Introduction: Building Your Own Earth-filled Box

Picture of Building Your Own Earth-filled Box

An earth-filled box  is a closed system growing container. Its advantages are little evaporation of the water, an even flow of moisture to the plants in the box. Other advantages are that you can grown many more plants in a smaller space. If you're an apartment dweller, you can have 4 tomato plants growing on your deck in the space of a 3 ft. area , for instance. The reservoir only needs to be filled once a week usually, I , as an example , live out in the woods, and have limited sunlight tho plenty of land. I also have deer and other lovely forest creatures, so these boxes are a big boon to me. But the yield is so great in these earth-filled boxes, that I have friends who used to have a big garden area and now grow only their potatoes and squash out there. Plus there are NO weeds, no cut worms to worry about, etc. The system is just yet another idea that is like hydroponics or the upsidedown tomato ideas.

Supplies include 2 Rubber maid or Sterlite 18-22 gallon tubs with lids, 1 pond basket, and 1 pvc tube at least 1 1/2 inch diameter and 4 inches taller than the tub you buy.

Step 1: Cutting the Water Reservoir

Picture of Cutting the Water Reservoir

Cut a hole in bottom of one of the tubs to fit the pond basket and the water tube (the pvc pipe)

Step 2: Cutting and Fitting the Reservoir Into the Primary Tub

Picture of Cutting and Fitting the Reservoir Into the Primary Tub

Mark 1/3 up from the bottom of the cut tub all the way around and, using a sabre saw, cut it apart.

Place the cut apart tub bottom upside down into the whole tub. Force it in if you have to. Add the strainer into the hole you cut.

Step 3: Making the Drain Holes

Picture of Making the Drain Holes

Drill a water leak hole, 1/2 inch diameter, in the each side of the other tub, up 1/3 up the side of the tub.

Step 4: Placing the Water Tube Through the Lid

Picture of Placing the Water Tube Through the Lid

Take the lid and cut a hole to fit the pvc pipe.

Step 5: What Do You Want to Grow

Picture of What Do You Want to Grow

Decide what you want to grow and cut appropriate holes in the lid. It works good for 4 tomatoes, or 8 pepper plants, or 2 tomato plants and 4 basil plants.

Now fill the tub with purchased growing soil mixed with a little aged manure and some vermiculite right to the top.(Everybody has their own mixture they like. )?Put a time release fertilizer like Osmokote down the middle of the soil top.

Add the lid and fill the reservoir with water, through the pvc pipe until water comes out the leak holes. Plant the plants in the lid holes. Don't use big plants. The smaller plants will just fit into the hole. You'll have to maneuver them into the holes carefully. They will recover.
If you're doing cukes or pole beans, just plant seeds.

The plants will not need to be watered more than once a week until late in the season, when the leaves evaporate the water, when 2 or 3 times a week water is needed.
Stake the tomatoes on the porch railing, or other trellis. I have pole beans growing up strings onto a pole.
Have fun!

Step 6: Enjoy and Enjoy!

Picture of Enjoy and Enjoy!

Here are some of my tubs last year by the end of July in northern Michigan. I had more pepper and tomatoes that ever before. The cukes were just about the right production level, and this year I'm trying pole beans too. The first year I also grew 6 eggplants and they were wildly successful too.


rickdf (author)2011-04-03

I noticed in other designs there's a shelf separating the water from the soil where the only soil in contact with the water is what is in the basket. In your design, will the soil just be put into this area without a shelf to prevent the soil from going into the water around the edges? Just wondering if I'm missing a step. Thank you and great design. //rick//

xmascarol (author)rickdf2011-04-05

If you notice, one of the tubs is cut 1/3 of the way up. then a square is cut out of the bottom of that. It is then inserted upside down in the other tub. Then a pond basket is inserted in that hole so that it is into the water reservoir. The soil is in the upper 2/3 of the tub and into the pond basket which wicks up into the rest of the soil.

