Introduction: How to Build Your Own Growing Containers

==========
My initial inspiration was these growing containers designed by Ray Newstead and featured here:
http://earthtainer.tomatofest.com/

==========
The above site should be considered the original and ultimate resource and most of the steps used for his system and my container are the same. So I will only detail those areas where what I've done is significantly different. If you're really interested in doing this, take the time to watch Ray's videos, read the instructions, etc.
==========
What got me started on this is the recommended 31-gallon Rubbermaid containers are about $15 bucks a pop, and it takes TWO of 'em to build ONE growing container! My first thought was to build wood "skirting" around the plastic containers (from used and FREE old cedar fence pickets) to shade them from the sun and make 'em last longer, but then I thought "why not build the containers from wood and not use the plastic containers at all?" So THAT is what I did.
==========
I think my wooden version looks a LOT better, and should last indefinitely with a fresh coat of stain once a year. Here I present a full step-by-step of what I did to transform used and FREE fence boards into nice looking and very functional containers for growing tomatoes, green peppers, corn -- whatever you like! Growing vegetables this way uses about 75% LESS water because nothing is lost to evaporation. The only water used is what the plant itself takes up through its roots.
==========
Any number of these WaterMizer GrowTainers located on the same level can also be kept topped off automatically with a single "FillTainer" which I'll also document as we get closer to the end. I built TWO of these WaterMizer GrowTainers and I'm very happy with how they have turned out. Happy Building -- and gardening too! Remember you can click on the smaller images and they will display where the big picture is for more detail.
==========
NOTE: Please try to ignore how 'poor' my plants look in this first picture. I had finally gotten them moved into their new homes and they were near death! They were completely rootbound and our roomy (trying to help!) had drowned them numerous times. Once in their new homes, they recovered amazingly well and soon became the picture of health. (See the 2nd image for the same plants about mid-June. The plant on the right is above the 2nd to the top hoop on these large 54" tomato cages.) One GREAT provision of this growing method is it is impossible to overwater OR waterlog the soil. Any excess (from rain or sprinklers) simply drips down into the water reservoir and runs out the overflow holes if it needs to. It's a great design. I love it and obviously the plants do TOO!
==========

Step 1: Get Some Materials Together

==========
I used old 1x4 cedar fence boards to build my containers AND the aeration bench. You may choose to use the more common 1x6 fence boards or whatever other material you have at your disposal. There's an illustration here which shows the various parts in cross-section (ignore the sloping container sides shown):
http://earthtainer.tomatofest.com/

==========
So you'll need some old fence boards (or whatever you plan on using for the sides of your containers), some 2x2s (used or new) for what I call the "perimeter frame", some pressure-treated 2x4 for the "sleepers" or "feet" which the container sits on, and some 3-1/2" x 1/4" carriage bolts with flat washers, lock washers (optional), and 1/4" nuts. You'll also need some 1x2 stock which is used to hold the uppermost layer of plastic/mulch in place and some 3" coated deck screws.
==========
Let's go ahead and build the outer container itself. It's a nice psychological BOOST to get some good results with minimal initial effort (see next step).
==========

Step 2: Building the Container Shell

==========
I borrowed my dimensions from the Rubbermaid container for a starting point. This design is flexible enough that these containers can be built ANY size, but most folks will want to follow the directions here for their first one . . . and then innovate from there.
==========
The upper and lower "perimeter frames" are identical. Each frame is composed of two long pieces which are 31-1/2" long and two short pieces which are 22-1/2" long. So each container will require EIGHT framing pieces -- four for the upper frame and four for the lower frame. BOTH frames are assembled with the long pieces overlapping/above the ends of the short pieces. These overlaps are held firm and square and then a 1/4" hole is drilled down through the center of the overlap. (Keep your drill bit away from dirt or concrete or it will dull VERY quickly.)
==========
Then the corners are bolted together with 3-1/2" carriage bolts (need eight per container plus washers/nuts). The only difference between the "upper" frame and the "lower" frame is the carriage bolt heads are UP on the upper frame, and the heads are DOWN on the lower frame. In other words, the ends of the bolts (where the washers & nuts are) are pointing towards each other.
==========
[NOTE: If you're building a custom size container but still using approx. 3/4" thick material -- or fence boards -- for the container sides, the length of the 'long' framing pieces is equal to the inside length of the container plus 4-1/2". And the length of the "short' pieces = inside width of container plus 4-1/2". If your custom size container is a square, all eight frame pieces will be the same length.]
==========
Cut four 2x4 PT 'sleepers' to the same length as the short frame pieces = 22-1/2". For the 1x2 top trim, the two shorter pieces are 22-1/2" and the two longer pieces are 28-1/2". The lower short ends of the lower perimeter frame are screwed down over the sleepers which end up flush with the ends of the container. There are four sleepers under EACH container, but the remaining two sleepers are held in position with future screws down through the floor of the container. These containers are supposed to be rotated (end for end) every other month to keep the plants growing straight up. So I preserved a 20" width open in the middle on the long sides to fit my appliance cart. As the sleepers space the floor 1-1/2" up off the patio, this makes it easy to slide the blade of the appliance cart under them withOUT having to tip the containers away from the cart first. [UPDATE: Full of moist potting mix and water, these containers are h-e-a-v-y. Though I've used a two-wheel cart to move them, I have NOT found it necessary to rotate them.]
==========
The length of the vertical fence board slats is the inside height of the container plus 1/2" for the thickness of the plywood (or OSB) bottom/floor which goes inside of the slat walls. (16-1/2" + 1/2" = 17"). Cut a number of the fence boards to this dimension (17" in this case) to have on hand for later assembly. Then pre-drill three or four vertical 3/16" holes through both ends of the lower perimeter frame and position that short end over one of the 2x4 sleepers. Drive 3" coated deck screws through the holes and into the sleeper. Make sure the outer edge of the sleeper is flush with the outside face of the short end of the perimeter frame. Attach the lower perimeter frame to the sleeper at the other end the same way.
==========
Go ahead and pre-drill & install scraps of 2x2 ABOVE the short ends of the upper perimeter frame. (2-1/2" or 2-3/4" screws might be safer for this step -- 3" screws tend to go all the way through and stick out a bit.) The only purpose of these scraps is to present a flush surface at the top for the 1x2 trim pieces to screw down into.
==========
Now we're ready to begin installing the fence boards for the sides of the container (see next step).
==========

