Picture of Self-Watering Veggie Table
April 2011 409.JPG

A Brief History of Gardening in Containers:

Do you like gardening but digging in the dirt is too painful, messy, or time consuming? Container gardening is your answer. For many years now, container gardeners have been using pots, tubs, and boxes of all sizes to garden in. While raised bed gardens have also gained in popularity, so have "bucket gardens" or tubs become an economical way to garden with more control over your soil and more success with hard to grow vegetables.

Recently, the advent of so-called "self watering" containers have helped gardeners to grow flowers, vegetables, and herbs with even more success. Many companies, such as Earth Box, The Grow Box, and models from Gardeners Supply and others have developed easy to assemble boxes with water reservoirs in the bottom. However, these are often pricey. All over gardening websites and forums, do it yourself versions of these boxes have popped up to provide more economical ways of yielding the same results with significantly reduced costs. There is even a book on gardening vegetables in Self-watering containers by Ed Smith, which you can find here.

At the University of Maryland Extension, Jon Traunfeld designed a Salad Table which is essentially a shallow wooden frame with a large surface area and a mesh bottom that allows water to drain. This is a design of great benefit, as you can plant seeds and cut vegetables comfortably at waist level and avoid problems with pests on the ground. If you would like to know more about Jon's original table (and find many more uses, ideas, and advice about Salad Tables), please visit his page here.

The Idea:

I loved the idea of a salad table as a way to maximize the space I have to grow salad greens to feed myself and my rabbits. Having made my own self-watering tubs for lettuces and other greens the previous summer, I saw how well they flourished with this method even under the hot humid summers of Washington DC. So I decided to combine both the ideas of self-watering containers and the salad table into one. The result is this instructable. This table is deeper than a 2X4, so you can grow much more than just salad greens in it, as you have more space for roots.

What is Self-Watering?
Essentially, this is a system where by you allow water at the bottom of the container to be drawn up, or wicked, to the roots as they need it. There is an overflow hole in the side of the container, near the top of the water reservoir that overflows when the water reaches the top. For me, the term self-watering is a bit tricky as you still have to water the vegetables, you're just doing it from the bottom of the container.  This allows the plant to draw water as it needs it, thus reducing the possibility of overwatering or underwatering. The holes in a wicking basket or chamber allow the soil to touch the water for wicking. For tricky or picky vegetables, this also allows you to maintain an even level of moisture in the plant which is what many of them need to grow well.

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bepartial4 years ago
Wonderful instructable. Very nicely written and photographed. This is a great version of the sub-irrigated planter system that we've been using for years here in the desert Southwest. You have done a great job. Hope to see and read more about these kinds of things in the future.

There is a great need for this in Urban areas as more and more areas find out that their native soil is contaminated with lead, arsenic and other toxic materials. Since urban farming and gardening is on the rise, systems like this will allow people to produce their own food, or at least a great percentage of it safely, easily and very conveniently.

Keep up the great work.
Kindlekat (author)  bepartial4 years ago
Thanks so much for the wonderful comment! Yes, I agree there is a great need for more types of container gardens because of all the issues you list.
ValL21 month ago

What a fantastically well written Instructable! Thank you so much for sharing it!

biancanaught9 months ago

do you use any kind of gasket for the straw to keep water from dribbling out through the space in the hole around the straw? I'm building your design to use inside my apartment and want to avoid ruining my carpet at all possible by using the straw to drain into another container.

You've probably already done something like this already, but if you haven't, a small amount of rubber cement (Shoe Goo is good) around the hose on the outside should work to seal it.

BruceA52 months ago

Thanks so much for the idea! We live in a townhouse with a postage stamp sized yard, and between our house and our garage, we only get consistent sunlight on a narrow strip of our walkway. We also live in Denver, and it get very hot and dry in the summer. In the past we had mixed success with herbs, but only by watering them two or three times a day. This is the perfect solution to our problems.

