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How to Make a Single-Bucket Self-Water Regulated Vegatable Planter

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Picture of How to Make a Single-Bucket Self-Water Regulated Vegatable Planter
cowhorn peppers.jpg
by Jake Robinson

I originally made my own two-bucket self watering, self feeding vegetable planter. They work quiet well, however, after some thought I have designed a single bucket system without sacrificing the watering feature that a two bucket system offers.

In a two bucket system the bottom bucket is where the water is stored for the plant. The top bucket contains the soil and allows the water to wick up through holes that are drilled in the top bucket's bottom. A larger hole allows a 'wicking cup' to sit the bottom of the 'top' bucket so some of the soil rests below the water line which allows the water to wick up into the upper bucket.

I have redesigned this system to allow the use of a single bucket which then saves time, labor and material. You eliminate the need for an extra bucket, or better yet you get two planters for the 'price' of one!

Here are some of the advantages of this type of system.

1. Use less water versus the same vegetable planted straight into the ground (about 70% less) One reason is the bucket has a lid and only a small opening where the stem is keeping the water from evaporating as fast as open ground... plus you just put the exact amount of water until is starts to flow out the overflow hole - then you stop watering

2. Use less fertilizer. Because the fertilizer strip lays at the top of the bucket, the lid prevents rain water from leaching it out. When adding fertilizer to a vegetable planted straight into the ground, the fertilizer will leach out very quickly causing you to use more, pollute water runoff as well

3. NO WEEDING!!! Because the lid is on it keeps weeds from growing. This saves time a
nd labor

4. You may have to still worry about bugs - but not those who burrow and less likely the crawling type bugs as it is harder for them to get to your plants

5. Produces more fruit. It has been proven that a properly designed planter will produce more fruit as it gets just the amount of water and fertilizer it needs and will last all growing season

6. Saves space - these planters can be housed almost anywhere, in your yard, driveway, back deck - anywhere they can get sun. I planted my garden very early before spring really had come. I moved them into my garage when the weather forecast called for close to or freezing temps. Then I wheeled them out with a dolly into the sun for the day. This way I was getting ripened veggies way before my neighbor's garden

7. Extended production. You can bring your plants in when first frost is forecast then put them back out for as long as the weather holds. Giving you extra bounty into the fall. It is not unheard of for some plants to be brought indoors once the weather gets too cool and continue to produce indoor using a grow light.

8. Can be reused... at the end of the growing season you can remove the plants... and next year just lay a new strip of fertilizer and plant again.

9. Easy to maintain. I water my plants in the morning and in the evening... it takes just a minute
10. When it rains your plant will not get over watered and hey, plants love rain. I usually shower my plants down after sundown each night as well

 
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Step 1: Materials & Tools Needed

Picture of Materials & Tools Needed
Here are the materials needed:

A plastic bucket & lid ( this item is a square bucket)
Plastic PVC pipe - approximately 36" long at least 2" diameter to 3" dia
Plastic PVC pipe - 1" dia
Potting Mix - very important, do not use dirt, soil, potting soil - use only potting mix - if you google 'Earthbox' you will see the inventor has determined several important aspects for proper growth of plants.....
Fertilizer (I prefer organic)
Lime in pellet form (if planting certain vegetables)

Tools needed:Drill w/ a 1/4 inch bit
Utility knife
Hand Saw or Hack Saw or Reciprocating Saw
Magic Marker
Tape Measure

Ideas on where to get Buckets: I got these nice square buckets from a local barbecue restaurant... I believe many barbecue joints use a similar vendor. They get many of their food and ingredients in these buckets - baked beans, margarine, slaw, sauce etc. The location I get these from has 30-60 at any given time as they don't throw them away and generally use them but will give them to you if you ask. Make sure you get the lids to go with them.

PVC: you should be able to go to a construction site and ask to pick up scraps - I got all my scrap that way. You may also find short pieces at a big hardware store like Home Depot or Lowe's as they will cut PVC for people and have short scraps left over and generally will not charge you for it.