Step 3: Installing the Sides of the Container

==========
This step may seem a little tricky but it's really quite easy once you get started. With this design, the weight of water in the reservoir (3-1/2" deep) plus the weight of the moist potting mix is pushing down and OUT on the sides of the container. That is why the perimeter frames are outside of the fence boards. So all we really need is something to hold the boards in place until gravity and lateral (horizontal/outward) load can take over. I used 1-1/4" 18 gauge brads and my little air-powered brad gun.
==========
Stand the lower perimeter frame up on one short end (with the sleepers away from you) and slide your first board in position so the bottom end of it is touching the top face of the sleeper AND the left edge is touching the inside face of the long piece of the perimeter frame. Then tack it in place with three or four brads. Continue installing the pre-cut 17" chunks of old fence board in this way until only a gap too narrow for a board remains on that end.
==========
(NOTE: Small gaps between old boards are unavoidable and nothing to worry about. Also measure the remaining space to fill at the top frame AND the bottom frame to see IF the next board needs to be leaned a bit to keep the remaining space reasonably square or at least equal at the top and the bottom.)
==========
Then very carefully tilt the bottom frame away from you to lift the slats up a bit so you can slide the top perimeter frame into position. The TOP ends of the slats end up flush with the top face of the perimeter frame (you can see this in the pics below). Then it is a simple matter to tack all the slats to the top frame too. At this point, VERY carefully invert the assembly so the other short end is down on the patio. Then that end is filled in with slats as well. The long sides are filled in the same way. (NOTE: When you're tacking the slats on the long sides, there is no sleeper to butt the bottom ends up against. Just make sure the top ends are flush with the top face of the upper perimeter frame and tack them in place. Be sure to tack the bottom ends on TOO but notice the frame piece you're nailing into is 1-1/2" above the bottom ends, so nail accordingly.
==========
When the sides are mostly done, you can sit the container right side up and use it as a convenient platform to work on. Most likely, there remains a single gap at each corner which is narrower than the fence boards. Now it's a matter of measuring each one of these gaps and ripping one of your 17" fence boards to fit. Cedar cuts easy enough so you can use a jig saw to carefully 'rip' these pieces to fit if you don't have a table saw handy. Tack these narrow slats in place and the container sides are DONE! At this point, you have a very good idea what your finished containers will look like BUT there's still a little more work to do.
==========
NOTE: With this design, the ends are braced against racking (moving out of square) by the contact between the bottom ends of the slats resting on the sleepers. There shouldn't be any force trying to rack the containers across their length anyway, but the design is somewhat vulnerable in that dimension and I thought it would diminish the aesthetic to install braces. Therefore, do NOT drag these things across the patio once they are full of water and moist potting mix! I did this once to clear a spot for my FillTainer -- with the container full of water AND wet potting mix -- AND it didn't seem to loosen anything up. I STILL don't recommend it.
==========

Step 4: Cut & Install the Floor

==========
Your choice of materials for the SIDES of your container may differ from mine, so I can't give you exact measurements for the floor piece. Measure the inside of YOUR container at this point to see what it needs to be. Even though this floor piece holds the bottom ends of the sides in place, you don't want it too tight OR too loose. If you have to mildly "coax" it into its final position with a block of wood and a hammer, that's just right.
==========
This floor piece is also what forces the container into a square or rectangular shape, so a nice piece with square corners is best. I had wanted to use plywood, but all my scraps were either way too big or too small, so I used some OSB scraps I had. OSB is stronger in the direction the chips are running but mine ended up running the wrong (short) way so I added a center support which is probably a good idea anyway.
==========
First cut and tap the floor into position AFTER pre-drilling several 3/16" holes for the screws to go through and down into the sleepers. Then screw the floor down onto the sleepers with 1-3/4" screws (I prefer the GRK brand but they WILL spoil you and they aren't cheap either). Then drill more holes to attach the remaining two sleepers. Attaching the center support is a little more of a challenge. It's easy enough to drill the screw holes along a center line, but how does one hold the piece in position long enough to get it attached? One of the pics shows how I used two "toe screws" at each end to temporarily hold the 2x2 center support in position. Then I was able to carefully invert the box right side up and run the screws down through the floor and into the support. Remove the temporary screws and the floor is DONE!
==========
NOTE: The GRK brand screws cut their own countersink and make for a clean job of it. I usually want the top of the screw head just barely flush for maximum holding power. If the screw won't pull down that tight, it's usually a sign that the screw is too short OR that the material one is driving the screw into is too marginal (soft or rotted out).
==========

