Instructables

How to Build Your Own Growing Containers

Picture of How to Build Your Own Growing Containers
EarthTainer 055.jpg
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My initial inspiration was these growing containers designed by Ray Newstead and featured here:
http://earthtainer.tomatofest.com/

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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mainah10 months ago
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!
sail4free (author)  mainah10 months ago
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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.
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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.
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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!

sedona0074 years ago
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?
mainah sedona00710 months ago
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'.
sail4free (author)  sedona0074 years ago
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Thanks for your comments!
JIM 8)
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drawe211 year ago
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
sail4free (author)  drawe211 year ago
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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?
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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.
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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.
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dapierce1 year ago
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
sail4free (author)  dapierce1 year ago
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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.
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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
sail4free (author)  twokniveskatie3 years ago
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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.
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sail4free
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brunoip4 years ago
excellent work !!!
sail4free (author)  brunoip4 years ago
Thanks! Are you thinking about building one?
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