How to make self-watering containers

Watering is a fact of gardening. Plants need water and, unless the weather is rainier than you want it to be, you have to give it to them.

You can do this with a system of hoses and pipes, in which case your effort stops being watering and starts being irrigation.  Or you can stand next to the garden with a hose, which is what we end up doing most of the time. The bigger your garden, the longer it takes. Last year, when it took a good half hour to water the plants, I started to see the appeal of self-watering containers.

Yesterday, I made two of them, and I’m going to tell you how in this, one of my occasional series of bona fide how-to posts. But now that I have you on the edge of your seat, I’m going to deliver the death-blow to your nascent enthusiasm.

Here it is: my self-watering containers are another in my series of experiments in hydroponics.

Last week, I told you about the gravity-feed system we set up for our kale, and it went over like a lead balloon. Instead of appreciative comments about how creative and interesting our system was, my post was met with stony silence. A couple of you left remarks along the line of, “well, if you really must …” The rest of you must have been operating on the maxim that, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. That, or you were all washing your hair that day.

So now I’m asking – what’s wrong with hydroponics? Is it that it’s not organic? Is it that it’s more science than nature? I think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread, but I’ve always been more scientist than naturalist.

Talk to me.

And now, my self-watering containers.

“Self-watering” isn’t really accurate. You still have to do the watering. But you can give your plant several days’ worth of water at one go, and the container enables the plant to soak it up in its own good time.

There are as many ways to assemble self-watering containers as there are discarded containers, but the basic elements are the same. You need a reservoir of water, a way for the plant to access the reservoir, and way to refill the reservoir.

I read a number of methods, and then pretty much followed an excellent set of instructions from Mother Earth News. Here’s my version.

You’ll need two 5-gallon compound buckets that nest (the outer will be the reservoir, the inner will hold the soil and plant), a one-quart deli or yogurt container, and a pipe about an inch in diameter (I used PVC) long enough to reach from the bottom of the reservoir to the top of the soil. Two feet does nicely.

That’s it: two buckets, a yogurt container, and a pipe. The rest is tools.

Mainly, you need a drill. Everything’s going to need holes. You’ll also need a knife or hacksaw for the holes that are too big to drill. Got those? Here goes.

1. Figure out how deep your reservoir is by placing one bucket inside the other.  (So the pictures make sense, I’m using the orange bucket as the interior, and the white as the exterior.)  Cut down your yogurt container so it’s about a half-inch deeper than the reservoir depth. This is going to be your wicking chamber. It’s going to stick out the bottom of your interior bucket, and will contain the soil that’s in contact with the water.

2. Trace a circle the size of the cut-down yogurt container in the center of the bottom of the interior bucket, and cut the circle out. It doesn’t have to be a perfect fit.

3. Trace a second circle on the bottom of your interior bucket (near the edge), this one the size of the pipe you’ll be using to fill the reservoir, and cut that out. If you have one of those drill bits they use for cutting doorknob holes, that works well. Again, it doesn’t have to be a perfect fit.

4. You now have two big holes in the bottom of your interior bucket. Using a ¼-inch drill bit (or anything remotely resembling it – size isn’t crucial), drill about a dozen other holes in the bottom of the bucket. These are for ventilation.

5. Punch many holes in your yogurt container. These are the holes through which water will wick into the soil. They should be in the ¼-inch range. I used an awl, and then made the holes a little bigger with the drill.

6. Cut the end of the pipe at an angle, so it doesn’t sit flush on the bottom of the reservoir (which would make filling it difficult).

7. Assemble! Put the interior bucket in the exterior bucket, put the yogurt container through the hole in the center, and the pipe through the appropriate hole.

8. The last step is to drill a small hole in the exterior bucket, just below the bottom of the interior bucket (if you hold the assembly up to the light, you can see where that is). This is so that you can see when the reservoir is full – the water will start dribbling out the hole.

That’s all there is to it. I built two of these in about 45 minutes.

Materials for both containers cost me about five dollars – two Home Depot buckets, at $2.50 each. My friend Rick gave me the other two buckets, and we have lots of spare PVC lying around because we use it in our oystering. I go through lots of Trader Joe’s goat yogurt, and have a collection of the containers. (I had to empty some fermented beans out of one of them; it’s a measure of my housekeeping that I don’t clean out the refrigerator until I need the yogurt containers for gardening.)

