Introduction: Earth Box From a Plastic Barrel

Picture of Earth Box From a Plastic Barrel

What can you do with empty 55 gallon plastic barrels? Why not recycle them into an attractive low maintenance container garden. Earth boxes are self watering containers which take the work out of gardening while providing healthier plants and more vegetables. While there are other earth box designs, my goal was to remake plastic barrels into attractive pots which could be placed anywhere around your house. Here's how you do it.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

A 55 gallon plastic barrel and a plastic tube are the main components of the earth barrel. I used an empty barrel we get soap in at work and the tube is a recycled plastic leg from a storage shelf. Both were free and looking for a new job. My cost per earth barrel was about $4 because I painted them and already had the tools. One can of spray paint will put 2 coats on 2 planters.

List of things you'll need:

55 gal barrel
1 1/2" PVC pipe 20" long
4 zip ties
10 long aluminum rivets
3/4" PVC plug
Spray paint for plastic (optional)
Plastic epoxy to fill punctures if necessary
Old towels -- it's impossible to get these barrels completely empty so you will make a small mess when cutting your barrel

Tools: drill and bits, jigsaw, hole saw, riveter, crescent wrench, Sharpy, pliers

Step 2: Preparing Barrel

Picture of Preparing Barrel

The first step is to rinse out the barrel and plug the access holes (if necessary). A spigot was used to dispense soap from my barrel so I inserted a 3/4" PVC plug into the hole. Check the top of your barrel (end with holes) for places where air holes may have been made by simply puncturing the barrel. Air holes are made to allow the barrel to breath and can be patched with a bit of plastic epoxy. Air holes in the bottom are not a problem.

Do this step first so as not to forget it later. Once filled with soil, this pot weighs around 120lbs and is hard to lift. You will not be happy when you see water running out from under your "earth barrel".

Step 3: Cutting the Barrel

Picture of Cutting the Barrel

First mark a line around the barrel 4" from the bottom and a second 18" from the top (photo 1). To more easily mark the barrel I made a Sharpy holder/stand out of scrap wood (photo 2). Three 15/32" diameter holes are made at 4", 8" and 18" from the floor in the stand. The 8" height will be used later. While it's not critical to make perfect cuts, this stand helps you start with a straight line at least.

Next cut the barrel into three pieces using a jigsaw (photo 3). Drill holes in the middle section next to the lines for introducing the jigsaw blade and proceed to cut along the mark until you've made both cuts.

Step 4: Cutting the Lower Cylinder

Picture of Cutting the Lower Cylinder

Setting aside the top and bottom pieces, mark a rectangle 8" wide by 28" long on the middle piece (photos 1 & 2). Cut this piece out without cutting completely across the middle piece as we will be cutting another 1 1/2" band from the other side later. Drill a series of 3/8" holes in the 8" x 28" piece (photo 3). These holes are to allow water to perculate into the soil. There is not a set number of holes necessary so you can drill more or fewer holes as you like.

Step 5: Riveting the Cylinder

Picture of Riveting the Cylinder

Work the perforated plastic piece into a cylinder and clamp in place (photo 1). Drill 1/8" holes and insert long aluminum rivets to hold the pieces together (photos 2 & 3).

Step 6: Make the Seperator Screen

Picture of Make the Seperator Screen

Turn the barrel bottom upside down and mark a circle 1/2" small than the internal diameter of the bottom cylinder (photo 1). A one gallon paint can makes the perfect sized circle for this project. Cut out the circle with a jigsaw (photo 2).

Place the bottom cylinder over the hole and mark around the outside (photo 3). This is so you do not drill holes in the bottom too close to the cylinder. While the cylinder is in place, also mark 4 holes to be drilled in the cylinder and 4 holes in the bottom where zip ties can be used to secure them together. Drill 1/4" holes at your marks in the bottom and cylinder.

Drill 3/8" holes in the bottom which should actually now be called the seperator screen (photo 4). Again there is no preset number of holes so drill as many as you'd like. When you are finished drilling, attach the cylinder and seperator screen with 4 zip ties. The zip ties insure the cylinder stays centered over the hole.

Step 7: Adding the Water Spout

Picture of Adding the Water Spout

A water spout allows you to fill the bottom water reservior. You'll need to drill a hole in the seperator screen for PVC pipe to pass through (photo 1). For this you'll need a hole saw larger than the outside diameter of the pipe. The fit does not need to be tight so anything close is fine.

Cut a 45 degree angle on the end of your PVC pipe to allow water to easily flow into the bottom reservior (photo 2). Photo 3 shows how the assembled internal components sit inside the barrel.

