Self-Watering Containers in Mother Earth News

We’re proud to announce that Mother Earth News online is excerpting the project, How to Build a Self-Watering Container from our book, The Urban Homestead.

We heart Mother Earth News. If you haven’t visited their site, do so. You’ll find a treasure trove of homesteady-type information to peruse.

(Here’s a hint about that article: there are illustrations, but they’re not embedded in the text. Look for the link to the “Image Gallery.”)

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  1. Yeah, for some reason, the image gallery is how MEN does pictures.

    Cool that you’re getting that much more exposure. I think we may attempt these for the hops plants when we move them.

  2. I think you mentioned a week or two back that you were phasing out the use of PVC b/c of the chemical leach, so what do you use for the buckets then? I found that 2x 3gal or 5gal buckets from your local hardware store work perfectly. Are those plastics different than PVC?
    Another Q is how do you keep the bottoms from smelling rotten and rancid? I noticed the roots would go out the bottom of the small bucket and just sit in the water and rot.

    • Normally the self watering mechanism is utilized as s wick up to your growing medium that transports the water up to the plants. Originally available on the web from Ed Marks it was a hydroponic growing solution placed on the web for free for everyone. He used 5 gallon buckets within buckets with drilled holes that gave the upper bucket access to the nutrient solution in the bottom bucket. the system basically utilized the power or vermiculite to wick up to the plant and he grew bushes of basil in that you could machete and they were reilient enough to grow back to big bushes once again. He lived in tucson and save enough rain water which was the right ph at the get go to mix within a 35 gallon with cover- trash can to prevent the light as a reservoir.-to a 5 gallon bucket with a toillet float that would release the nutrient solution to 6 to 8 5 gallon buckets ensuring the nutrient solution was available for each. Roots will grow through the medium and they would eventually try to get to the source of the solution if grown long enough. This prevented rot, the perlite also gave oxygen to the growing roots and held the plant in place and he realized he over engineered it and that they did not need as much perlite and switched the seeds into smaller styrofoam soup cups within the buckets and got the same results.Hope this helps.Les Drury at [email protected]

  3. We made self-watering planters from 50-gallon plastic drums. We cut them in half, drilled a bunch of small hole and one hold big enough for an old chunk of PVC pipe in the bottom of one side. We used some old chunks of 2×4 to support the inner portion. We used them to grow tomatoes for years, though the plastic eventually deteriorated in the sun.

    If you decide to buy a commercial self-watering planter and go for an Earth Box, make sure you buy it from a store. If you buy online, they’ll constantly send you dead tree spam. And they admit that they only send unsubscribe requests to their marketing department once a year. Way to market to greenies.

  4. @robin

    We like to use food grade plastic buckets (we scavenge them from behind bakeries, etc.)–these plastics are designed not to leach so much. Hardware store buckets are not as safe.

    I’ve never noticed bad smells coming from one of our containers. I’ll point this comment out to Erik and see if he has anything to add. He’s out of town this weekend, so check back after tuesday of next week.

  5. The well placed overflow hole seems to solve the smell problem. I did get horrible rotting in one where I mis-drilled the hole and it couldn’t drain. They seem to go through water fast enough that standing-rotting water isn’t really an issue. One question that was asked to me was – “what about mosquitoes getting into the drain hole?” I was unable to answer that, except to mumble something about putting a hunk of bTi in the reservoir.

  6. I have had some fetid water in the reservoir in the past and some plants that rooted down into it. Certainly you should dump out the water after harvesting your plants. I think if I were to try tomatoes again I’d go for a patio variety that doesn’t root down as far. The Green Roof Grower, who have a few photos in the MEN article use 6 gallon buckets so that plants have more root space. I think they may have also tried 8 gallon buckets.

  7. Hey there,

    I bought about 100 5 gallon buckets down in Torrance and am in the process of converting them all into SWC for a rooftop garden. I’ll have to show some pictures when I’m done. I’m actually using the design where you cut the lid out and use that as the bottom aeration screen. I found some great plant baskets at a Hyrdoponics store too. While I had been collecting containers to use as wicking chambers, with 100 buckets, I just bought all the same components and a 4 1/2″ hole saw to speed up the process. The biggest difference that I’m trying is instead of having a PVC pipe fill tube, I’m putting a drip irrigation nub on the side and I’ll daisy chain them all together. The zip ties that are holding the edges of the aeration lid in place also double as drain holes so I have 6 holes around the top of the water reservoir. That should help for drainage on a slightly sloping flat roof surface.

    I’ll let you guys know how it works. One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that people don’t know the difference between potting soil and potting mix and look at me kinda crazy when I go to a nursery. I don’t know enough myself to dispell them of this notion. The pdf that you linked to in your original post had great directions as well.

    In regards to fertilizing and space, how much stuff do you guys plant in a 5 gal bucket? Like how many corn plants could you fit in 1? would you put the fertilizer strip around the outer edge with a cluster of say 3 plants in the middle or a ring of corn plants and the fertilizer strip or patch in the center? Can you use worm castings instead of fertilizer and how much?

    Sorry for the huge post. As you can tell I’m excited and was working on it all weekend.



  8. I’ve given up the buckets in favor of storage totes and perforated drain pipe as shown on Bob’s site

    Easy, cheap and no more double buckets!

  9. hi there all. Any feedback on the whole fertilizing strips in the SWCs? What with all the rain, I’m worried that the water is getting under the plastic cover and leeching the fertilizer into the water chamber.



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