bastacm (author)2010-04-06

I like this but I've been using another similar design that I think is better.
it's called the EartTainer. Here is the link, It has some pretty detailed instructions.

xmascarol (author)bastacm2010-04-06

thanks for publishing the link. It looks pretty similar, but I wonder what the purpose of the airspace is.  Do you know?  I've been adapting all sorts of containers around the farm as it's definitely just the concept of wicking up the water that counts.

bucklipe (author)xmascarol2010-04-12

The airspace is for aerating the water and thereby the roots (some air would infiltrate the potting mix through the drilled holes as well). In hydroponics they have the same problem of aeration; with oxygen to the roots the plants are more vigorous in their growth. You get some aeration when you fill the water reservoir, but not enough.

xmascarol (author)bucklipe2010-04-12

That's interesting and i may try it.  However,  in anecdotal cases for me , you couldn't get more vigorous than what I'm already getting which is 6 and 7 ft. sturdy vines with more tomatoes than I can even use, 4 plants to a box. 

bastascm (author)xmascarol2010-04-06

I'm not 100% certain but It looks to that he only wanted to moisture to come up from the basket. and not have the plastic container sitting in water.

xmascarol (author)bastascm2010-04-06

if you place the leak holes slightly below the roof of the reservoir, you would get the same effect with a lot less work.  That is what I've been doing.

ManifoldSky (author)2010-04-11

 The purpose of the air gap above the reservoir is to allow full aeration of the root system. Substantial oxygen intake takes place below ground, and since you are using an enclosed system, oxygen intake from the sides and above is minimized.
The various designs presented here do not address this issue.
They also waste a considerable amount of plastic and money, by forcing you to use two bins, and leaving a substantial amount of these bins as refuse.
I used to employ a similar system, using nested 5 gallon buckets, and still do, since I can get those free from delis and restaurants. However, bins are expensive, and when I make them out of bins, I do not use the nested approach, as it is VERY wasteful. Instead I construct a platform using the center of the lid, cut slightly larger than the bottom of the bin and cut large hole in the top, essentially removing all the plastic except a support lattice. I then get 10 packs of embroidery plastic mesh and place it across the lid. I place supports inside the bottom of the bin (inverted plastic flower pots, or any number of other things) to support the platform I made from the lid, and place the lid into the bin, resting on the supports. I leave two to four gaps in the platform, and place pots (or cut PVC) right side up in those holes. When I fill with box, these gaps allow the soil to drop below the water level in the reservoir. I use the inverted pots as a marker for where to place the drain hole.
After the bin is full of soil, I take a sheet of plastic, stretch it over the top, and hold in place with the remaining ring from the lid.
In this way I am able to use a single bin for each planter.
I also have a gravity fed, self watering design, fed from a central water reservoir, but that is just way too complicated to describe.

xmascarol (author)ManifoldSky2010-04-11

Never fear that most of us waste the rest of the 2nd bin!  I use mine as barriers for traveling herbs like mint and thyme by placing the bin into the group and planting the herbs in those to keep them from invading the rest of the garden.  Also I've taken to using 5 gal tubes and "rube goldberging"  (is that a word) the "guts" in such a manner as you have.  I also am trying this year to use a couple of cloth rags into the water well as the wicking system.  You can also get an airspace in my design by just making sure you put the leak holes a couple of inches below the shelf.    I also use tin cans, punched out for baskets and as shelf props.Thanks for your ideas too!  

the rural independent (author)2010-04-11

This is a great concept and one that everyone should consider using.

A larger scale version is referred to as a wicking box.  You can find a link to a very thorough article here.

bastascm (author)2010-04-06

I just looked over his instructions and no where does it give a reason for the gap. He does mention that the bolts he uses to hold the 2 parts together is placed higher so its not in the water, besides that I don't know.

29grampian (author)2010-02-24

How many tomato plants have you guys planted in one box using the above material? Can you grow 4 tomato plants healthly?

I am currently building one of this on a cart with wheels. I need more than 1 container thus also looking at the 5gallon double buckets "dearthbox " version.

