Build Your Own Self Watering Containers

Self watering containers are an enclosed growing system that decreases moisture evaporation and offers a consistent water supply to your plants. It is made up of two chambers, the growing chamber and the water reservoir chamber. The growing chamber contains a wick that descends into the water reservoir that pulls water up into the growing chamber as needed for the plants. See how to make self watering containers out of some easy to find items.
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This post on constructing self watering containers out of 18-gallon storage totes was originally written in May 2009 and continues to be popular. I updated the photos, copy, and added additional information in November 2014.

I still use the original self watering containers each year. I have early blight in my garden soil that often reduces the health and production of my tomato plants. Growing tomatoes in self watering planters allows the plants to grow early blight free for the whole season. Celery also grows very well in self watering pots because they receive a steady moisture level. I have also grown peppers, melons, eggplant, cucumber, and summer squash in self watering containers with great success.

What are Self Watering Containers?

Self watering containers are an enclosed growing system that decreases moisture evaporation and offers a consistent water supply to your plants. It is made up of two chambers, the growing chamber and the water reservoir chamber. The growing chamber contains a wick that descends into the water reservoir that pulls water up into the growing chamber as needed for the plants.

Many versions of self watering containers are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.

What are the Benefits of Self Watering Containers?

  • Flexible Growing Space: Self watering containers are perfect for container gardens because they can be located anywhere in your yard, on your balcony, or along the edge of your driveway. Place the containers on wheels and you can move them more easily to different locations to take advantage of maximum sun exposure.
  • A Consistent Supply of Water: Your plants will have water available to them when they need it and will not suffer from extreme moisture fluctuations that often range between soaking wet and bone dry.
  • Provides Moisture to the Roots: When you fill a self watering container, water is stored at the bottom in a separate chamber. Moisture is wicked up into the soil directly to the roots of the plants as needed. In comparison, when you water a traditional container, you add it to the soil surface. If the water doesn’t penetrate deeply enough into the pot, your plants will develop a shallow root system that may stunt growth.
  • No Nutrition Loss: Since self watering containers are an enclosed system, nutrients do not get washed away when deep watering like conventional containers.
  • Pest and Disease Free: Beginning with fresh growing medium ensures that your plants can become established before pests and disease make their appearance.
  • No Weeding: Plastic mulch covers the soil surface preventing weeds seeds from blowing in and sprouting.

How to Build Your Own Self Watering Containers

Many versions of self watering containers, also known as self watering grow boxes, self watering pots, and self watering planters are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.Materials:
1 18-gallon storage tote with lid
3-4 inch wide container for wicking basket
1 coffee can to support aeration shelf
24-inch pipe for fill tube, one end slanted
Landscape fabric
1 black plastic garbage bag
Zip ties
1 2 cu ft. bag of organic potting mix
Organic fertilizer

Tools:
Drill with assorted drill bits
Heavy scissors or saw to cut cover
Saw to cut pipe
Marking Pen

Procedure:

Many versions of self watering containers, also known as self watering grow boxes, self watering pots, and self watering planters are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.

1. Remove the center of the lid. Carefully cut out the center of the lid to be used as the aeration shelf between the soil and the water chamber. Leave about two inches around the lid, so it can be used to hold the plastic mulch to the top of the container later.

2. Cut an opening for the wicking basket. Place your wicking basket at the center of the aeration shelf and trace the edges with your marking pen. Cut the opening slightly smaller (about 1/4-inch) than the outline.

3. Drill holes in the aeration shelf. Drill holes about 1-inch apart for air exchange.

4. Attach Wicking Basket to the aeration shelf. Drill holes a bunch of holes in the wicking basket to allow water to soak through. Drill holes around the edges and attach to the aeration shelf with zip ties.

Many versions of self watering containers, also known as self watering grow boxes, self watering pots, and self watering planters are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.

