for a pet project with Tidy Cats company. My entry was a self watering planted wade with 2 of their containers. Most of the other videos are very plain and typically describe a litter box or other play structure for a cat.

    Here is the youtube link;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUQcoN9Df5s

    A winner gets $10,000 and will be decided within about 30 days. Please let me know if you would like additional info.

    Brian
    briansthomas (at) gmail.com

  7. Greetings,

    I’ve heard that PVC pipes release dioxin as they burn and/or deteriorate as a result of the elements. Is this true? What can you suggest as an alternative that won’t poison us?

  8. Hey guys,

    I was wondering if you could tell me approximately how many of these containers it would take to feed one single person on a consistent basis throughout the entire spring and summer seasons. Also, do you use dish-soap when you wash your buckets? Thanks for your time and keep up the great work.

    • Bruno,

      Erik already directed you toward Jeavons. Also, google Green Roof Growers. Our friends in Chicago blog about their rooftop SIP gardens. That should give you a good idea what an advanced set up might look like.

      From your question I wasn’t sure if by feed you meant support yourself entirely on produce, or just supplement your table with fresh vegetables. For the second purpose, you can get by with a handful — one with a cherry tomato, one with lettuce, a couple with leafy greens. That could be done on a porch. But if you’re talking survival, the answer would be lots and lots and lots. ;)

  9. I don’t know if anyone checks this anymore, but I had one thing to add regarding the “ugly” factor of plastic bins filling the yard. Make a cheap surround out of pallets. I found this website, which gives pretty good instruction on how to do this. Where I am, you can get pallets for about a dollar, so this makes it easy to make a somewhat attractive wood-based surround for your container garden, cover it all in a little burlap, and it looks like a fancy-pants garden.

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Planter-from-pallets-no-nail-pull-method/?ALLSTEPS

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