For the last few years, the Husband and I have been playing with herb and vegetable gardens in our yard. We found that most herbs and lettuces are best suited on the deck off of our kitchen, which gets lots of direct sunlight, and is too high for the rabbits to get at. But we haven’t had much success with vegetables. There was one year we had a fantastic cucumber plant, but all of our other in-ground crops have died miserable deaths for one reason or another.
One of the biggest battles is keeping the plants well watered. The single year with the fantastic cucumber plant was made possible with DIY drip irrigation. Unfortunately, drip irrigation is pretty labor intensive, somewhat costly, and most of the pieces had deteriorated by the end of the first year. If you’re like me, spreading mulch each spring pretty much exhausts your desire to do anything else requiring too much work.
A long while back, I came across this post through Pinterest, and was intrigued by the idea of a self-watering planter system. Basically, the plant and soil sit on top of a water reservoir. If you don’t get enough rain to keep the reservoir full, the a pipe is used to fill it back up with the hose.
After researching multiple blog posts and YouTube videos for the concept, we thought we’d give it a go this year with tomato and cucumber plants…favorites of both of our girls. I even figured out a little trick to make the process go a bit faster. Once I got the process down, each planter only took an hour and a half…and that’s with taking a couple of phone calls from the husband and stopping to take all these photos.
How to make a Self-Watering Planter
– Rubbermaid Roughneck Tote with lid (I used 18 gallon tubs)
– Box cutter with a sharp blade*
– Hot glue gun
– PVC Pipe cut a few inches taller than the tote
– And old plant pot
– Supports equal in height to the plant pot**
– Tin snips
– zip ties (optional)
*It’s important that your blade be sharp. My first attempt at making these was with an old blade, and it not only took forever,but left a fairly mangled cut. Cutting the tote with a fresh blade was far easier.
**Make sure your supports are sturdy enough to hold up the weight of the soil and the plants when they are wet from a rain storm. Some people use PVC cuts, you could also use old water bottles (make sure they’re thick enough to be sturdy. I found that Frappuccino sized bottles and pickle jars are quite sturdy!
1. Cutting the Lid Down: Following the inner lip on the lid, use the box cutter to cut the edge off the lid. Place the plant pot inside the tub and test to see if the inner cut of the lid is snug, but not too tight. For the tubs I used, the inner lip was curved along the handles, but I ended up needing to make straight cuts on the sides. (I like to do this on an old piece of cardboard just to be sure I don’t cut the floor underneath)
2. Creating a moisture wick: In order for the plants to stay hydrated, they will need to have a portion of soil that sits in the water reservoir. From there water is wicked up to the plant as needed. In order to create the wick, I used one of the pots that the plants came in. Just trace the outline of the wicking pot and use the box cutter to cut about a quarter to a half inch inside the line (this ensures that the pot can also be used as a support).
3. Making the watering spout: The PVC pipe will be used to fill the reservoir whenever necessary. Cut a hole in the corner of the lid that is about the same size as the PVC pipe. Then cut a large opening in the bottom of the PVC pipe for water to drain out as you’re filling. I used a 1/2 inch diameter of PVC and found that making an opening that was half the diameter of the pipe and about two inches tall was perfect. I also used my tin snips to make this cut. It’s rough, but no one will see it. If you have better tools for the job, go ahead and use them! (Note: this tutorial shows two PVC pipe spouts. I didn’t make the bottom hole big enough for my first tub, and was worried that it was due to the diameter of the PVC. With the wide bottom, I don’t need that second spout at all)
4. Creating Drainage for Rain: If you live in an area that gets a decent amount of rain, then you’ll need to make sure that the soil can drain excess water into the reservoir. Most tutorials I read/watched mentioned that this was the longest and most tedious part of the process. It was made simple for me with my ancient glue gun! Just make sure it gets super hot, remove any glue that might be in the plunger, and use the tip of the gun to make holes all over the lid, in the wicking pot, and in any supports that can take it. (Some items, like glass won’t be able to have holes, for those items, I recommend making sure they’re thin enough to avoid taking up valuable reservoir space, and placing them in the tub mouth side down so they don’t hold water that’s drained from the soil.)
5. Managing Water Levels in the Reservoir: You’ll need a way to make sure that you’ve filled your water reservoir, and also to take care of any possible excess of water due to rain. Use your supports/wicking pot to mark inside the tub where the lid will be resting. Using a glue gun, make a hole or two just below the marked line on the side of the tub. When you fill the reservoir through the PVC pipe, watch for water coming out of the overflow. Similarly, if you think that the reservoir is too full, you can tip the tub and use the overflow holes to empty it out a bit.
While you’re at it, you might want to go ahead and use the glue gun to create holes to thread the zip ties around the PVC pipe (see next step).
6. Assembling the box: Place the wicking pot in the center of the tub, right were you cut the hole in the lid. Place supports (the same height as the wicking pot) around the bottom of the tub to help hold the weight of the plant and soil (I use at least four). Place the lid on top and insert the PVC into the prepared corner. I also zip tied the PVC pipe in a couple of places just to make sure that it didn’t move around too much.
7. Fill and Plant! Starting inside the wicking pot, add soil and place your plant. I made two planters. We have a cucumber plant in one, and two tomato plants in the other. The tomato plants are doing quite well; though I worry that one is overcrowding the other.
These are our tomato plants. Like the cucumber, they were pretty ratty when we first planted them about a month ago. But they’re thriving now…so much so that you can hardly see the watering pipe through the leaves…but it’s there!
Since we’ve had a fairly wet spring, I’ve only had to fill each of these planters once. They both hold several gallons of water, and I love the fact that they’re nearly maintenance free.