I did make a few modifications. First, I couldn't find tubs that were the same dimension as yours, plus we wanted to grow tomatoes as well as salad greens, so I went with 19 gallon tubs. I also only used two, as I had to orient them sideways relative to your design. You can see why in the second picture below - we needed room to get by the planter on our way to the garage! Because of the added weight, I also added a brace underneath. On advice of a woodworker friend, I also put the castors on a 2x4, and then glued and screwed the 2x4 to the legs. If I had it to do again, I would use two fixed castors, and two swiveling castors. It would make moving it much easier. I also used 4" PVC perforated drain pipe instead of a basket. I cut them so,that they would fit snugly to the sides, and leave a gap on the right and left. A test before I filled them with potting mix showed that they filled very nicely. I took the suggestion of one other commenter and added a shelf on the bottom, and that's proved to be very useful.

Thanks again! Now let's eat!!

Hank025 made it!1 year ago

Great Idea, thank you for sharing your plans. I made a few modifications. Adding an extra box allowed me to put in another set of legs, so I have six legs total, adding to the support. I also made the table a total of 30 inches high, which is the standard table/desk height. Laslty, I added a slatted shelf on the bottom for additional storage or more plants that dont need full sun.

20140505_191458 (1).jpg

Nice design. Any problems with mosquitoes breeding in water reservoir?

I haven't had any problems yet... But I have read that people use "Mosquito Dunks" in their rain barrels, which is a veggie safe way to kill any larvae. Thank you for brining this to my attention, I will head over to a big box store and pick some up.

Also, in the picture above, I have WAY to many plants per box. This year I have a maximum of six plants per box and even that is a bit tight.

Hank....do you have written plans for this or pics? I would like to make this.

grubbworm made it!4 months ago
GREAT INSTRUCTABLE! I made this for my 94 year old father-in-law. He loves to garden but is having a hard time getting down to the ground to do his gardening. I would have these suggestions:1. Get all of your material before you cut your wood or pipe. I cut it and built it then went looking for the tubs. I ended up with tubs that were bigger and deeper so I had to trim some of the inside frame and had to make longer pieces of pipe. 2. I made 2 of the external frames and put the second one on the bottom for support. 3. I had an old grill frame laying around with wheels. (I do not throw away anything and my wife complains about that, but it worked out this time) So I added those to one end and made extend handles on the other end. Just lift and move it like a wheel barrel. 4. I put screen over the top off the pipes to keep mosquitoes from going down into the water. 5. I used a hole saw to make the hole for the piece of pipe. The pipe was 1 7/8" od and I used a 1 3/4" hole saw. This made the pipe fit nice and snug. 6. I also used 1/2" od tubing instead of the straw. I had some excess laying around from a previous project. I made it 2' long and put a zip tie on the inside to keep it from being pulled out. here is a pic of my finished project. THANKS AGAIN FOR THE INDESTRUCTIBLE.
ashwin194 months ago

It is indeed excellent and I would try this . But please let me know how would you ensure drainage , usually in potting soils over ti electrical conductivity increases due to increased fertiliser or sal contents . Once every couple of. Months it is recommended to leach the soil

Papiben made it!1 year ago

Great Instructables! I followed it last year, with slightly different dimensions and had plenty of tomatoes and aromatic herbs (will not grow zucchini anymore however, as they take too much space...). The watering system works perfectly and the refill can be made after 2-3 days. I'll use it this year again.

Thanks a lot for sharing, Kindlekat!


Looks amazing. Have you modified anything to your "earthbox" setup or, are you getting the desired results. I am about to build your "table". But trying to decide the best option for the container.

achollowell3 years ago
great job this is what i was looking for for a herb garden at my home
gkaneto3 years ago
Hello, everybody!

I just wrote an instructable about self-watering (mainly for indoor plants, but will work for some outdoor setups): really self-regulating, and no powering needs.

It is here: http://www.instructables.com/id/Self-regulating-watering-system

Hope someone find it useful.

Best wishes,
Such an elegant design!
My mind is already turning over the idea of making a hydroponic version.