Let's get started

Step 2: Create PVC Water Buffer System

Picture of Create PVC Water Buffer System
I am using a 2 1/2"(OD outside diameter) PVC pipe for this step. Measure the width of the inside of the bottom of your bucket . My bucket is 8" square. Depending on the size of the bucket and your PVC diameter estimate the number of pipe sections that can lay in the bottom of the bucket. The buckets I am using will accommodate 3 pieces of pipe that lay side by side. Now use your magic marker and make a mark for the proper length on your single PVC pipe (8" in this example)

Make one length for the full size. Subtract 1" from the other two sections to make them a bit shorter.

You can build these with typical 5 gallon round buckets... you would just have to adjust the length of the PVC pipes and apply a miter cut to each length of pipe.

Step 3: Drill Holes in PVC Pipe

Picture of Drill Holes in PVC Pipe
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Take your drill and drill a line of holes down the length of the pipe that will span three sections of 2.5" diameter. Don't press too hard or you may shatter or split the PVC. Run the bit through the top and continue to drill on through the opposite side of the pipe.

Once you have drilled one set of holes turn the pipe 90 degrees and drill another line of holes. The holes can be anywhere from 1/2" apart to 3/4" - this is not critical.

This long piece will then be cut into individual sections... then these will be placed in the bottom of the bucket... once soil has been filled in these sections will allow the watering pipe to fill this area with water for the plant.

Step 4: Arrange Large Diameter PVC Pipes

Picture of Arrange Large Diameter PVC Pipes
Take the full length pipe and put it between to other two pieces of pipe that are 1" shorter. One of these shorter pipes will leave a 'hole' for your watering pipe (1" PVC) to rest at the bottom to allow you to pour water into the top and fill the bottom section of the bucket.

The other short side will allow your soil to fall into the bottom corner of your bucket to help wick the water up into the bucket.

Step 5: Measure and Cut Watering Pipe

Picture of Measure and Cut Watering Pipe
put the lid on the bucket and measure the total height of the bucket. Now cut your 1" PVC pipe to a length that is will extend above the bucket approximately 1"


Step 6: Cut Access Hole in Lid for Watering Pipe

Picture of Cut Access Hole in Lid for Watering Pipe
Prepared Lid.jpg
Just use your magic marker to trace around the pipe and then use this for a guide to cut a hole for your watering pipe to reside. Use your utility knife (or you can use a drill) and cut a hole in the corner of the lid that will match up with the short pipe. It is easiest to secure the lid onto the bucket before you cut the corner hole.

Now insert the watering pipe into the hole and let it slide down until it rests at the bottom of the bucket abutting the short pipe in the corner.

This second photo show the water tube through the lid as well as the opening to plant your seedlings.

Step 7: Notch the Watering Pipe

Picture of Notch the Watering Pipe
Now take your hacksaw or reciprocating saw and cut a 'wedge' off the bottom your pipe but do not cut across the entire diameter as you may shorten it too much. When pouring water into the top of the bucket the notch at the bottom will allow the water to easily flow into the PVC Water Buffer area. If you insert the water tube without notching the bottom the tube will fill up with water and take a while to seep put the bottom... this will slow things down quiet a bit...

Step 8: Prepare Potting Mix

Picture of Prepare Potting Mix
Pouring potting mix.jpg
If you plan to plant tomatoes it is important to mix some lime (pellet form) into your soil to properly nourish your tomato plants. Lime will supply the calcium they need. Other plants that need it are hot peppers, squash and watermelons. Do your research on the type of vegetable you want to grow and determine if it 'likes' lime or not.

Mix lime into the potting mix in about a 1:4 ratio (25% lime) - this doesn't have to be exact. The first photo shows adding the lime pellets into the potting mix... then mix it up with your hands like a tossed salad...

Make sure your have the water pipe standing up in the bucket.