I am planning to use window screen mesh to cover up the aeration holes, to prevent the potting mix dropping into the reservior.

The time / steps  it takes to build various DIY self water container versions is about same. If material cost is not a concern (i have a few spare rubbermaid bins),  I wish to find the version that can hold the max amount of plants.

Your advice is welcome.

xmascarol (author)29grampian2010-02-25

I put 4 tomato plants in one of those tubs.  Be sure to have some soil down into the reservoir for the wick.  And I have adapted 5 gal. buckets with reservoirs and I'm thinking of trying to use some kind of cloth as the wick into the water.  let me know how your tomatoes go.

BobHHowell (author)2010-02-07

These are my DIY EarthBoxes from last summer.  I followed this Instructable and it worked great.  As you can see, I had good results on my peppers in about 30 days.

xmascarol (author)BobHHowell2010-02-07

I couldn't get your link to work. I'd love to see them  Getting time for us up north to be thinking about our boxes.

tim_n (author)xmascarol2010-02-07

was missing a letter ;)

xmascarol (author)tim_n2010-02-07

beautiful.  I can hardly wait !

lustreking (author)2009-03-19

I found a container that is just about the same size as the actual earthbox, but unfortunately it's clear. I imagine that light getting to the roots and water reservoir area might be bad. Any thoughts?

ecjones (author)lustreking2009-10-27

You could use the clear bin for the inside part that forms the reservoir. But you would have to get a larger opaque box for the outside shell.

Another option.  I had a clear plastic bin that had a crack along the outside.  Since i couldn't use it for this project directly  i decided to use it as a greenhouse during the early spring/summer until the plants got too tall or the temp got too warm. I drillled some holes in the bottom of the bin to allow for rain in and air circulation. I then inverted it and set it on top of the earth box. (I duct taped the crack), I think it helped my seedling since our last frost was a little later than expected

This greenhouse could be used for in the ground plants too. It's easily moveable and reusable and i can store it under one of my earthboxes during the winter. . After I didn't neeed it any longer as a green house I used it to carry my veggies in from the garden and I could rinse them off in the container cause the dirt/water would run out the bottom

xmascarol (author)ecjones2009-10-27

good ideas just keep coming.  Aren't we all pretty innovative.  And green too!

xmascarol (author)lustreking2009-03-19

I can't give you any reasons, but my instinct says that's not good. Maybe not. Anybody else have evidence to the contray. Actually, if you watch for sales, you can get a rubbermaid or other kind for about $5 -$7 each.

KittyF (author)xmascarol2009-03-20

the clear plastic would act like clear glass and things might get MIGHTY HOT. the inside of a car gets hotter than the trunk does due to the shading effect of the the trunk lid. that's why I keep bottled water in the trunk all summer and find it at least 20 degrees cooler than if it were kept in the sun inside the car. FWIW, kitty

thumpergirl (author)KittyF2009-05-30

a little off topic but just in case you didnt know,its not safe to keep any bottled water in a vehicle for long periods of time.When the plastivc is heated it gives off some toxins and poisons which are released into the water.I also just learned that we should not reuse plastic bottles for very long either,due to this same problem.the plastic gradually breaks down enough to poison us.

Broom (author)thumpergirl2009-06-09

More than a little off-topic, and also debatable.

BlaineC (author)lustreking2009-04-13

I don't know yet if it is a problem. I did my homemade box last year and grew tomatoes in it. It sat out over winter in Houston (very mild but a few freezing days and one day of elusive snow). Green stuff formed - algae?- inside the box down at the water level. If the box were not clear, I would never have seen this. Not sure I want to see it now, because I have no clue if it is harmful or not. I am growing more tomatoes right now in the same soil and they seem to be OK but it is too early to know for sure. I don't know if the availability of light is what allowed the algae to grow in the first place - probably so. So you may avoid this problem by using non-clear boxes.