Love it!
Tushar Max4 years ago
Hello, I live in Goa, India and it's been roughly 6 months since i started growing vegetables in my backyard as well as in a strip along one side of the house. I have a large (about 600 sq ft.) lawn in the front of the house and lately i have been thinking about how it seems to be such a "waste" of water, time and energy to maintain the same. Hence my plans for slowly introducing vegetable cultivation in the same. Your instructable on self watering veggie tables/pots is clear, neatly explained and quite fantastic. I shall surely try and build one based on your instructions. I get your point about avoiding soil as a medium but i don't think we get the ready mixes that you mention. However, based on the description you have provided, about these ready mixes, i am going to try and prepare a mix using peat, coir, sand, soil, cow dung etc. keeping in mind to keep the mix light and not sticky. Since Goa has a very tropical climate, we get abundant rains for about 3 months during the monsoons. I am wondering if i shall need to make some sort of a shelter so that the tables do not get over watered? Once again, congratulations on your simple and wonderful instructable.
If you drill a hole (more than one might be a good idea) in the walls of the containers right where you want the max water level to be, the water will run out rather than build up-just like the overflow drain on a sink or bathtub.
Thank you winderwindarts for the very simple and sensible suggestion. One does tend to get "tunnel visioned" while focusing on a subject, missing out on the broader view :-)
Cheers again.
Kindlekat (author)  Tushar Max4 years ago
I actually would disagree with winterwindarts. Because of the design, when you drill a hole in the side of the containers, you are only allowing access to the soil. This will not all overflow of the water. You need a straw or small PVC pipe to go through the outside of the container, pass through the soil and connect to the water resevoir inside, if you intend to have an overflow system. My design has already included this, and in my experience, one overflow outlet is all you need. I do not think extra water would be harmful to this table, it just means you don't have to water it yourself as often!

In a much more tropical area such as you describe Tushar, I could see the advantage to having maybe 2 overflow pipes per container. Just remember that you need a straw to connect to the water reservoir inside.

Please see steps 11 and 12 in this instructable to see more detail to what I am talking about. Good luck! I look forward to hearing how your project goes!
Thanks Kindlekat, i see your point regarding the need to actually keep the soil from getting water logged. The additional "drain off" holes at the top would certainly help in draining off the excess water, as in a bath tub, while still leaving the soil pretty damp and perhaps soggy as well.
cbg38684 years ago
This is a wonderful project! Of course,, modifications can be made to suit the gardener.
anasmommy4 years ago
Great instructable. I've been looking for a solution like this as I moved the location of my homemade earthboxes and if they were a foot higher they woudl A) get more sun and B) be easier to maintain without the bending over. I thought about building something up like this but couldn't figure the best way to allow for the drainage, etc (I was going to build boxes to put the boxes in those). I'll build this in fall or winter for next spring but am very curious about the supports. I'll be watching your instructable for updates of how the boxes survived the summer, etc. With the weight I would assume some sort of bottom support is still needed. Thanks for publishing... and some great advice from comments on drains, etc too!
I love gardening Instructables. Yours are on my follow list. I have been collecting my rain barrel materials for awhile now and I have a barrel. Just not hooked up yet.
geartrain4 years ago
Love the project. I am in MD also, can you tell me where you got your containers? I am having trouble locating them.
Kindlekat (author)  geartrain4 years ago
They should be available at Home Depot or Lowes in the storage section. Use the pictures I provided here to find one similar if you can't find this exact brand. The important parts are that they are roughly the same size, and are a "roughneck" or similar thickness and durability. Clear plastic bins will crack and snap.

Hope that helps!
segeste4 years ago
If we have 4 lengths of 2 x 4 x 10, then there's not enough wood to make all those cuts.