If you have to buy the buckets and the PVC, it’ll cost about $5.50 per container – two buckets and a short length of pipe.

Once your containers are assembled, all the remains is to put plants in them. We used our standard-issue hydroponic mix (two parts perlite, two parts peat moss, one part vermiculite), and we filled the reservoir with Peter’s Professional 5-11-26 fertilizer, a teaspoon dissolved in a little over two gallons of water.

You’re probably going to use potting soil, and ordinary water, because you think hydroponic gardening is the work of the devil. But you’re going to tell me why, aren’t you?

22 people are having a conversation about “How to make self-watering containers

  1. hee hee! am I first?
    I don’t think hydroponics is the work of the devil….it’s just not for me. I’m not technically minded and I enjoy pottering about with soil on my plot. Anything that requires money or measuring is doomed the second I get involved.
    Hydroponics requires both.
    However, I’ve been thinking of making some self watering containers and your instructions are the best I’ve seen so I’ll be copying those this week.
    Am I forgiven?

  2. Margaret Fisher says:

    Perspective matters here – to you, a half hour to water is a drag; to me, half an hour to water is time well spent. I could never give up the digging-in-the-soil kind of gardening, the get-low, get-dirty feel of the land. I could not look out on that gerrymandered space-launch area with the black-plastic-and-white-styrofoam looming at me, anymore than I could work happily on plants growing in my bathtub. I love love love the look of a garden in full, the soil-meets-stem-meets-fruit coalescence that reinforces my knowing that what I eat comes from my earth.

    But I am not a busy author with places to go and things to do, nor am I struggling to grow in Cape Cod soil (any more, thank God); I’m a retired professional with too much time to smell the flowers. See? Perspective does matter.

  3. I think hydroponics is AWEsome but I almost never comment, so that post didn’t elicit a comment from me but that’s nothing new.

    This looks totally cool and if I feel inspired after I get done with school, I’ll try putting a couple together. I just blew most of my gardening budget on a pair of raised beds, so I’m trusting you when you say that this is both inexpensive and easy.

  4. Good for you. I’m not quite older than dirt, but getting pretty close. In the ’50s, I was buying and reading Organic Gardening Magazine (which cost a quarter), and even then, I thought that although the “no toxic sprays” part was right on, the “no chemical fertilizer” part should be a desired end, and not a mandatory condition. What many folks seem to completely fail to understand is that ALL fertilizers consist of chemicals. The main difference is that the “bad” chemicals are refined by man , and their content is 100% known. The natural, “organic” fertilizers, on the other hand, contain mixed chemicals, as supplied by mother nature, content not totally knowable, except by extensive analysis.

    Totally agreed that it is better to use material at hand from the environment than it is to have to pay for “chemicals”. Totally agreed that dependance on chemicals will cause the land to be depleted after a while, and organic practices will improve the soil.

    That having been said, with hydroponics, you’re certainly not doing any harm to your (already shitty) soil. Go for it.

    All that having been said, it is apparently now possible to get organic hydroponic fertilizer.

  5. Okay – I’ll come out from under my stone for a minute ……..

    My uncomfortableness (is that a word?) with your hydroponics system is the dependance on oil. Oil to make the weed fabric, oil for the styrofoam, oil for the fertilizers. I suspect you are even using potable water for the watering, cleaned by the water company to a much higher level and at a greater environmental cost than your plants appreciate. That adds up to taking from the earth and putting nothing back … not even to improve the quality of your own bit of mud and dust.

    In the sealed system of the sci-fi spaceship where literally everything, inc exhaled carbon monoxide, goes back to feed the food production system you can see that it might be possible – although you are going to lose energy at various stages so practically ….. but see AC Clarke for all that ……

    But not Cape Cod. This whole system depends on a non renewable resource … and it doesn’t add up to treading lightly on this earth. My personal step is still pretty heavy but every day in every way I try to make it a little lighter.

    Ok – end of preaching. Going back under stone for protection now ……

  6. I don’t have any holier-than-thou prejudices against hydroponics in the case of their dependence on oil, or just about anything else, for that matter. In certain applications, hydroponics have their place (living underground after Armageddon comes to mind). It’s just that while we’re still able to plow above ground, it’s probably still the best way to grow the most nutritious food, (and probably better tasting, but that’s really subjective and unprovable, probably).