The second photo shows pouring the potting mix into the bucket a bit at a time... pour about 1/4 of your mix into the bucket and make sure it fills the other gap in the corner where the short PVC is arranged.

Now sprinkle this potting mix with water and get it fairly damp.

Add more potting mix to about 1/2 and sprinkle with water again.

Do this until you fill the bucket to the top but don't water the top layer of potting mix. You may have to smooth the potting mix around the watering pipe to make sure it is standing upright.

Step 9: Prepare Lid for Planting

Picture of Prepare Lid for Planting
When you decide what type of plant to grow, you will want to plant the appropriate number of seedlings. The bucket can accommodate 2-3 plants per bucket. I have planted up to four tomato plants in one bucket! they all tend to do well as clustering like this actually bunches up the foliage and tends to protect the plant from overheating.

If we were growing bell peppers as an example, you could comfortably plant three in a bucket. How you arrange them is important. You will want to arrange them opposite to where you will lay your fertilizer.

I will be planting two Hot Pepper seedlings that I picked up from the nursery today... They have already started growing gigantic fruit - they are called 'Cowhorns' peppers.

Now you will need to cut an access into the lid to allow you to insert the roots and stem into the access hole then plant the seedling in the top of potting mix. If you have 3 seedlings then you either cut three separate holes along one side of the bucket or one long hole to accommodate the seedlings. I have come to prefer the single strip as shown below...

Use your utility knife to cut these holes.

Now remove the lid.

Step 10: Lay Fertilizer

Picture of Lay Fertilizer
Laying Fertilizer.jpg
Prepared Potting Mix.jpg
horizon cutaway.jpg
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On the opposite side of your access holes create a trench by separating the potting mix and leaving a trench approximately 2" deep in a 'V' shape.. fill this trench with organic fertilizer. Then cover back over with the potting mix and smooth flat.

Since your finished box will have a lid your fertilizer is protected from direct rainfall.... and since you water the box from the bottom up with an overflow hole then the fertilizer will last much, much longer than if you spread it directly on the ground in a conventional garden... fertilizer used in this way gets diluted very quickly and with hard rains can easily be washed away and/or leached away... the little bit of fertilizer in the box will last all growing season!

The first photo shows the 'trench' for the fertilizer.
The second photo shows the organic fertilizer being poured.
The third photo shows the fertilizer strip covered back over with potting mix.
The last two photos are "cutaways" to illustrate the position of the water tube and the PVC "water table"

Step 11: Insert Seedlings

Picture of Insert Seedlings
Create two holes in the potting mix for the two seedlings. These should be opposite the fertilizer strip. Now carefully remove seedlings from their package and gently pull the roots out and loosen the soil around them.

Lay the lid on the bucket but do not secure.

Take your first seedling and gently press the root ball into the cutout of the lid and let it sit there. Do the same with the other seedling.

Here's the tricky part... Lift the lid up the stems enough for you to get your hand inside the bucket and gently press the root ball of seedling into the potting mix and gently cover the plant. Compact the potting mix around the base of the plant slightly to support the plant upright.

If you are planting three seedlings on a side, you may want to plant the middle hole seedling first as it will be easier to access the other two plants that should be near the corners of the bucket.

Now secure the lid onto the bucket being careful to fit it over the watering pipe.

Step 12: Drill Water Relief Hole

Picture of Drill Water Relief Hole
You will now take your drill and create a hole into the side of the bucket at the height of your PVC Water Buffer area. You may want to elevate the hole just above the top of the pipe. This allows your system to prevent over watering your plant and water logging them or worse, drowning them and causing root rot.

I would recommend positioning the hole on a side that your watering pipe is on so when filling you can see when it starts to overflow and you know your watering is complete. When you plants begin to grow you would have to lean over to see the hole if positioned on the opposite side of your water pipe.