(2*63) + (4*24) + (4*32.5) + (4*36) = 496" of cuts.
4 * (12 * 10) = 480" of material.
Kindlekat (author)  segeste4 years ago
Thanks for pointing this out! I was using some scrap lumber I had laying around, and I was trying to estimate how much lumber it would be if I didn't have random lengths already. I've fixed it in the list now, thanks!
Creativeman4 years ago
Wow, I'm really impressed. Everything looks so neat and clean, excellent woodworking, too. Will look forward to seeing updates, and will subscribe so I don't miss any. Thanks for sharing.
lonejack4 years ago
I made containers our of half whisky barrels that sit in notches cut in my fence. I made the water containers out of tubs exactly as you suggest, except i just drilled a hole at the top of the tub inside.
These containers have been in my fence for about 12 years now. Each spring I add some more soil to the top to replace what soil decomposed.
I have grown everything from tomatoes and squash to flowers in these containers.
I watter with a tube setup connected to a faucet. I water about every 3 days in mid-hot time.
It is official zone 8b here in the Portland, Oregon area, but effectively it is zone 9a most years. The old saying in Oregon is, " What did you do last summer?"
"I missed it, I went to the beach." We do get a lot of cloudy weather.
Gordyh4 years ago
For people in areas that freeze in the winter I'd recommend a drain in the bottom, to avoid ice damage. The home supply stores like Lowes sell trays that fit under a washing machine, next to them should be a fitting you want (PVC). It has a male thread with a nut and gasket on one end, the other end is female glue and slide in type. Measure the inside of the female end and mark the outside so you can cut of the excess( make sure you don't remove the shoulder). Then make a hole in the bottom of the tube and put the fitting in from the inside, a little caulking wouldn't hurt. Then from the outside put on the nut and gasket, you may want to make a plastic or metal washer to go between the nut and gasket. To plug the hole I use a plug from the back of a boat drain. Sense this is mounted on thin plastic I'd recommend the T handle type plug that you turn to tighten rather than the lever action type. This would also make the whole thing lighter to move if you drained the water first.

I'd also cover the white basket with window screen or a rot proof fabric, to keep your soil mix from getting into the reservoir area and displacing water.
Kindlekat (author)  Gordyh4 years ago
Great suggestion!

From my experience, I drained my water barrels but not my self-watering planters. In the D.C. area, we routinely get below 20 degrees F, which is below freezing, but not sub zero temps. Last winter my tubs did not crack and I am not sure why, but I was glad.
fotbr Kindlekat4 years ago
Because those types of containers have some ability to flex, and because nothing on top is sealing the container, the water can freeze without doing much damage. After a few years, you might need to replace the tubs (maybe -- if they're shaded from UV light they'll last much longer) but by then you'll probably have ideas on how to make it even better.

I've got a potting bench that uses the same style of tub under a slatted top, and I don't give it a second thought when winter rolls around -- it's held up fine for the last 3 midwest winters.
Gordyh fotbr4 years ago

You have had a lot better luck than I have, on the freezing and breaking issue.

But I will agree the tubs should be protected from the sun.

Gordy in MN
fotbr Gordyh4 years ago
Well, I'm also quite a bit further south than you (MO), so that might also be a part of it. We see below freezing temps for weeks at a time, but we don't see single digits for more than a night or two at a time, below zero might happen a handful of separate nights through the winter; I suspect there's a point where the plastic becomes to cold to flex. I'd guess that point is somewhere in Iowa. Probably in a cornfield :)
cindi59 fotbr4 years ago
Hey, why pick on Iowa? We do have more than cornfields! :P
matits Gordyh4 years ago
You mean there is any place North of Mexico that doesn't freeze? Where have I been all of my life. We have terribly cold wet winters that destroy and mame. We also have terribly hot and humid summers. Weird thing is, we have only a little rain in the summer. Most of the time it is super dry with deep cracks in the ground. Ambient Gulf Coast air keeps it muggy.

We are far enough north to make it not possible to grow a lot of plants because of the extreme low temps we get here. But hot enough to make it miserable.

incog neato4 years ago
You should probably consider some form of support (use plastics and allow plenty of places for the water to get through) under the inverted container. Depending on what ever material you use, take some time to carefully measure your supports so it will keep the flat area of that container from flexing to much with the weight of the soil and the plants on top of it. Also, to avoid having the soil from getting too wet (if it rains too much) you might also consider a sloping top a good height up off the plants, to divert the rain off the containers.
lcockrell4 years ago
Kindlekat, what a fantastic use of the principle of the eBucket!

You have done an excellent job.
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