    Since research indicates that humans can’t metabolize vitamins in pill form as well as the vitamins ingested through a balanced diet because we just don’t undertand how all of it works yet and don’t have all the trace stuff balanced correctly, I’m assuming that plants do a better job metabolizing nutrients from a well-balanced soil, rather than through scientifically formulated fluids. From my reading I’ve learned that chemical fertilizers leach fertility out of soils and leave them in worse shape than when they started, so I have a preconceived idea that chemical fertilizers are not good in any form. I’m probably wrong about this, because I’m often wrong about a lot of things, but it sounds right to me.

    So what I’m saying is, hydroponics are not for me because I have soil that doesn’t leak near as bad as yours does. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can see how someone in your position whose soil doesn’t hold anything would find hydroponics a viable solution, and I’m glad you have one.

    But in case you still want to dig in some dirt, check out the article in the MEN this month on growing sweet potatoes, written by a grower in Canada, of all places. Evidently, sweet potatoes do best in sandy soil.

  7. Hi, I like dirt.

    I like amending dirt, I like attempting to grow things in it that laugh at me. I like the idea of being able to grow things if the oil based economy collapses and our food chain grinds to a halt.

    I’m not a doomsday kind of gal, but I think doing things as basically as possible makes the most sense if you can pull it off. I’ll agree with the whole oil dependence comment above as well.

    I don’t think it makes you bad, I think it makes you somewhat um…normal. I just think we need to move pretty far away from normal in order for the world to start making sense and working in a healthy manner again. Lord, I sound like a freak.


  8. Whew! Glad we got all that out in the open.

    Thank you, all, for weighing in. I think some of the points raised are the bedrock arguments against hydroponics, and I’m very glad to have the discussion about them.

    Here are my thoughts. Although the actual calculation of the cost to the earth of what we’re doing is too complex to do with any accuracy, my guess is that our hydroponic set-up has a smaller footprint than the conventional gardening we do. Yes, there are fossil fuels involved in producing all the materials, as well as the fertilizer, but I have to weigh that against the fossil fuels involved in amending our native soil.

    We’ve put yards and yards of compost in — much more than we can produce here — and each load requires the truck and landscape trailer. If we buy topsoil, that comes in either by truck, or in bags made of plastic. All amendments to our garden are very heavy, and come a long distance, most probably by truck.

    And our soil would have to continue to be amended, year after year. Once our hydroponics are set up, the same material should last us many years. We need fertilizer, but we’re figurinig 50 pounds should last us the season.

    And, if all goes well, we will be able to grow much more food in the same space, so if our calculation is footprint per plant, I strongly suspect the hydroponics come out ahead. We’re still planning on dirt gardening for a lot of things, but we think using hydroponics for plants that lend themselves to it makes a lot of sense.

    If it works — and that’s a big if — it will be a very efficient way to grow food. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

    The point about potable water is spot-on. We’ve been thinking about rain catchment systems, and it’s definitely on our list. But, until we have that, hydroponics actually use less water than conventional gardening (because all the water goes to the plants, with none sinking into the earth).

    As for taste, and plants growing better when they get nutrients from soil, I’ve read quite a bit about that, and most tests seem to indicate that a hydroponic plant is just as likely to thrive, and to taste as good, as a conventional plant. We’ll see whether ours bear that out.

    If Armageddon comes, I’m guessing we won’t be able to get our fertilizer, or spare parts, so we’ll have to grow what we can in the earth. Hydroponics definitely don’t work so well if the world is ending. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed on that one.

    We can talk all we want about oil, and footprints, and chemicals, but I think my temperament may have more to do with my affinity for hydroponics then any of those. I don’t feel the connection to the earth that a lot of you do; I just want to grow food. And I’ve always loved a good science experiment, which is what this feels like to me. I just hope that those of you who don’t quite approve of this route will stick around and see me through it, and continue the conversation.

  9. Come Armageddon, nothing’s going to work. If you think deer and rabbits can make short work of your garden, wait ’til the famished folks from the nearest city show up.