5. Check the fit. Assemble your shelf supports and aeration shelf inside the tote to check the fit. The shelf should fit snug against the tote with no buckling. Trim the shelf if needed.

6. Drill a 1⁄4-inch overfill hole about 1⁄2-inch below the aeration shelf. Water will come out the overfill hole when the container is full. The hole also allows air circulations between the aeration shelf and the water.

7. Cut an opening for the fill tube. Position fill tube, trace an outline, and cut out the hole for the tube.

8. Add landscape fabric. Trim a piece of landscape fabric to cover the aeration shelf. Try to leave a 2-inch overlap. Cut holes for the fill tube and the wicking chamber. The landscape fabric prevents the soil from dropping down into the water reservoir.

Many versions of self watering containers, also known as self watering grow boxes, self watering pots, and self watering planters are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.

9. Add wet soil to wicking basket. Mix potting soil and water in a container until it is saturated. Pack into the wicking basket.

10. Move container to its final location. Place your self-watering container in its permanent location because it will be too heavy to move after adding the potting mix. Be sure the fill tube is easily reachable to fill with a hose.

11. Fill container with potting mix. Add the rest of the potting mix to the self watering container 3-inches at a time saturating each layer with water until the container is full. This is important, as dry potting mix will not wick water.

12. Add fertilizer. Dig a trench in the soil across the middle of the self watering planter and add 2-cups of fertilizer along the trench. Cover the fertilizer strip with potting mix and water in. Do not mix the fertilizer into the potting mix or spread it around.

Many versions of self watering containers, also known as self watering grow boxes, self watering pots, and self watering planters are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.

13. Layer plastic mulch. Lay the plastic garbage bag over the filled self watering container and snap on the cover. Cut a hole for the fill tube. The garbage bag will serve as a plastic mulch and help hold moisture in.

14. Plant. Avoiding the fertilizer strip, cut holes in the mulch and add your transplants. I plant two determinant or bush tomato plants in each 18-gallon self watering container, so I cut an X into the solar mulch where the tomatoes will be planted in opposite corners of the self-watering container.

15. Fill water reservoir compartment. Water through the fill tube until water comes out the overfill hole. Add plant supports if necessary. Keep water reservoir full or the wicking action will cease. Top off every day in the heat of summer.

16. Watch your plants grow and enjoy the harvest.

Additional Tips:

  • Choose a Good Quality Tote: The Rubbermaid Roughneck 18-Gallon tote is more flexible and holds up to manipulation without cracking. I found these lovely blue ones on clearance for $5 and these are still being used in 2014. Simply drain water and store in a shed for winter.
  • Aeration Shelf Support: Be sure that whatever you use to hold up the aeration shelf is sturdy enough to support the weight of the potting mix when wet. I use recycled 30 oz. ground coffee containers cut in half to provide a stable shelf.
Many versions of self watering containers, also known as self watering grow boxes, self watering pots, and self watering planters are sold online, but you can make them yourself for a fraction of the cost out of some easy to find items.

Recycled coffee cans used to support the aeration shelf. Note: this photo shows the shelf upside down.

  • Wicking Chamber: The wicking chamber container doesn’t need to be very large. I’ve used recycled food storage containers and 8 oz. yogurt containers.
  • Potting Mix: Select a good quality, lightweight potting mix suitable for containers or mix your own at the ratio of 45% peat moss, 45% compost, 10% perlite, plus 2 cups of hydrated lime or dolomite. About 2 cubic feet is needed to fill one 18-gallon self watering container.
  • Organic Fertilizer: I use Epsoma Plant-tone for growing vegetables and Tomato-Tone for tomatoes.
  • Replanting: Reusing self watering planters is easy. Just remove the old plants and old fertilizer strip. Give the soil a deep soaking, replace fertilizer strip, fill reservoir chamber, and replant.
  • Growing Transplants: Build a Grow Light System for Starting Seeds Indoors
  • How to Start Celery from Seed and Grow in Self Watering Planters


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52 thoughts on “Build Your Own Self Watering Containers

  1. Momma_S

    Your step-by-step pictures and information are great! You have me all excited about making some SWCs now (I’ll be making mine with 5gal. buckets)…

    Reply
  2. Grow a Good Life

    Thank you Momma S. I have added more to the post since you read it. I was so tired last night when I was posting this that I had to stop and finish up today.