Step 8: Making a Drain Hole

Picture of Making a Drain Hole

One last step, you need to make a drain hole to prevent overwatering. Make a mark 8" from the floor and drill a 1/2" hole below your mark. In this way, water cannot get above the seperator screen. Some people like to have 3 or 4 holes in case your earth box isn't setting level.

When you get ready to set up your earth box, put the water spout and the drain hole on the same side so you can see when it's full.

Step 9: All Done!

Picture of All Done!

If you're not planning on painting your earth barrel, you're done. Simply put the seperator screen inside the top of the barrel with the cylinder on the bottom. Insert the PVC pipe and you're ready to fill with dirt.

If you want to paint, you can buy spray paint made for painting plastics at any home store. One can will paint 2 planters. I thought it was worth the extra effort since I'm putting these on our patio.

Step 10: Filling the Earth Box

Picture of Filling the Earth Box

Make sure you have your planter in the right place since it will be hard to move. It holds 3 cubic feet of soil, and around 8+ gallons of water (estimate), which is about 200 lbs when full. So chose wisely.

The bottom cylinder should be packed tightly with wet soil (not mud). I pack an inch or so and spray it with the hose. Once the bottom cylinder is full, you'll want to mist the dirt as you pack it but not as wet as in the cylinder. Fill your pot to the brim with a little crown in the middle (photo 1).

I made a circle of fertilizer in the middle after digging a little trough (photo 2). I put 2 cups of 10-10-10 general use fertilizer in the trough. The fertilizer sits under the plastic which keeps it from dissolving too quickly and will feed your plants all season. When next year comes, remove the old plastic, dig out and replace the old fertilizer and you are ready to go.

The black plastic serves several purposes including water conservation, weed control, and it protects the fertilizer bed (photo 3). Since I live in the South, I'm also covering the black plastic with pine straw because I'm afraid it might absorb too much heat. I could have used white plastic, but I already had the black plastic and I think the pine straw looks nice. Our pine trees donated the straw;-)

The blue strap holding the tarp on was the last cut from the old barrel. You could use rope or a bungy cord, but this was easy and I had the scraps to use. The next step shows you how.

Step 11: Plastic Band Strap

Picture of Plastic Band Strap

On the remnant of the middle section, mark a line 1 1/2" from the edge and cut with your jigsaw (photo 1). You'll also need to cut a 1 1/2" x 7" piece from the scraps. Cut the big band and use the 7" piece to rejoin the ends with a 2" gap (photo 2). Two long aluminum rivets on each end do the trick. This makes the strap the right size to go around the barrel and plastic.

I hope you have found this instructable valuable and easy to follow (photo 3). "Earth Barrels" are a great use for unwanted barrels headed to the landfill. Fortunately, one barrel provides almost everything you need to grow some fresh veggies or flowers with minimal maintenance.

Comments are appreciated and I am anxious to hear suggestions for improvement.

Step 12: Addendum: Adding a "trellis"

Picture of Addendum:  Adding a "trellis"

I wanted to plant some pole beans and needed something for them to climb on. So before filling the pot with dirt, I drilled five 1/2" holes in the seperation screen to allow placement of plastic poles. After filling with dirt and installing the plastic, I simply wired the tops of the poles together to secure them. Flexing the poles inward creates tension against the inside of the pot bottom by the poles and makes a very stable trellis. Much better than trying to add poles to the outside of the pot later. Just waitin' on the beans.


Ronyon (author)2010-12-08

I've built the 5 gallon version, but instead of a container for a soil wick, I used plastic screen, poked through a hole in the bottom of the top bucket and stapled in place.
Worked great, so I'm wondering if a fabric "bag" of some kind affixed to the top rim of a single barrel, and filled with soil,would work?

kentdvm (author)Ronyon2010-12-15

Good question. I probably don't know enough about it to give an educated answer, but my initial thought would be whether the soil would get consistent water. I think you'd need some way of having the bag go to the bottom so it always has contact with water without it simply sitting in water. The center column gives constant assess to water and yet most of the soil isn't sitting in water.

tcobbs1 (author)kentdvm2016-09-07

Maybe burlap cloth to hold the soil and cotton twine wicks to bring up the water?

Pizzapie500 (author)2011-02-14

Where'd you get the 55 Gallon Drum? I tried my local carwash but they were out, so they said come next week; out. Come again next week; out. Last time I went; out. So yeah, I really don't know where to get them. Do they have them at resturants?

tcobbs1 (author)Pizzapie5002016-09-07

In Texas you can buy them at almost any feed store/farm supply. (NOT Tractor Supply...)

Many times you can also find them asking the side of the road near Flea markets.

CeaseFire (author)Pizzapie5002011-05-24

Beverage companies have them, flavoring companies (snow cone flavor providers) have them. Look in local papers and they're often offered at $10 each.