  10. Tamar this system could be used with re-purposed materials, and half of your set up is, the white buckets and the yogurt containers I know are. I suppose you could get reclaimed pvc piping somewhere. I know of a great affordable organic fertilizer/fish emulsion that is made with the waste from the fishing industry and produced in nearby New Bedford if you are ever interested. So there are ways of lightening that carbon foot print with this system.

  11. Hi ! This whole uproar is why I usually never comment on Blogs.I enjoy reading your Blog and your adventures in Starving off the land . That being said, you wrote about your crappy soil. a few of us offered you a suggestion , a free ,easy way to do it. I’m sure your Hydroponics Experiment will work , enjoy the adventure. But when your Blog is open to anybody , not everyone will be cheering you on. Best wishes Roxy

  12. Mom — I can barely plan for dinner, let alone Armageddon. In that event, I’m a goner.

    Rick — An excellent point. Two of the buckets came from you, repurposed from food service. The PVC was leftover from building racks for our oysters. The yogurt containers previously contained yogurt. The gravity-fed system, however …

    Roxy — I’m delighted to have people disagree, and even disapprove. Otherwise, I’m afraid this blog would be pretty dull. Your suggestion of lasagne gardening went right on the (very long) list of things we’d like to try. I’d read about Kate’s success with it at Living the Frugal Life, but my understanding is that you have to have at least something passable to begin with. It probably won’t be sufficient to transform what is essentially sand into something rich enough in nutrients to grow plants. But as we continue to amend, I think there’s a place for it.

    I do hope you’ll continue to participate.

  13. Firstly, your mom should write a book. OK, another book.

    Secondly, although when I hear the word ‘hydroponic’ I still think of stoners in college growing weed in their closet, but I’m a big fan of the system. I only have limited experience using hydroponic systems (strawberries and tomatoes) so I’m learning lots from your posts. I can’t comment because I don’t have any knowledge, or very limited knowledge, to pass on. And I was probably washing my hair. Or a dog.

    There are a lot of ‘pros’ to hydroponics. Your wicking watering system will prevent fungal and bacterial diseases which take advantage of wet cold soil. It’s a valid and successful growing method when your soil is, say, beach sand. It’s space-saving, works inside cover to extend your cropping year, and a lot of the system set-up can be reused plastics (yogurt pots). Organic and permaculture growers love it for vertical farming – why waste the space above the soil?

    I think the most successful system is the one which suits your particular needs, climate, and topography. Think of all those British missionaries who tried to impose growing methods which worked in a wet, humus-rich soil back home, on the Africans who had already evolved a way to grow food in a hot climate prone to soil erosion. The missionaries succeeded in converting them, then starving them to death.

    More hydroponic posts please. And more comments from your mom about the armageddon.

  14. I guess was in fact operating on the maxim you mentioned. I don’t really have any holier than thou attitudes towards the practice of hydroponics. I don’t have your dirt to contend with, and you’re probably right about the resource intensivity of hydroponics vs. amending your soil being roughly a wash – at least for the near term. I suspect that if you made a heroic commitment to improving the soil that after a few years it would stabilize and develop an ecosystem of its own which could be self-sustaining if carefully managed. I’ve seen documentaries on truly awful soils (e.g, utterly bare, salinated desert) being built up to the point of lush fertility. But, as I said, that’s not my issue.

    Basically it’s just an ornery and bone-deep conviction that anything that far removed from a natural process isn’t for me. I could cite doubts that the nutrition or flavor wouldn’t be the same, though that could be shot down and still not change my conviction. I’ve simply seen too many whiz-bang techno-innovations that don’t really pan out in the long term, or that are eventually found to come with unintended consequences. So I just want my food grown in good healthy soil, where things far beyond my understanding take place. I figure, if we understand everything that’s going on in a system supporting plants, and we control those things, it’s probably not close to an ideal system. Humans just aren’t that smart. But I’m happy that you’re happy running the experiment, and I’ll watch your progress and results with interest.

  15. velvet goldmine says:

    Hydroponics don’t seem an odd concept to me. After all, think of all the edible foods which are naturally “hydroponic” — watercress, those waterlilies with edible tubers, algae. There are plenty of plants which don’t anchor to the river bank or ocean floor — they live on the surface and draw nutrients from the water. To think about it in terms of what’s perverting nature and what isn’t is probably short-sighted.