Step 5: Build the Aeration Bench

==========
The aeration bench is what supports the potting mix and the plants above the water reservoir. There needs to be an air gap between the lowest part of the aeration bench and the surface of the water. The air gap and the overflow holes are to make sure the potting mix can drain freely and never become oversaturated with water. As a practical matter, the only water which enters the potting mix from the surface after planting is rain water. The design actually allows about 1/2" of any rain water to accumulate in the water reservoir before any excess will run out the overflow.
==========
Cut four chunks of fence board about 1/8" to 1/4" shorter than the width of the floor piece. The container is later lined with 4 mil black plastic (the 6 mil seems too expensive for this application) and you'll want the shelf to be able to slide down inside the liner without grabbing at the plastic enough to put a hole in it. If you're careful, the portion of the liner which actually holds water is untouched by the aeration bench and any minor abrasion above the water level shouldn't hurt anything. Lay two of the chunks of fence board inside on the floor of the container towards the ends and arrange two longer chunks on top of them to define the sides of the aeration bench and screw the four boards together with 1-1/2" screws. (The longer pieces are also 1/8" to 1/4" shorter than the length of the floor piece.) Be careful to predrill holes in the longer pieces to make sure they aren't in line with the grain of either board to guard against splitting (this detail can be seen in the 4th pic below). If the screws go all the way through and stick out a bit, it's no big deal. Their ends will be in the air gap under the aeration bench.
===========
Using the narrow 3-1/2" fence boards that were on top of my used materials stack, I could see that five of them fit the width just about right -- leaving gaps between the boards for drainage withOUT having to drill any more holes. Spacing them evenly to fill the space left a 1/8" to 1/4" gap between them so excess water can drip between the boards AND around the perimeter withOUT having to drill any holes for drainage (per the original plans). Cut three more slats to the same length as the two on the sides. All five boards are predrilled and screwed to the two end pieces. Once removed from the container and flipped over, center the wicking basket over the UNDERside of the aeration bench and gently screw it on with one screw in each corner (as shown in the 1st pic below). Then trace around the wicking basket with a permanent marker and remove the basket . Note the orientation so you can screw the basket back on in the exact same location.
==========
Draw cut lines 1/2" inside the above tracing. Be careful to leave enough wood near the screw holes in the corners and cut the basket hole out with a jigsaw (see the 2nd pic below). Then gently screw the wicking basket back on for the last time. At this point, position the remaining two short pieces against the rim of the wicking basket (see the 3rd pic below), predrill the holes and screw these pieces on with screws down through the top boards. (See the 4th pic below for what the shelf looks like when it's right side up. If yours looks similar, this step is DONE!
==========

Step 6: Install the Liner

==========
Before installing the liner, measure up 6-1/2" from the patio and make a mark on the outside of both short ends of the container. Measure across the end to make sure your mark is centered side to side. Drill a clean 7/8" hole through both ends; remove any splinters and make sure the inside of the container is clean (no debris). The bottom of this hole should end up about 4" above the container floor. This leaves room for 3-1/2" of water with an extra 1/2" for storing free rainwater which plants really love.
==========
6 mil black plastic seemed a little spendy, so I used 4 mil to line the wood containers. Measure across the floor and up both sides, then add 2" to each dimension to know how large your piece of plastic needs to be. Let the hose run while you're fitting the liner to the container. Smooth out the wrinkles on the bottom and then smooth out the plastic on the short ends. It worked better to form like upside down "hospital corners" to take up the excess plastic on the long sides. (This is easy to see in the 1st pic below). Once the container is full, make careful cuts -- only at the corners -- so excess plastic can lay down flat on the top edges of the container. You can temporarily install the top trim pieces to hold the plastic in place or use staples.
==========
Reach down inside the container and FEEL where the overflow holes are. Take a pocket knife and cut an X inside these holes -- the excess water will begin to pour out. Then take a 1/2" x 2" Sched 80 PVC (the gray stuff) threaded nipple and install a 1/2" Lock Nut (common electrical part) on one end. Shove the other end under water and through the overflow hole. Use a 2nd 1/2" Lock Nut (finger tight is fine) to secure the threaded nipple in place. All this does -- besides look cool -- is provide an easy place for excess water to drain out and mostly make sure the potting mix will never become too saturated no matter how much it rains. Having TWO overflow holes just makes sure the plants are protected, even if one of the holes becomes plugged for some reason.
==========
We're getting CLOSE but there are still a few more things to do.
==========

Step 7: Install the Cages and Aeration Bench

==========
Ray provides GREAT detail on how the cages are secured to the aeration bench, so if you're growing tomatoes or peppers or anything else which needs the support, pursue the cage installation details here:
http://earthtainer.tomatofest.com/

==========
Ray also details how to drill holes in the bottom end of the 19" long white 2" PVC filler tube which in turn is installed through a hole cut in one end of the aeration bench with a hole saw which is barely larger than the outside dimension of the 2" PVC. My roomy had a bunch of this super tough yellow truck tarp material which he gave me so I used that for the mulch layer which gets threaded over the legs of the tomatoe cages BEFORE they are bolted to the aeration bench (see details at the above link).
==========
With this modification to Ray's design, I wanted some additional support for the aeration bench. Sit the aeration bench on the patio and measure up to the lowest part of the aeration bench. In my case, the measurement was 5-1/4". Cut four chunks of the white 2" PVC to the dimension called for. (I made these cuts on my 10" chop saw = nice and clean & no burs to clean off.) Also drill drainage holes through the bottom AND top ends of these support pieces so water can move freely in and out. Drill a 3/16" hole near the top end of each chunk, position one piece of PVC in each corner and carefully secure it in place with a single screw. This penetration of the plastic liner should be well above the surface of the water in the reservoir and therefore not a problem. Leave the screw loose enough that the bottom end of the PVC piece sits squarely on the floor of the container.
==========
Then carefully lower the aeration bench into position, making sure that all four corners are down against the top end of the PVC supports. Now we're almost ready to begin filling the container with potting MIX (not potting SOIL) -- see the next step.
==========