xmascarol (author)BlaineC2009-04-13

it will be a problem as tomatoes are susceptable to disease if grown consecutively in the same spot, ie same soil in the Earth box. But the clear boxes would not be good either, so just dump out the soil, mix it up with some other soil and maybe add new potting soil bag (about 1.50 on sale) on the top.

thumpergirl (author)xmascarol2009-05-30

Is it not that tomatoe plants, if grown in the same spot in the garden year after year, attract disease from insects and bugs? They basically learn where the food is?So, if in the earth box, the soil is amended with nutrients,it should get better and better each year, it should be healthy enough to fight off any disease or insect attact and not need to be replaced.As well, the tomatoe plants (or any other actually) deplete the soil of the particular nutrients they use. so just amending the soil in earthbox would also keep N-P-K levels healthy.I am pretty sure that is the reason most people say to rotate crops. Therefore,I believe we can keep the same soil year after year,if we amend it. I am a true believer in waste not want dumping out wonderful soil hurts. In nature these plants grow well.,because the environment adds whatever is missing.they do not pull up root and move soil..leaves,grass,whatever enriches the soil and gives plant what it needs.Mother nature has the perfect equation...Its up to us to try to replicate it. Thats my two cents..

hjhoran302 (author)thumpergirl2009-05-31

Many crops are rotated because of disease that can linger in the soil long after the crops are gone and affect the next year's crops. Tomatoes suffer from tobacco mosaic virus, which also affects 125 species of plants, including eggplant, peppers, spinach, petunias and marigold. It doesn't kill the plant but it will produce poor quality fruit and low yields. It can be introduced to the plant on the hands of someone who smokes cigarettes or cigars so it is a good idea to wash ones hands before handling the plants. The virus can't be killed so the infected plant must be removed and destroyed before it infects other plants. Rotating the planting areas of vegetables susceptible to the TMV is just one more precaution to keep from getting and?or spreading it. There is a lot of information on the web about it.

xmascarol (author)hjhoran3022009-06-01

thanks for the important info on that virus!

xmascarol (author)thumpergirl2009-05-30

Well, I don't waste the soil anyway. I have a big pile of the soil out by my compost pile, and my manure pile and I just mix it up again adding bone meal and compost so it's refreshed again. But your thinking certainly makes sense.

thumpergirl (author)lustreking2009-05-30

Maybe you could line the clear container with thick layer of old newspaper?It will eventually break down but its a good recycling practise in any case.

KittyF (author)lustreking2009-03-20

If you've already bought the clear container, paint the outside with one of those plastics paints if that will save you money. or bury it.

ceebee512 (author)2009-09-23

can't wait to make a couple of these this weekend! don't know what to plant yet - it'll be winter in Texas soon...

xmascarol (author)ceebee5122009-09-23

wow, our season is almost over. We've covered up the 'maters 3 times already. Peppers really do well as well as tomatoes, eggplant, cukes, and basil. good luck let us know how it goes.

ecjones (author)2009-09-09

These worked out great. I made 3 of them. I planted tomatoes in 1st, cucumbers in the 2nd , and watermellon in the 3rd. Each box had 2 seedlings. Everything did amazing compared to last years in ground production. I had so many cucumbers I made 10 batches of pickles - dill and bread& butter which also turned out great. I want to double the number of tomato and cucumber in each container next year. Do you think that 4 seedlings per box would be ok? I also would like to try pumpkins and corn next year. Any suggestions?

sweetaddietude (author)2009-09-07

growing season is pretty much over here (close to Charleston, SC) - had a very hot and humid summer which caused flower drop - not a good year for tomatoes, cukes did better --- found the plastic bats and funnels at the dollar store too. I don't cut holes in the lid of the earthbox. I cut out the lid leaving only a frame so I can plant any arrangement then cover the dirt with weed block and use a tomato cage in the box. Works very well. - thanks again for allowing my comment.