Step 13: Fill with Water

Picture of Fill with Water
I collect rainwater so I don't expose my plants to chlorine plus it's FREE!. But a water hose will work just fine. I use a plastic funnel with a long skinny snout. Insert the funnel into the watering pipe and fill until water starts running out of the overflow hole (you can see a small stream in the photo coming out the overflow hole). Now sprinkle a bit of water into the holes at the base of the seedlings... remember, it could take a short while for the water to wick up to the roots. The root system will take a while to grow and head down towards the water. So give the new seedlings a drink.

Step 14: Finished Product

Picture of Finished Product
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You will love the gratification of picking you own tomatoes, bell peppers or hot peppers that you grew and you care for. I receive a great sense of accomplishment that I grew them myself, saved money in the process and that they are organic. I use rain water I collect to water my plants so I don't waste money there either.

Here are some of the advantages of this type of system.

1. Use less water versus the same vegetable planted straight into the ground (about 70% less) One reason is the bucket has a lid and only a small opening where the stem is keeping the water from evaporating as fast as open ground... plus you just put the exact amount of water until is starts to flow out the overflow hole - then you stop watering

2. Use less fertilizer. Because the fertilizer strip lays at the top of the bucket, the lid prevents rain water from leaching it out. When adding fertilizer to a vegetable planted straight into the ground, the fertilizer will leach out very quickly causing you to use more, pollute water runoff as well

3. NO WEEDING!!! Because the lid is on it keeps weeds from growing. This saves time a
nd labor

4. You may have to still worry about bugs - but not those who burrow and less likely the crawling type bugs as it is harder for them to get to your plants

5. Produces more fruit. It has been proven that a properly designed planter will produce more fruit as it gets just the amount of water and fertilizer it needs and will last all growing season

6. Saves space - these planters can be housed almost anywhere, in your yard, driveway, back deck - anywhere they can get sun. I planted my garden very early before spring really had come. I moved them into my garage when the weather forecast called for close to or freezing temps. Then I wheeled them out with a dolly into the sun for the day. This way I was getting ripened veggies way before my neighbor's garden

7. Extended production. You can bring your plants in when first frost is forecast then put them back out for as long as the weather holds. Giving you extra bounty into the fall. It is not unheard of for some plants to be brought indoors once the weather gets too cool and continue to produce indoor using a grow light.

8. Can be reused... at the end of the growing season you can remove the plants... and next year just lay a new strip of fertilizer and plant again.

9. Easy to maintain. I water my plants in the morning and in the evening... it takes just a minute
10. When it rains your plant will not get over watered and hey, plants love rain. I usually shower my plants down after sundown each night as well

I have a mixture of two-bucket system and now some single buckets - i can say with certainty that making the single bucket version it takes way less time and way less effort to build these.

My garden consists of 4 boxes of tomato plants for a total of 7 tomato plants and i just added two more boxes with a total of 7 Yellow Roma plants a nice lady from Freecycle gave me. I also have Jalapenos, Cayenne, Habanero and now Cowhorn peppers and Bell peppers (my two plants now have 17 ripening bell peppers coming in)

I hope this idea can help you start your own garden...

Here is a link to a youtube video of my garden: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0R0tC8UZcw
This is when I was still building two bucket systems... but gives you an idea of what a bucket garden looks like...
Akin Yildiz11 months ago

this is amazing jake. I need to do this to all of my buckets... I was also thinking about a drip system made out of "fish tank tubing" and resting in each bucket. would also be automated of course. thank you for sharing !

Mr_Liss1 year ago

This is great. Very well explained. I could buy some buckets but I want to do it your way, using food grade castoffs.

jakerobinson (author)  Mr_Liss1 year ago

Hey, free is good but if you have a hard time finding them, if you can afford to purchase don't be afraid to invest in your garden!

bit_bucket3 years ago
Your both right...
When adding lime to sand. The lime does not increase the volume of the final product so in the construction field based on VOLUME the denominator is still 4. 25% of the void left by sand contains lime.
However in the pure mathematics world solid objects are not thought to occupy the same space also by MASS Mr. Robinson is correct.
Lime is thought to fill all voids left by sand in 1:3 ratio, so if the final mix is one to one part lime and sand then Volume of the final product would be increased. But in this case 1:4 or greater say more common ratio 1:6 lime to sand there will be not enough lime to coat all the sand, so no change in volume.
As a former math teacher the construction trades use of ratios and percentages confused me until I realized this. Also slope and percent of grade have this same departure from pure math.
Mr.Nelson5 years ago
I like your design.  I wonder if you might assist me with a few questions?