Step 8: Fill Container With Potting MIX

==========
I followed ALL of Ray's suggestions to the letter (the ones I used anyway!) and you should do the same. One place you definitely do NOT want to cut corners is with the Weed Control Fabric which is the ONLY thing which keeps plant roots from extending down into the water reservoir and drowning themselves. Home Depot had Dupont's 15 year product AND their more expensive 20 year product, so I went with the 15 year . . . just as Ray recommends. It was $13.49 for a 3'x50' roll but that is enough material to build 25(!) WaterMizer GrowTainers, so don't waste your money -- or your time -- on the cheap stuff!
==========
Cutting 2' off the roll provides a piece measuring 24" x 36". AFTER properly OVERfilling the wicking basket (note the critical "cupcake mound" in Ray's instructions to offset settling) with saturated potting MIX, the piece of Weed Control Fabric is laid in place (no cuts over the wicking basket!) and only sliced as needed to work it around the cage legs. Excess fabric simply extends up the sides and that is fine.
==========
Maybe I'm a little lazy but Ray recommends adding two cups of Lime to the potting MIX to guard against Bloom End Rot (BER) if growing tomatoes. I think it's easier to add this Lime to the potting MIX before filling the containers with the MIX and I guess we'll see if Ray approves? The 2.5 cubic foot bags of Miracle Gro potting MIX were $12.47 each and I used 1-1/2 bags for EACH WaterMizer GrowTainer. Simply dump it out on the patio (or into a large enough wheelbarrow if you have one), pour on the two cups of the Ag Lime and mix thoroughly.
==========
Then take a plastic bowl (or garden scoop if you have one) and put about six or eight scoops of potting mix in the middle of the container. Then slide the MIX over to the sides with your hand, using the MIX to flatten and hold the excess fabric against the sides. Water this layer thoroughly and don't worry -- any excess water drains easily THROUGH the fabric and down into the water reservoir. If the reservoir gets too full, the excess runs out the overflow holes -- that's what they're there for.
==========
Continue to alternate 2" layers of potting mix with THOROUGH watering. You need to make sure the MIX is thoroughly saturated -- any excess flows down away from it almost immediately. This also pre-settles the MIX so once the container is full, it should stay full.
==========
To borrow a bit from Ray's instructions:
"Unlike manual or drip irrigation top watering, the [sub-irrigated growing container] employs a bottom up, automated watering approach based on the principle of capillary action. Water stored in the lower reservoir is wicked up into the soil much like the wick in a candle draws the liquefied wax upward to the flame. Moisture meets the roots of the plant where the plant "drinks" just as much water as it needs. This water consumption will vary significantly throughout the growing season as the plant produces fruit, and by providing a constant supply of water from the reservoir, the plant can achieve optimal growth and productivity."
==========
IF the mix is not properly saturated to begin with, the natural wicking action doesn't have a chance to begin. If the mix is ever allowed to dry out too much, the natural wicking action is LOST and it takes quite a bit of effort and time to get it going again. (Ray's instructions offer plenty of information about this.) Keeping the potting mix from every drying out too much is SO critical, it motivated me to design and build a "FillTainer" which keeps any number of WaterMizer GrowTainers on the same level automatically topped off at all times. (I'll provide the "how to" on the FillTainer once we're done building the WaterMizer GrowTainer.)
==========
I guess I was so busy filling up my new WM GrowTainers that I didn't take any new pics for this step!
==========

Step 9: Finally -- Plant Those Plants!

==========
Note to Self: Need more info here about organic fertilizer used -- 1 cup per plant in shallow trench at surface which is back-filled prior to installing the mulch cover.
==========
With the container FULL of properly saturated potting MIX, lower the mulch cover down and flatten it out -- notching around the cage legs as needed -- and install the 1x2 top trim pieces. These are pre-drilled with a 3/16" drill bit and screwed down with 1-1/2" to 2" screws. These pieces have to be removed each season to empty out and repack the container with fresh (or at least freshened up!) potting MIX -- something to keep in mind. Then cut large-enough Xs which are centered under each cage. Temporarily tuck the triangle shapes underneath and out of the way, remove enough potting mix to plant and plant away! (Ray provides good details for this step.)
==========
Pack the removed mix back in around the plant if there's room, top water for the last -- and only -- time, and pull the triangles back out to cover as much of the potting MIX as possible. Make sure this area around the plants is flat or even a tad lower so that rainwater will drip through the cuts and not stagnate on top of the plastic mulch layer. Put in a 3/4" thick layer of bark to cover the plastic -- this protects the plastic from the sun AND keeps the potting MIX from overheating and cooking the plant's roots.
==========
Now you can trim any excess liner and/or mulch layer sticking out and your WaterMizer GrowTainers are DONE! I had these poor plants in their original starter containers for way too long. They were completely root bound, half drowned, and pretty ragged looking. It sure didn't take 'em long to realize they were NOW in plant heaven. By mid-July, they were the picture of health (see the 3rd pic). I'm sure my plants will do even better next year with no time lost for damage and recovery! We have so much shade in our back yard, I'm also considering moving them up on the roof for full sun . . . we'll see how it goes. Congratulations if you've made it this far and I hope you have as much fun building -- and using -- the WaterMizer GrowTainers as I've had. Cheers!
==========
Construction of the "FillTainer" begins with the next step.
==========