I also found some that laundry mats owners were selling.

kentdvm (author)Pizzapie5002011-02-14

I got mine where I work. We get floor cleaner in them. I've seen people selling them on Craig's List. They were the craze during our recent drought for making rain barrels.

hooksrus (author)2016-09-05

Love this project. Just rebuilt my first one. Only thing I did different was make the planter several inches deeper. The only negative I had was the center tube. In proportion to the size of the planter the"wick" is Huge. Actually too wet at the surface for some plants. I replanted it with a water filled 1liter bottle in the middle. That really made a difference. One thing I noticed in these increasing rare times when we have extra rain, the water in the bottom can become stale and even build up algae, so just to see what will happen, I am raising the bottom 2 inches and installing a solar water pump from harbor freight, with a fountain head to aerate and circulate the water. Found some great green barrels, cost a little more but no need to paint, check around. A long bamboo skewer glued into the top of a wine or champagne cork work's great in the fill tube to gauge water level

kentdvm (author)hooksrus2016-09-06

Great ideas. Please let us know how it works!

christinarule (author)2014-04-24

so is there a drainage hole in the bottom of the barrel? Im thinking this might be a great solution for my balcony garden from preventing stains and water dripping on my neighbors patio.

kentdvm (author)christinarule2014-04-27

No hole in the bottom of the barrel. These would work very well on a balcony. The only time it might run out is when you fill it then you'll see some run out the side hole. But you can tell when it's getting full and stop before it actually runs out. Good luck!

DougOlinger-74 (author)2012-07-11

This is a great 'idble. I've used the barrels in the past. But, Iopted to cut them lengthwise for more surface area.
Next year I'll just use your idea along with the lattice vine support. Great job!

dana-dxb (author)2012-04-08

woooooooooooooow thats just wht i did !!!!
great maids thinkalaike looool
i had some mats so
this is the castle of my dreams hehehe

CeaseFire (author)2011-05-24

Lattice plant support added.

kentdvm (author)CeaseFire2011-05-24

Absolutely fabulous. Will look great when your vines are crawling down the sides of the lattice. Going to try your method of putting the fertilizer in a stocking. Great idea. Thanks!

CeaseFire (author)2011-05-24

My newest version of the 55-gallon self-watering planters. I used plastic lattice, held together with plastic zip-ties for safety and for more plant support to cover the wires I string from drum to drum. I've grown watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes and this year a giant, bushel gourd.

The soil mixture I like most is 5 cups lime and 5 cups 8-8-8 fertilizer per container. I put the fertilizer inside old stockings so that I can easily remove it at the end of the season (removing salts). Next spring, I use the same 5 cups lime/5 cups 8-8-8 fertilizer. Works great.

RixyFisk (author)2011-02-01

one thing we use that works well is a skill saw attached to some two-by-fours at the right length adn angle that rotates around the barrel. its kinda hard to describe but it works fast and effectively. you can seem some pics of our earthbarrels on our site:

jman4117 (author)2010-08-20

Excellent! I used this but had to modify it slightly to work with my barrels. Mine have the lip top and bottom, so I had to cut one of them off. Also, have you tried using a table saw with this? I've made two, and the one a jigsaw, and the second with my table saw. I got much more accurate cuts on it, and it went much faster.

kentdvm (author)jman41172010-08-21

I haven't used a table saw, but will give it a try on my next bunch. Great idea. Glad you were able to use this instructable. We've had a ton of tomatoes this summer and it's been so easy.

flove101 (author)2010-08-20

Incredible! Awesome! Now to source 55 gal drum.

the rural independent (author)2010-02-09

Awesome instruct able.  I also use a variation of Earth Boxes.  Mine cost more though, they are made from large Rubber Made type containers.

I use a about 4-5 inches of river rock below the dirt (on top of the separator) to allow heavy rain water to drain down easily and also roots can navigate quite easily downward to get to the water. Someone told me this actually makes for a quicker growing and longer root system - not sure if it does or not.

If anybody wants a look at a much more complex raised bed garden utilizing these principals, check out the "wicking bed" here:

daisyrock1 (author)2010-01-20

I think even I can do this with such nice instructions!  Great ible, fav'd and am definitely going to try next month (a little closer to spring).  Thanks for sharing :)  

CeaseFire (author)2009-06-27

I used your idea to make a "full-size version" I used a 5 gallon barrel for the soil wick and used the barrel top for the soil platform. Works great1 Thanks for the idea!

kentdvm (author)CeaseFire2009-07-03

Excellent! Good Job.