Do you ever have a problem with your buried pvc irrigation pipes becoming clogged with soil? ( It would significantly add to the cost, but would filling your pipes with LECA stone be a benefit?)

You use potting soil, and - from what little I have handled it - it seems to have properties that would assist in distributing the water - vertically -to the plants roots.  If someone were to use a mixture of top soil and compost, do you think the water would properly reach the root system?
jakerobinson (author)  Mr.Nelson5 years ago
My design is an offshoot ot the commercial version of "Earthbox".  The designer is adament about using certain components... however, i think a layer of LECA stone on top of the PVC - maybe a couple of inches then use potting soil... i'd spring for a big bag of it - it's worth it.. i use miracle grow brand as it is very light and fluffy...

if you add regular soil it may compact too much - but i can't claim i have knowledge of this...

an alternative is to go to a construction/household salvage store and get some window screens and cut out a swatch to lay over your PVC - this would certainly keep the mix from drifting below... 

I did not have a problem with any of my containers clogging... remember you will be 'feeding' the water down the tube and it will saturate the bottom area and leach upward... you will have some soil down in this area (i cleaned mine out from last year and found a bit but not enough to harm the operation)

The biggest issue is having too many roots and not enough soil... if your container is smallish (like mine) the plant eventually fills the whole container with it's roots system and then may have a tendancy to starve for room to grow...

I am purposely planting fewer plants per container as to make sure they get a full growing area...

hope this helps, if not let's try again... cheers, jake
Just a thought but instead of window screens you could recycle the wifes( or female freinds/family members) nylon tights or stockings stretched over your PVC to stop soil drifting below into the water.
I have used Nylon tights before as wicks for self watering house plants.
jakerobinson (author)  stopherbailey3 years ago
good idea... i like it!
I think the American name for tights is Pantyhose ( :
I had the same suspicions about using regular soil.  The increased compaction and less 'wick like' properties might clog the pipes and decrease water distribution.  I'm gong to give it a try - though - and see what happens.

I'm going to add the LECA stone inside the PVC to reduce the soils penetration.  I like what you said about a layer, but if it is above your drain hole or reduces the waters contact with the soil - I'm afraid it might impede the travel of the water to the plant roots.

I didn't think about relistate problems for the root growth.  I'll definitely go one per bucket now.

Thanks
ariviera3 years ago
Wouldn't a lime:earth ratio of 1:4 mean the resulting volume would be 20% lime, not 25%?
1 unit of lime + 4 units of earth = 5 units total
1 unit lime / 5 units total = 20% lime by volume.
jakerobinson (author)  ariviera3 years ago
Maybe I am wrong... but 1 divided by four = .25 or 25%...
joegolo4 years ago
Just wondering if this could be done with plastic water bottles instead of PVC pipes. My wife is concerned with the plastic bottle having stuff leech into the soil. Are there worries like that with the PVC as well? Thanks!
jakerobinson (author)  joegolo4 years ago
well, some water bottles do have PTFE which leaches into the water... supposed to be bad...