Step 10: Build a FillTainer

==========
The biggest threat to the natural wicking action which keeps plants in your WaterMizer GrowTainers properly watered at all times is letting the potting MIX get too dry. This brings the natural wicking action to a screaching halt and it's just a chance I don't want to take. It's far too much trouble to restore the wicking action, so why not make sure it isn't lost in the first place?
==========
I call this solution The FillTainer and it's based on a simple and reliable law of physics. Take two glasses and fill them both about half full. Run a tube -- also filled with water (no air) -- between those two glasses with both ends of the tube kept underwater at all times. If you set one glass up on a book, you'll notice water will run into the "lower" glass until the water level is exactly the same in both glasses. If you take that same glass off the book and put it back down on the table, water will flow from the fuller glass until the water level in both glasses is the same again.
==========
So the idea is that our GrowTainer is one of the glasses and our FillTainer is the other one. A 3/8" O.D. clear vinyl tube is run between the two containers. As long as the tube is kept filled with water, and as long as both ends are under water in their respective containers, the fuller container will flow into the less full container until the water level in both containers is exactly the same. As a practical matter, I've learned that it's impossible to fill this tube AND get both ends where they need to be withOUT ending up with a bubble at the highest part of the clear vinyl tube. My *theory* so far is that as long as the air bubble doesn't occupy the full inside diameter of the tube, water will still continue to flow past it in either direction -- as needed -- to keep the water levels in both containers at exactly the same level. Unfortunately, the clear tube also allows algae growth, but we NEED to be able to SEE to make sure the air bubble doesn't get too big. If it does get too big, it's a simple matter to re-prime the tube to let the air out. The best way to accomplish this is with the end of a running garden hose held up to the submerged end of the siphon tube in the FillTainer. Use your hand as a 'coupling' between the two loose ends and the surge of water will move the air bubble into the GrowTainer reservoir and restore the siphon action. A wooden 'dipstick' with a measured mark on it can be used to confirm WHEN siphon action is lost -- it's a simple enough thing to check every two or three days.
==========
One can extend this balancing act to any number of containers which are all on the same level. As the plants take up water through their roots, the water level in the GrowTainer reservoir drops, and water flows from the FillTainer to the GrowTainer -- incrementally and automatically -- so the water level inside the GrowTainer reservoir really never changes enough that you could see it. All that makes the FillTainer unique is it has a float valve (a $4.56 part which is commonly used on evaporative coolers -- a.k.a. *swamp* coolers). The float valve is connected to a garden hose bibb with a 1/4" white vinyl tube. The float valve is adjusted to maintain a 'fixed' water level inside the FillTainer. Rain can cause the FillTainer to 'overfill' slightly -- about 1/2" -- but this added water flows into the GrowTainers too. Once the level rises about 1/2" above the 'fixed' water level, the excess flows out the overflow holes in the GrowTainers.
==========
The FillTainer is made from a $6.47 tote from Lowe's. Measure up 6-1/2" to a centerpoint and drill a 3/8" hole through one short end of the container. The float valve is installed through this hole. As this location is above the level at which any excess flows out the overflow holes in the GrowTainers, it doesn't have to be perfectly water tight, just secure. The fiber washer goes up against the inside wall of the tote; the little nut tightens up against the outside wall -- tighten up snug with pliers or a wrench. The water level in the GrowTainers is 3-1/2" deep BUT there is 2" of wood underneath, so measure up inside the FillTainer to make a mark at 5-1/2". Adjust the float valve arm to maintain the water level at that depth. Let's move on to the next step.
==========

Step 11: Filltainer Costs and More Directions

==========
Here is a summary of what it cost to build my FillTainer:
==========
06.47 -- 10 Gal. Blue Roughneck Tote
01.95 -- 15' of 1/4" O.D. white vinyl tubing
04.56 -- 1/4" Float Valve (as used in swamp coolers)
06.26 -- Hose Bibb which screws onto existing hose bibb (with threaded hole for adapter which secures supply end of 1/4" tubing)
00.28 -- Brass insert (keeps vinyl tube end from collapsing)
01.38 -- Brass adapter (1/8" MPT on one end; compression fitting for 1/4" tubing on the other end)

$20.90 (plus tax) -- TOTAL
==========
To connect to each WaterMizer GrowTainer, you'll also need two Brass Barbed Fittings (3/8" I.D.) and an appropriate length of 3/8" I.D. Clear Vinyl. These two items will add another $4 to the cost of each GrowTainer.
==========
At this point, the FillTainer has a float valve installed and water in the FillTainer is 5-1/2" deep. Now drill a 3/8" hole through the lid of the FillTainer tote. You'll see that the clear vinyl tube is a compression fit through a hole this size. Only problem is the lid shape collects rainwater, and the rainwater can't drain into the FillTainer around the tube. My tote had a rectangular shape which was the lowest part of the lid, so I drilled a 1/4" hole in all four corners of that shape so water won't sit on top of the lid. The lid shades the water below it so algae won't grow AND it keeps airborne debris and stuff falling from trees out of the water.
==========
The brass fittings are just for WEIGHT to keep the tube ends under water where they belong. Insert one fitting into each end of the tube. I learned the simplest way to prime the siphon tubes is with a running garden hose. Simply shove the end of the running hose under water in the FillTainer and use your hand as a 'coupling' between the hose end and the brass fitting on the siphon tube. The siphon tube will quickly fill and purge any air out into the GrowTainer reservoir. As quickly as the siphon tube is primed, remove the garden hose from the FillTainer. If you watch closely at this point, you're likely to see water moving through the siphon tube to perfectly equalize the water level in the FillTainer AND the GrowTainer. I like to call this "proof of concept." This natural siphon action has no choice but to work -- as long as any air bubble in the highest part of the siphon tube isn't allowed to get too big.
==========
OPTIONAL: I didn't want some kid jerking my siphon tube out of the GrowTainer so I drilled a small hole near the top end of the filler tube and used a black plastic (the white/clear ones are NOT UV resistant) cable tie to secure the tube in place withOUT squeezing the tube shut. Trim off the excess cable tie and it should look like the 2nd image below.
==========
In the first image, you'll notice I have TWO tubes because this FillTainer is used to keep TWO GrowTainers automatically topped off. It's may be easier to run one tube to the first GrowTainer and then a 2nd tube to the next GrowTainer and so on, but I don't like the idea of multiple planters sharing the same water. It makes it too easy for water-borne disease to mess with the whole set-up. I'm convinced it's better to run individual tubes from the water source to each individual planter. Keep in mind that as long as the tube is full AND both ends are under water, it doesn't even matter if the tube runs along the ground -- distance doesn't matter either -- it will STILL work. In my case, I had only bought 8' of this clear vinyl tube and so running them both direct from the FillTainer was something I could do without buying more tubing.
==========
Next spring, I plan to build two or three MORE GrowTainers and I've already developed an improved watering system which is gravity fed AND won't lose siphon over time like these elevated tubes do. When I finish the Instructable for the "Ultimate" One-Bucket WaterMizer GrowTainer, it will include instructions on how to build the improved watering system, and I'll link to it from here.
==========
Now you have some beautiful growing containers AND a fully automatic watering system, what could be better than that? See the next step for some final images which didn't find a place in any of the steps. Happy Building! Happy Growing! To our health!
==========

