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

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I originally made my own two-bucket self watering, self feeding vegetable planter.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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Akin Yildiz6 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_Liss11 months 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_Liss10 months 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_bucket2 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.Nelson4 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.Nelson4 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)  stopherbailey2 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.

ariviera2 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)  ariviera2 years ago
Maybe I am wrong... but 1 divided by four = .25 or 25%...
joegolo3 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)  joegolo3 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,
Chakazuluu3 years ago
Great instructable I am going to start this week end...
jakerobinson (author)  Chakazuluu3 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!
loley4 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)  loley4 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
Roger4084 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)  Roger4084 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...

jakerobinson (author)  jakerobinson4 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
rmyontz4 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)  rmyontz4 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! 

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;
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) 5 years ago
OK, I have updated and added photos for the intro... please publish now - thanks!