I don't think you'll have problems with PVC since most home's water lines are made of them... you can use about anything to 'lift' the soil up from the bottom as long as it allows for water to accumulate... hope this helps.. cheers,
Chakazuluu4 years ago
Great instructable I am going to start this week end...
jakerobinson (author)  Chakazuluu4 years ago
Hey thanks!

planted my 3rd seasn about 3 weeks ago... started with 4" tomatoe plants and now they are about 2.5' tall!
loley5 years ago
I just made these and so far so good- I do have one question...  You said you water your plants twice a day!! I thought that having the "water table" would eliminate the need for everyday watering. I have to go out of town to town from time to time so I am worried about the watering.
jakerobinson (author)  loley5 years ago
Hey Loley,
this season I am watering once per day... play it by ear... just make sure the mix at the top is not drying out...

if you need 'more' water in the watertable... you might want to move the hole a bit higher..

just take some duct tape and cover the old hole and drill another one a bit higher... this will allow you to get enough water to restrict how often you have to water your plants...

if you will be leaving town you could do this... fill up tube until water comes out... then start watering at the top - if you water it enough the water will soak the entire system until water again starts flowing out the bottom hole...

if you're leaving town - then you would have the 'most' possible water for your plants.. or show one of you neighbors how to water and ask them to come be and water once per day... cheers, hope this helps
Roger4085 years ago
I tried a couple of DIY versions last season.  They worked, but I like yours much better!  Yours is easier & cheaper to build also.

One feature of the commercial Earthbox is an overflow drain in the side of the box, just above the water storage area.  Did you have any problems with someone getting over-enthusiastic with watering?  I used a 3 inch piece of soft vinyl tubing, which fits snugly in a half inch hole drilled in the bucket.
jakerobinson (author)  Roger4085 years ago
Hey Roger408 - thanks for the kinds words...

I drilled a 1/2" hole just at the top of the water area in all my containers so it will not let it overwater just like the earthbox... so no problems over watering... i didn't insert any tube into the drain hole... it worked fine without it.. worst case just ram a screwdriver in a few times if it drains a bit slow...

hope this helps... let me know how yours turns out...

cheers,
jakerobinson (author)  jakerobinson5 years ago
i should have been a bit more clear about the drain hole... it is referenced in step 10 at a callout on the photo of the cutaway... should have taken a pic of it as well... thanks for pointing this out - maybe others will realize it should have been illustrated... cheers
rmyontz5 years ago
Love this idea, as I can't stand to weed. YUK! But what I wondered is if some wiffle balls would work in place of the pvc pieces at the bottom of the bucket? I have several from a old halloween project, was thinking that all I need is something plastic with perforations. Think that would work?
jakerobinson (author)  rmyontz5 years ago
wow, wiffle balls would be great... the only thing is make sure they are tight in the bottom... the idea is to hold the soil up above but allow the water to seep up into the soil... using PVC with holes drilled has the same effect as your wiffle balls... go for it!
This is an absolutely excellent idea.  I love it because it is something I, with my extremely limited technical skills, can actually do.

Now, if only I knew how to prune tomato plants! 

Thanks.
jakerobinson (author)  trying2learn5 years ago
Ok, thanks for the kind words...

and, here's how to 'prune' tomato plants...

look for what are called 'suckers'

anytime you see a 'branch' limb off another limb - look for anything growing straight out of the 'V' that is formed... it will be a very small new growth..

just pinch it out with your fingers at the base of the vee... these 'suckers' will not produce and only suck off the growth of the rest of the plant...

so, anywhere you see a vee -look for a new 'green shoot' and pinch it off (pinch hard as if you just pull it - it could split the 'skin' of the limb down below the vee and injure the plant...

as to whether you should always pick a sucker read this article and notice the pic which shows what a 'sucker' looks like;
http://gardening.about.com/od/totallytomatoes/qt/Tomato_Suckers.htm
ycc21065 years ago
Looks great, a side view graphic/scheme would be, I think, most explicit... would it be possible?
jakerobinson (author)  ycc21065 years ago
Did you check out the add'l photos on step 10? (laying fertilizer) i did actually do a real cutaway version where i cut the side open so you can see the soil, water tube and substrate made of larger PVC... Is this what you are asking? if not, maybe you could rephrase your request... thanks for viiewing and taking the time to comment... cheers,
jakerobinson (author) 6 years ago
OK, I have updated and added photos for the intro... please publish now - thanks!