Step 12: Orphaned Pictures

==========
These pictures didn't find a place in the "how to" series but they show how well the plants are doing in their new homes.
==========
My plants look like they're on life support now -- and I guess they are!
==========
Images #1, #2, and #3 are my two taller cherry tomato plants 'Husky Cherry Red' and I was so excited when they reached the 2nd to the top hoop of their cage. The skin seems a little tough on these but they do have great flavor. Ray's original design allows a 2nd cage to be inverted and attached to double the cage height when and if needed. These pics were taken mid-July and I gotta' feeling they're gonna' need those cage extensions.
==========
Image #4 is the two shorter plants which produce medium-size tomatos -- 'Bush Early Girl" hybrid -- and for the longest time, they just got healthy (after their disastrous life BEFORE the WaterMizer GrowTainers) but didn't really grow much new foliage. By the time of this pic (also mid-July), new growth is shooting out all over but the leaves and texture are noticeably different, so I'm not sure WHAT is going on with these plants but they are EARLY producers . . . we were getting yummy red tomatoes off of them while they were still in their original planter pots. (The tag says 54 days to maturity.) As you can see, they're still blooming, so we'll see how they do. BOTH of these varieties are supposed to be planted DEEP -- burying 80% of the plant -- does anyone actually do that?
==========
Images #5, #6, #7, and #8 are just some close-ups of the cherry tomato plants. I'm so proud of them!
==========
See the next and final step for a summary of the actual total costs to build the wooden WaterMizer GrowTainer.
==========

Step 13: Summary and EarthTainer Costs

==========
In step #11, I itemized the FillTainer costs and the nominal additional cost for each WaterMizer GrowTainer that is hooked up to it. Some plants (like tomatoes) require growing cages and others don't, so I've detailed the costs for the two projects separately.
==========
Here's a summary of what I spent to build TWO WaterMizer GrowTainers and projections for future operating costs:
==========
EARTHTAINER ONLY:
==========
12.47 -- 2.5 cubic foot bag of Potting Mix (used three)
01.60 -- (4) 1/2" x 2" Sched 80 PVC (the gray stuff)
00.96 -- (8) 1/2" Lock Nuts (to secure above PVC)
13.49 -- 3'x50' Weed Control Fabric (Dupont - 15 year) -- (enough to build 25(!) EarthTainers)
15.08 -- 10'x25' Black 4 Mil Plastic (enough to line eight EarthTainers)
05.88 -- (2) 10" square plant baskets (these are used to wick water up from the reservoir to the potting mix)
08.69 -- 1# of Torx Screws
02.21 -- (1) 2"x2"x8' Pine (I ran out of used/experienced ones)
23.96 -- (1) Gal. Boiled Linseed Oil
01.15 -- Disposable Chip Brush (paint brush)
05.51 -- Box of 1/4" Carriage Bolts
06.25 -- Box of 1-1/2" Torx Screws (aeration bench)
03.97 -- 4 Lb. Box of 10-10-10 fertilizer (enough for four Earthtainers)
03.97 -- 5 Lb. Bag of Garden Lime (enough for four Earthtainers)
04.74 -- Length of 2" PVC (two 19" filler tubes and eight 5-1/4" aeration bench supports -- have a chunk left over)

$109.93 (plus tax) -- TOTAL
==========
MINUS offsets (materials left over):
12.41 -- Landscape Fabric
11.31 -- Black Plastic
01.99 -- Fertilizer
01.99 -- Garden Lime

<27.70> So my Net Cost was $82.23 divided by 2 = $41.12 Each (and $12 of this is for the boiled linseed oil). Next year, only 1/3 of the Potting Mix has to be replaced (12.47 divided by 2 = $6.24). New black plastic liner = $1.89 . . . two more cups each of fertilizer and lime = $1.99 for an annual operating cost of $10.12 per GrowTainer (plus a coat of linseed oil). The plastic liner is always shaded and may last indefinitely withOUT replacement (and save me two bucks a year); we'll see how that item plays out.
==========
OPTIONAL CAGES:
==========
07.97 -- 3/16" x 1-1/4" Fender Washers
36.64 -- EIGHT 54" 4 ring x 4 leg tomato cages (start out with two per EarthTainer and add two more IF plants get tall enough to need the support)
27.04 -- 32 3/16" Galvanized cable clamps

$71.65 (plus tax) -- TOTAL
==========
Minus Offset:
18.32 -- Tomato Cages (may not need 'double high' cages?)
[So net cost = 53.33/2 = $26.67 for two cages per container.]
==========
A note about the boiled linseed oil:
This stuff is expensive and I only have maybe half a quart leftover. But I did TWO coats (inside AND outside) while thinning the first coat (about 50/50) with paint thinner and I did this to TWO GrowTainers. I figure the plastic liner keeps any toxins from the paint thinner away from the water reservoir and the planting MIX but I did NOT put anything on the aeration bench. It's made from very old cedar fence boards and I figure it's not that bigga' deal if I have to rebuild the benches every few years. But I want the GrowTainers to last forever, so the plan is to give them a fresh coat of the boiled linseed oil (on the OUTside only) every year. The idea behind thinning the first coat is it lets the sealer penetrate deeper into the wood.
==========
SUMMARY
==========
The basic wooden container costs $30 to build (plus $12 for two coats -- inside and out -- of boiled linseed oil). Add $27 per container for two tomato cages. Add $4 per container to prep for FillTainer option (see step #11). [NOTE TO SELF: Design cage which attaches to OUTside of container? Simpler to build, fill, etc. Now that I've actually installed the 2nd pair of inverted cages atop the original ones -- and my cherry tomatos are about to outgrow them(!) -- I'm thinking a cage attached to the outside of the GrowTainer may be better for yet another reason. The inverted cage tapers back IN and it becomes increasingly difficult to train the plant up inside the cage. As runners 'escape' the cage, the weight of the vines and fruit tends to bend them down over the wires of the cage and kink the vine. A larger cage with wooden 1x2 horizontals should be easier to work with and will definitely make building the GrowTainers themselves a lot simpler . . . planting will be much easier too.]
==========
I found an interesting instructable which uses a similar approach to growing veggies with minimal water in Australia:
https://www.instructables.com/id/Wicking-Beds/