    The tubs were a LOT of work. I bet the 5-gallon buckets will be much easier and still function the same way. If I construct any more, I will go that route.

    Reply
  3. Toni (WyomingMom)

    Wow. Great post! Greetings from Wyoming!

    I want to try SWCs next year. I’m going to link to your post on my blog so that I’ll be able to refer to your awesome detailed post… and share it with anyone else who might want to try them.

    PS… I love Maine! My grandmother lived in Woodland (now called Bailey Ville… I think) when I was growing up. I have found memories of spending time in that little town and of the wonderful adventures traveling from MA to ME! Sigh…

    Reply
  4. gwrace

    I built several of these SWC containers last year. This year I decided to abandon that concept in favor of Larry Halls self watering rain gutter system. Check them out on YouTube. I built six this year and was impressed with ease of construction.

    Reply
    1. Grow a Good Life

      Thank you for your comment. It has been several years since I constructed these SWCs. I have made some adjustments over the years and now only use two units for growing lettuce. I had not heard of Larry Hall’s rain gutter system. I watched a video and it seems very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
      1. Mila Milliorn

        If you don’t use SWCs now except for lettuce, what are you using for your celery and what you used to use SWCs for?

        Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Jan, I am so glad you found this post helpful. Tomato plants do very well in self watering containers and it is easy to harvest without bending down. You could build a trellis for other vining plants to keep them growing upright too. Thanks for the invite to your Country Fair Blog Party!

      Reply
  5. Joe

    My wife sent me here, which I believe is a hint (I usually don’t take them well, but after 14 years, I’m learning). I love the design, but I need clarification on one aspect: you cut the coffee containers from top to bottom, correct? And will one (2 halves) suffice per tote? And how are they placed in the tote? Thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Hi Joe, I really need to take a photo to clarify this step. It was an afterthought in planning. I cut the coffee containers in half horizontally. The container is stronger that way. Then I use both halves to hold up the aeration shelf. Two coffee containers per 18-gallon tote allows you to place the supports in all four corners. I will take additional photos soon to clarify and update the post.

      Reply
        1. Rashel Gray

          Hi Rachel,
          My name is Rashel from Indiana. I was wondering if 5 gallon buckets could hold the weight of tomatoes and squash using this system? It almost seems like you need to use 18 gallon buckets to maintain the physical stability of the plant. I guess I’m concerned that eventually the bucket will tip over with 5 gallon buckets. Also would wooden baskets cut in half suffice for corner support? It seems that coffee cans would rust over time and cause problems with plant health?

          Thanks for this article!

          Reply
          1. ©Rachel Arsenault Post author

            Rashel, The coffee cans are the plastic ones, so they won’t rust. There are a lot of plans for making self watering containers out of 5 gallon buckets on the internet. Here a DIY article at Mother Earth News: http://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/garden-yard/self-watering-container-ze0z11zhir.aspx I haven’t tried them myself, but many have and with great success. If you are growing tall tomatoes, I would anchor them somehow so they don’t topple over.

  6. Svitlana Ovchynnikova

    Hi, Rachel! Thank you for your detailed instructions on making SWC. Is there a reason why a fertilizer shouldn’t be mixed with the potting mix? If I want to buy a soilless mix (with no compost in it) for my containers do I need to add some nutrients to this mix first?

    Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Hi Svitlana, Using a fertilizer strip is the best way to allow the nutrients to be released slowly over time. A soilless potting mix will work perfectly. There is no need to add extra fertilizer, the initial fertilizer strip will provide enough nutrients for your plants.