sweetaddietude (author)2009-09-05

Instead of the pond basket I use a strainer found at the local dollar store, a plastic baseball bat with the ends cut off for the watering tube, and attach a large funnel to the top of the watering tube. It's worked for 3 years. Thanks for lovely post.

xmascarol (author)sweetaddietude2009-09-05

that is so great. I'm going to keep my eye out for garage sale bats now. I've used plastic cartons that I've perforated for the wicking basket, and old vacuum cleaner tubes for the waterer. How is your yield this year.? It's been very cold here and my tomatoes are taking their sweet time to ripen but the peppers are great. Green beans are less than usual and the cukes are pretty good.

outdoorfreak (author)2009-08-11

How do you think potatoes would grow in one of these? Last year ants ate my potatoes.

xmascarol (author)outdoorfreak2009-08-11

hmm. I don't know. try it. or do the garbage can method that one of the commenters told about. I'm going to try it next year that way on the deck.

MAD-1 (author)2009-07-25

would I be able to plant corn, and potatoes in an earth box as i have a problem with soil contamination

xmascarol (author)MAD-12009-07-25

try it! You know the Native Americans planted them in little hills that they fertilized with fish. And Sometimes we plant potatoes in old tires or big garbage cans, but I would have to think a little more about the wick concept with the potatoes Aanybody else have ideas here.

RosieGrows (author)xmascarol2009-07-29

I grow potatoes in a 55 gal. trash can. a layer of yard refuse, followed by a layer of dirt/soil/mulch/, then place your potato starts. Cover it with a layer of mulch, and a layer of dirt. Completely self contained potato growing system. Enjoy

xmascarol (author)RosieGrows2009-07-29

I thought that was the way to go, but hadn't done it in years! How many potato sets to you put in it. How about watering?

RosieGrows (author)xmascarol2009-08-09

I water it minimally, but that's because mother nature is helping out a lot, right now. During our dry season, I water my entire garden, for about 30 minutes, before sun-up. And again, after dark, for another 30 minutes. I'm not sure about your part of the country, I'm in FL. As to sets, I simply took the potatoes, that I had bought at the local grocery store, and let some develop "eyes". About 25 "eyes" per trash can, yields me enough potatoes for our home for about a month. But we eat A LOT of potatoes around here. Have fun! Enjoy

MAD-1 (author)xmascarol2009-07-25

thanks I will when spring comes around. might try the potatoes in 60L garbage bins

wsround (author)2009-07-16

I have a question. In all of the Earth Boxes there is a raised platform area with usually a perforated box. This can be a pond basket or another box that fits inside of it with holes drilled in it.. My question is what is the point of this perforated platform box? If it is to take up space so that you don't use so much soil it really isn't doing that because the soil falls down into it. If it is to have a water reservoir it isn't really doing that because the soil that falls down into it fills that up. If it is to make filling with water for the reservoir easier you have the same problem as with having a reservoir. if it is to keep the roots from growing down into the water logged area that doesn't seem to be viable because the holes are so large that anything can grow down into them. So could someone tell me what is the purpose of this? I am sure there is a reason for it but I am having a hard time understanding it particularly with this one where you buy two of the identical boxes and cut one down to fit into the other one with a hole cut into it for the pond basket where if you didn't do that you could have two earthboxes rather than just the one.

xmascarol (author)wsround2009-07-16

well, the platform forms the top of the reservoir, and except for the hole that the pond basket fits into, the rest of the holes should be only about 1/4 inch diameter. The hole for the basket should have dirt in it as it goes down into the reservoir and serves as the wick to draw the water up into the rest of soil. Believe me, if you follow the instructions, it works. Just read the responses and look at some of the pics. hope this helps.

wsround (author)xmascarol2009-07-16

Thank you That is what I thought should be the function of the basket, etc. but it still looks as though the dirt should fall into that area. I was thinking that maybe putting a screening or a landscape fabric over it might make it better to have the reservoir act like a wick. I am really interested in this and am planning on making one, ok maybe more than one, and was just trying to figure out the function of that area. So thank you for your response I will try it.

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