Apparently these can double as worm beds, but the instructable doesn't get into that. Their containers are lined with plastic but they use the ground to support the bottom of their water reservoir. Instead of an aeration bench, they use "shade cloth" (I just gotta' think Dupont's 15-year fabric is better) between what looks like pea gravel (1/4" round rocks) and their garden soil. The wicking beds share many of the characteristics of the WaterMizer GrowTainers so they might be worth scoping out as well -- especially if you're wanting much larger areas to grow in.
==========
BIKE TO WORK -- Burn calories, NOT gas. (OR ethanol!)
==========
LAST REVISION = 09/25/09
==========

Comments

author
sail4free made it! (author)2015-09-22

==========

I used black plastic to line the wooden container -- simply folding in the excess in the corners -- using water to press the liner down. This liner was temporarily stapled into the top edges of the upper 2x2s. After the aeration bench is installed -- growing medium added -- another layer of plastic (I used some beefy vinyl tarp I had on hand) is added to minimize evaporation. Both these plastics are secured by 1x2s screwed on over the 2x2s and then the excess is trimmed off. This allows you to remove the upper layer to rework the growing medium each year as needed. Does that help?

==========

Over time, I have found the bolted in cages to be ungainly and difficult to work around. If I were to build more of these, I'd screw on external cages made from 2x2s and 1x2s. This also gives more flexibility for growing other things which don't need cages. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and their roots will scope out every square inch inside these containers. Over time, I'm also leaning more towards fertigation but that isn't real compatible with these water reservoirs.

==========

author
GregS47 made it! (author)2015-09-22

I have built dozens of earthtainers from Rubbermaid containers. I was never happy with the quality. i have several I made our of plastic barrels that are better but ungainly. They do keep the animals off of the tomatoes.

I joined instructables for your build. One thing. I cannot quite visualize how you are applying the plastic sheeting.

author
mainah made it! (author)2013-06-11

I heard about a product called Ecowood. It's a powdered product you mix with water to make a paint on one time only waterproof barrier. It's supposedly is non-toxic to use on raised beds without using pressure treated wood. Might be a good choice for the aeration bench and the exterior. I'm a maine Master Gardener Volunteer and we have the Kids Can Grow Program for youngsters. Thanks for the Instructible and good eating!

author
sail4free made it! (author)sail4free2013-06-13

==========
Thanks for your comment but a paint-on sealer would only work with a seamless wood product like plywood . . . and, even using plywood, the seams would need to be caulked first. Lining the enclosure with black plastic is easy enough to do and will last 50 years *IF* you can keep it shaded perfectly from the sun. As my experience with these planters continues to evolve, I'm leaning away from the aeration bench and the wicking basket. The water reservoir can simply be filled with gravel (to a level 1" higher than the overflow) then a layer of landscaping fabric is used to keep the potting mix from settling down into the gravel.
==========
I'm also leaning away from the built-in metal cages. I prefer wooden ones which can be screwed onto the outside of the growing container and easily removed for planting. I'm also leaning in favor of top-added organic refuse (and worms!) instead of removing the mix to add 1/3 new each year. After two or three years of growing, one can always remove the mix and filter it through 1/2" mesh hardware cloth to harvest the compost and return larger pieces to compost some more. With the "organoponics" approach, all those gardens have huge piles of compost -- they're making soil faster than they can expand their gardens to use it.
==========

author
zenlizard1977 made it! (author)zenlizard19772014-03-02

In addition to gravel I've had great luck with drilling holes in larger PVC tubes and lining the bottom with those. I've been working with different plastic containers but wanted to build something nicer looking in wood and this Instructable is just what I needed!

author
sedona007 made it! (author)2009-08-05

If you live where bamboo is plentiful, maybe you could try using some to make cages that the tomatoes wouldn't outgrow, also giving somewhat more of an natural or Asian flair as well. A bamboo trellis to grow pole beans or snow peas is another option I had for my containers. Also, instead of using a Rubbermaid container for two of your containers, could you not use and connect a rainwater barrel as your filltainers? When there's not enough rainwater you could refill using a garden hose?

author
mainah made it! (author)mainah2013-06-11

In one of the seminars I went to as part of my continuing education, we were warned about the pollutants in rain barrel water. There are several plans for making a small or large sand filter on the Web. Might be something to look into if you live in or near a city. I'm going to try one as an experiment. let you know how it works out. Nemaste'.

author
sail4free made it! (author)sail4free2009-08-06

==========
My climate is hot and dry = edge of the desert . . . no bamboo around here though it is amazing and wonderful stuff -- I'd certainly use it if it was more available. One nice thing about the wood containers is it's super simple to screw on a wooden cage which could be made from 1x2s -- perhaps six 8' verticals with horizontal 'rungs' every 6 to 8 inches. This would also greatly simplify building and filling the containers as everything would be wide open . . . the cage verticals could be added (as/if needed) later in the growing season . . . even the rungs could be installed incrementally as needed.
==========
I'm on pressurized city water so the 'FillTainer' was a simple and fully automatic solution. Certainly a rainwater barrel could be connected to a float valve and simply fed by gravity BUT some equivalent of the FillTainer would still be needed. It is the level of water in the FillTainer which establishes the water level in the growing containers.
==========
Another potential innovation which warrants further examination is the principle behind so-called "self-waterers" used for chickens and pets. An inverted container in the middle keeps a shallow dish filled with water at all times. When water in the dish falls below an air hole drilled in the inverted container, air bubbles into the inverted container and some more water comes out into the dish -- automatically maintaining a constant level. So there's potential here for a gravity-fed system which doesn't require a float valve. Then again, the inverted container has to be re-filled from time to time, so there IS some maintenance and attention to detail required -- depending on how large your inverted container is.
==========
Thanks for your comments!
JIM 8)
==========