      Reply
  7. akansasfarmmom

    What a great idea! I really to to build a few of these for my garden! I always forget to water things when we get busy in the summer and maybe this would give me a little more time to remember. Thanks for linking up to the Country Fair Blog Party!

    Reply
  8. Barbara Radisalvjeivc

    I wish I’d seen this when my husband was still physically able to handle these kinds of projects. Do you have any suggestions for protecting the contents of these planters from ground squirrels? They have ruined all our motivation to keep gardening, since they destroy almost everything we grow.

    Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Barbara, How frustrating that squirrels are destroying your edible garden. Maybe experiment with building a box out out of chicken wire and wood to keep them out? I need to figure out something similar to keep the deer from eating my garden.

      Reply
  9. Catgirl66

    I originally was looking for advice on making/using soil blocks for seed starting & branched out from there. Boy do you ever deliver the information! I think you should compile your posts into a book

    Reply
  10. Valerie

    Rachel I am so going to have to try these. Anything that waters itself would be so helpful in Oklahoma,

    Glad you shared it at Simple Saturdays.

    Hugs from Oklahoma,

    Valerie
    Cottage Making Mommy

    Reply
  11. amandakolb

    This is such a fantastic idea! Thank you SO much for sharing with us at Merry Monday. I have chosen your post to feature at tonight’s party starting at 8 pm CST!

    Reply
  12. flipflopbarnyard

    These are a really cool idea! Thanks for sharing at the Homestead Blog Hop. Hope to see you again this week. 🙂

    Reply
  13. Kristin

    Great post. I live in the city and we used container like this for the longest time, although i wasn’t creative enough to make them self-watering. now I definitely have to try these.
    Congrats on being chosen as a featured post on this week’s Wildcrafting Wednesdays! I hope you’ll join us again and share more of your awesome posts.

    Reply
  14. Mary

    I just made one of these but since it’s still too cold in Michigan.(it’s March) I’ll have to wait til it warms up to put it outside. The only think I would worry about are the chemicals from the plastic leaching into the potting soil. But thanks.

    Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Mary, The chemicals in the plastic tote are no different than the chemicals in plastic plant pots. It is a personal decision to grow in a plastic container. For me, the benefits of homegrown food with no chemical fertilizers and no chemical spraying are greater than what may leach out of the plastic container.

      Reply
  15. Claire

    Found your post & love it!!! In facy, its such a wonderful idea that Im about to build this right now… literally… lol… and i was just wondering what you do with the red bucket you had pictured for step 9? Do you put that in the plabter somewhere or was that just to mix soil & water in.

    Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Hi Claire, The bucket was used to wet the potting mix before placing it into the wicking chamber. The mix has to be nice and soggy so it will wick the water up to the rest of the soil.

      Reply
    1. ~Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Tina, during the heat of summer they do need to be topped off frequently especially if you live in warmer areas. Once the reservoir dries out, the wicking action stops.

      Reply
  16. lorrie hughes

    instead of the black fabric maybe you can recycle some of those cloth grocery bags we have too much of. Just cut them open and use them layered or stitch them to make it fit.

    Reply
  17. Elsa Weigel

    Is there anything that doesn’t grow very well in these containers? Can’t wait to try them out this year. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. ©Rachel Arsenault Post author

      Elsa, I haven’t found anything yet that doesn’t grow well in self watering containers. I’ve tried tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce and other leafy greens, herbs, summer squash, and celery. Let me know how you make out.

      Reply
        1. ©Rachel Arsenault Post author

          Is it just the bottom leaves that are yellow? Did this happen before you transplanted the tomato to the tub? Once the leaves turn yellow, they don’t usually return to green. Snip the bottom leaves off so the plant can focus energy on new growth.

          Reply
  18. Evan

    Hi Rachel, do you think this could work with growing hops? It would need a trellis for the vines. Can you do this with bigger totes as well?

    Reply

Thank you so much for your comments. I love hearing from you!