    I’m trying to figure out a system for growing edible foods on our leech field, which is a long, narrow hill with a flat top. Maybe those hydroponic towers would be useful, provided I could figure out where the leeching pipes are so I don’t poke into them when driving the towers poles into the ground. Otherwise I will probably do something with barrels or self-watering containers, probably up on brick “feet” to allow water to reach the surface of the ground throughout the field.

    Any thoughts?

    I’ll be interested to know how both the towers and the self-watering containers work out for you. Mother Earth News is great, but sometimes the tone of the articles have a kind of “what if I told you that you could build a system for $2 that could yield you 5,000 pounds of apples in just two weeks?!?” over-selling kind of tone.

  16. velvet goldmine says:

    Oh, I wanted to add that lasagna gardening is working well for us, so far. I’ve only used it on perennial plants, though, which is probably more forgiving to the materials slowly breaking down than annuals might be. The flowers. perennial veggies and herbs I started spring in the lasagna beds I’d started the previous fall were a little stunted, I’d say, but this year they are really thriving. I think if one’s entire property is problematic, lasagna gardening is probably a good system to try in conjunction with container gardening or hydroponics. Build up a little of the soil at a time with a slower-working system like lasagna gardening (or simply adding nutrients each year to traditional beds), while reaping the immediate bounty of containers or hydroponics.

  17. Jen – You should hear all the stuff my mother says that doesn’t make it onto the blog. I think I’m the only woman in the world whose husband wishes his wife could be more like his mother-in-law.

    I think your take on all this is close to mine. I’m doing it because we have soil that would require heroic measures, and because I think it’s cool.

    Kate – I think you’re right that we can’t know exactly what combination of nutrients is optimal for plants. (That’s what I always say about human nutrition, when I pooh-pooh the latest advice to work the latest micronutrient into your diet.) I do think there’s a wide range of acceptable nutrient levels, and I’m figuring I have a better shot of being in it if I let the scientists who developed my fertilizer feed my plants. I’ve been so frustrated with trying to figure out how to amend our soil, and I have so little confidence in my ability to do it competently.

    The plants themselves will be the proof. If they thrive, and taste good, I’ll be happy, and I guess it’s that simple.

    VG – I would absolutely try hydoponics on the leaching field. Just use a system that doesn’t require you to bang anything in the ground deep enough so you can do damage. The same farmer who’s growing kale and strawberries in the vertical containers is doing tomatoes, beets, and carrots in containers on the ground. You can use the plastic grow bags, and the substrate is light, so if there are weight considerations you’re probably okay.

    That’s another vote for lasagne. I like the idea of having parts of the garden set up for immediate gratification and other parts for down-the-road.

  18. When I lived in Florida, where the soil is pretty much sand, although finer than yours (at least it’s not called Carver Coarse), the neighbor across the street had a truly amazing vegetable garden down by the river on his father-in-law’s property. Mike had built raised beds out of passing flotsam that he’d hauled out of the river, and then built the soil in them by dumping leaves in them. Every fall (and spring- that’s when the Live oaks shed their leaves in Jacksonville) he’d drive around in his F150 and grab bags of leaves people had set on the curb for the garbage guys to pick up, drive them down to Dick’s house, and dump them in his beds. He had the most gorgeous, dark brown soil I’ve ever seen. When he grew potatoes, he’d plant them in the soil, but he’s hill them up with leaves, and by the time it was time to dig up potatoes, he’d just sift through the leaves after them.

    If you stuck with one bed and kept dumping leaves, you could build up one bed at a time. Just an idea.

  19. Tamar,
    I apologize for the silence on that last post…Just mark it up to stunned silence. What do you say except YAY! Hydroponics. YAY! Self-watering containers!

    What you do out there in the woods is incredible stuff. I might not be able to keep up with your commitment to living off the land, but I certainly can admire the work you and your husband do. I can also wish that some day I might learn 1/118th of what you’ve come to discover in this new part of your life.


  20. As a not-quite-broke student who moves every year or two, hydroponics is of little use to me. I’d rather spend money on quality seed and good hand tools than an expensive hydroponics system which I’d have to repeatedly disassemble and convince my new landlord/landlady that I should be allowed to install.

Converstion is closed.