author
drawe21 made it! (author)2013-01-04

I would recomend a 1/2" differance between the output and the next input so that any air bubbles would flow up hill into the next tank. I love the Idea, thank you for sharing it, and the link to the orignial. I'm going to do it in concrete (Thin) with wood on the outside for looks, but the concrete will last forever (wood never lasts forever). Metal water fittings

author
sail4free made it! (author)sail4free2013-01-06

==========
I appreciate your input but -- honestly -- I don't think it will make a difference. Assuming you are talking about the FillTainer concept (a way of keeping the water reservoirs topped off automatically). Though both containers are on the same level, the siphon tubes are weighted on both ends with brass adapters. Rasing one end or the other -- even up to 2-1/2" (to remain submerged underwater at all times) -- just doesn't make a difference. Actually, as the FillTainer sits on the deck and the other end is down inside the GrowTainer, the output end is already 3-1/2" higher than the input end. The problem is that the very low flow of water of through the siphon tube simply isn't enough to keep the air bubbles flushed out of there. At some point, the air bubble gets big enough to nuke the siphon action. I think you'd be surprised how long black plastic lasts as. long. as. it's completely shaded from the sun. Besides concrete is pourous; it slowly drinks water like a sponge -- and then will hold the water against the wood exterior -- causing the wood to rot faster. We've learned that fence posts planted in soil (or sand) last longer than those backfilled with concrete. These days I just use sand for backfill in 6" layers and use water to settle it for 95% compaction. I'm not wanting to discourage any innovation; just to let you know what might happen. In Cuba, most of their growing containers are concrete and they work fine and last pretty much forever -- what little bit of water migrates through the container walls to evaporate is a non-issue but wood will tend to trap that water and be a problem over time. A better approach (if you like the wood look) might be to use some form boards with high relief (the 3-dimensional surface of wood), oil the form boards before filling with concrete, then pop 'em off and stain the concrete to kinda' look like wood?
==========
I'm currently evolving into a unique type of aquaponics where growing containers are also used. The nutrient will eventually come more from a tank filled with yellow perch but it currently comes from our four hens. I dissolve their poo into concentrate which is then diluted in a large 50 gal. plastic barrel which I fertigate from (fertigation is simply fertilizing and irrigating at the same time, so every time I water, the plants also get a diluted dose of fertilizer). This approach works VERY well as the plants are fed incrementally all season long. The next step in automation is to use a small bilge pump powered directly by a PV panel (no batteries), so the *sun* decides how often the plants need to be watered. The small pump fills an elevated container which triggers an 'auto-siphon' as the container nears full. The auto-siphon delivers the water to a manifold which waters the containers automatically. Any excess drains out the overflow and back into the large barrel. Another small AC pump (20 watts) in the barrel runs 24/7 to keep the solution aerated and circulating so the aerobic bacteria can dominate. On overcast days (or when it's dark) the fertigation lift pump doesn't run at all as there is no reason to water as often (or at all) in those conditions. As my wooden growing containers evolve, I'll likely move away from the wicking baskets and just deliver 'fertigate' directly under the upper plastic (to minimize evaporation), let any excess water run out the overflow and back into the source barrel. I'm concerned about fertigate solution getting anaerobic (stagnant) in the water reservoir so I'll likely have to move away from that as well and just fill the whole container with growing medium.
==========
There's a lot to be said for the wicking beds as they are used in Australia: just using soil above a layer of landscape fabric over gravel (no aeration shelf). They don't use the upper plastic to minimize evaporation as organic refuse is continuously added on top -- to feed the worms which feed on the bacteria breaking down the organic matter. It's simpler as you're not having to remove ALL the growing medium to add one-third 'new' each season -- just remove the old plants, plant the new ones, add new 'top dressing' nutrient from time to time and you're back in business.
==========

author
dapierce made it! (author)2012-06-24

Awesome write up and your planters look great.

I was originally looking at building the EarthTainer from http://earthtainer.tomatofest.com/pdfs/EarthTainer-Construction-Guide.pdf, but my girlfriend definitely objected to their appearance.

How did everything turn out? I saw on EarthTainer that he now recommends a much smaller wicking basket (5 inches diameter x 4 inches tall). Any recommendations if you were to do it again?

Thanks,

Darrin

author
sail4free made it! (author)sail4free2013-01-06

==========
Sorry that I missed your comment somehow -- hope you see this? I don't think the size of the wicking basket makes much difference -- as long as the water reservoir remains 3" deep with the 1" air gap between the water and the aeration bench -- along with the provision for overflow so the growing medium can never be oversaturated no matter what happens. As for do-over recommendations -- especially building them from wood -- I wouldn't do the bolted-in tomato cages at all. It just makes it a major PIA to work with the planters; having to feed the new mix of medium in each spring UNDER the upper plastic barrier, etc. I keep hoping my aeration bench will rot through so I can replace it and get completely away from the bolted-in cages. I'm much more inclined to build wooden cages (2x2 corners; 1x2 horizontals) which can be easily removed for better access. OR one can simply punch the metal cages down through the upper plastic and down into the growing medium -- just like you do when growing in soil.
==========

author
twokniveskatie made it! (author)2011-04-21

Sail! this is excellent, thank-you for making this available for us! i much prefer the natural look, over the plastic bins. i'll let you know how it works out when i get a chance to build one! kate

author
sail4free made it! (author)sail4free2011-04-21

==========
Thanks for checking out my instructable. I agree -- the wood looks so much better. I used old cedar fence boards = easy to cut & usually FREE. I'm working on a new design (about half the size of these) which uses a 5-gal plastic bucket for the container. I painted my buckets to protect them from UV but I still think they look better inside a wood enclosure.
==========
sail4free
==========

author
brunoip made it! (author)2009-07-26

excellent work !!!

author
sail4free made it! (author)sail4free2009-07-26

Thanks! Are you thinking about building one?