CeaseFire (author)kentdvm2009-07-08

The barrels of water/soil are so heavy, I figured thy would support a lot of weight. I drilled holes in the edges and strung wire from barrel to barrel. I plan on the 3 cantaloupe plants going all the way to the gas tank! So far, so good.

kentdvm (author)CeaseFire2009-07-09

Good idea. I wished I had spaced my planters out a bit so I could do this. My cucumber vines are going everywhere! Next year.

shoppe (author)2009-04-23

This is a terrific idea! I'm looking forward to making these. But I was wondering, rather than ensuring that the barrel top is leak free with plugs and patches, and then using the barrel bottom as the separator screen, could you use the barrel top instead as the separator screen and take advantage of the already leak-free molded barrel bottom for the main container?

kentdvm (author)shoppe2009-04-23

Thanks. I had the same idea originally but opted to use the top as the base because the edge of the barrel was a little more detailed and decorative. The problem with using the top is it is wider than the bottom. The bottom tapers in slightly which makes it a perfect fit inside the top. I don't think you could get the top inside the bottom. So far, no leaks and I'm also happy with the look.

shoppe (author)kentdvm2009-04-23

That's great! Once again you've worked everything out for me. I suspected that the top might not fit within the bottom. And I agree with you that using the top as a base is more aesthetically pleasing. Another thought just occurred to me: How about if I laid in cloth landscaping fabric before adding the soil to prevent the soil from falling through the holes in the separator screen? Would the fabric impede the way the water wicks up or would it stop the roots ability to get to the water? Thanks again.

kentdvm (author)shoppe2009-04-23

Honestly, I'm not convinced you need holes in the seperator screen at all, but here's what I've read. The idea is to allow the roots to get air from the bottom. The drain hole in the side is positioned so there is a layer of air between the water and the bottom of the seperator screen. The way I built these pots with the drain hole about a 1/2" below the seperator screen, there should be approximately a 1/2" of space/air on top of the water and below the screen. Water does not wick up through the holes in the seperator screen. The water moves through the dirt in the central column. Since I haven't emptied any of my pots yet, I can't say how much soil went through the holes but I don't think it was much. I filled them with potting soil which was pretty moist out of the bag. From what I could tell, very little passed through the holes in the screen. So personally, I don't think fabric is needed but also won't hurt anything as long as it doesn't cover the central column of dirt. The water surrounding the central column in the bottom has to be able to move up into the soil above.

CeaseFire (author)kentdvm2009-06-27

Holes in the separator screen are for aeration, but mostly to allow excess water to drain from the soil (in case it rains for ages and lots of water gets into the soil from the openings around the plants).

TnT101 (author)2009-06-27

I LOVE this idea. Sure beats the standard planter that requires drainage holes on the bottom. No stains on my deck! You can even install tubing to direct overflow off deck or between floorboards.

CeaseFire (author)2009-05-24

Wondereful idea. I want to make some, but will put them on casters so they can move around. Also, the ring holding the plastic on is a good afterthought. If you wrapped the plastic over the ring and temporarily held it with tape, you could lower the ring (ring on inside of plastic and black plastic showing only) to make a neater edge -- harder to explain than to do.

kentdvm (author)CeaseFire2009-05-24

Thanks! The pots are working great this summer. We are already eating broccoli and lettuce. Beans, squash and cucumbers are growing like crazy. I really like your idea about rolling the plastic on the ring. Definitely going to do that next time. Casters are an excellent idea too. Mine are in full sun and potentially may need to be moved to shade at some point. Good luck.

el_wombato (author)2009-04-22

Very ingenious. After seeing the earthbox/earthtainer I was wondering if a barrel would make a good candidate. Looks like I have my answer (and I already use 2 as rain barrels). Does the separator screen really support all that weight? It seems like it would be too much. Granted, a barrel is much thicker than the plastic bins these are usually made out of.

kentdvm (author)el_wombato2009-04-23

Thanks. It does support the weight quite well. These barrels are about 1/4" thick so very strong. Also the sides add a lot of rigidity to the screen. Sitting on the central column it's a little "tipsy" until you get it full of dirt. I had thought about adding more support laterally but doesn't seem to need it since it's just the weight of the dirt and plants.

iPodGuy (author)2009-04-20

Speechless... Awesome..... Fav'd.

kentdvm (author)iPodGuy2009-04-23

Thanks. My next project is making a couple of your composting barrels. Great instructable also.

dolabil66 (author)2009-04-06

Nice Job !! Great Instructable ! I was planning on making a bucket planter , I`m going to follow your plans when I do

kentdvm (author)dolabil662009-04-07

Thanks! I've made 6 pots now and may keep going. Fun to make and the results are very professional. Can't wait to eat the veggies;-)

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