Introduction: Self-watering Container Garden

Picture of Self-watering Container Garden

I made a completely portable garden that is self-watering. Each container has a water reservoir in the bottom that keeps the soil moist, and there's also a hole so excess water will drain out.

Tidy Cat kitty litter container (38 lb size)

4" perforated corrugated drainage pipe

1-1/2" PVC pipe

Potting soil

Step 1: Create a Water Reservoir

Picture of Create a Water Reservoir

Cut a piece of 4" perforated corrugated drainage tile to length to fit the length of the container.

Cut a square notch in one end to fit the 1-1/2" PVC pipe

Step 2: Drill Overflow Hole

Picture of Drill Overflow Hole

Drill a hole through the side, 4" from the bottom.

Step 3: Cut the Fill Tube

Picture of Cut the Fill Tube

Cut the 1-1/2" PVC to length

Step 4: Assembly Time

Picture of Assembly Time

Put the parts together as shown, add dirt, start planting!

Step 5: Watering

Picture of Watering

Add water via the fill tube until water flows out the overflow hole.


merrittgene (author)2015-02-28

At the end of last season, I dumped all of my containers in the driveway, pulled out all the root mass, mixed in a bag of compost, and put all the dirt back in the containers, and put the lids on.

While I had everything torn apart, I redid some of the buckets to match these instructions, since I had changed the design a couple times (size of reservoir, location of holes, location of fill tube, etc.)

All of my containers are dry and ready for planting, as soon as it's warm enough. I might even take them to the garage and get them going early. :-)

mmitchell89 (author)merrittgene2015-05-18

Now that they've had some time to grow, how do you find it compares with your previous setup?

NancyK63 (author)2017-10-28

Will this work for growing strawberry plants?

JustinY15 (author)2017-06-20

Whats the difference between watering your plants every day or two and watering your reservoir every day or two? If the soil does not touch the water how does it get moist all the way through? Are you not concerned about root rot, and plants going fungal which can severely diminish crop outcome if not kill the plant? Isn't a plant in a pot already a portable garden? Cool idea, I just don't see the point. Maybe I missed something. I'm not an officially titled "Master Gardener" but I am a professional nursery worker.

JustinY15 (author)JustinY152017-06-20

Best way I've ever grown tomatoes is a 5 gallon bucket with a few holes drilled in the bottom. Soak it real good every two days and they love it.

Ward_Nox (author)2016-02-08

i thought you went suposed to use PVC for watering pipes cause it leaches toxins?

sandre106 (author)2016-02-02

I'm an IL Master Gardener & use cheap 18 gallon tubs from Walmart as well as kitty litter buckets like this. You must use the white PVC pipe as that does not leach toxic chemicals & is designed for water system use in a home. Cut the bottom of the PVC at an angle so the water flows easily into your reservoir. The drainage tile is already perforated so water will flow out slowly. Best to cover it with cheesecloth or some other cloth to keep the dirt out. I fill the PVC pipe until it stays full for a while. But you must drill a drainage hole in the side of the tub just above the height of the reservoir. If water starts coming out the drainage hole you know your reservoir is full. Try filling daily or every other day until you get to know how often it will need filling as that will depend on weather and heat. You can grow just about anything in these tubs - I've grown tomatoes and beans with a trellis or cage. Melons also do well when supported with old pantyhose. Herbs do very well - I had one bin last summer with various herbs on my back porch right outside the kitchen door so it was handy to cut a few for cooking. A few starter potatoes will also work well, but start them low and add soil as the plants grow. The diaper pellets are a great idea to hold moisture into the growing soil and they are much cheaper than a bag or box of pearlite. One big box of disposable diapers will give you enough pellets for a lot of tubs. Happy Gardening!

bitsandbots (author)2015-09-09

Very cool idea! Hydroponics but not soil-less ;-)

barmstr (author)2015-06-27

Put a porous sleeve over the black water pipe so the dirt will not fill the storage pipe. Also, mix 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 peat moss (Mel's mix). This is a great soil combination for the vegetables. Look into Square Foot Gardening for soil mixture and plant spacing.

andrea.frank.925 (author)2015-05-02

One more idea might be to fill around the drain pipe with some light weight lava rock to increase the opportunity for soil O2, better drainage and a little more water space. You could also increase soil O2 by occasionally watering overhead which serves to flush and pull in O2.

andrea.frank.925 (author)2015-05-02

I did a similar project last year with home depot buckets and some others we scrounged up (We use $4/40lb bags wood stove pellets for litter now- can not beat that). My tomatoes were awesome, but I added a fair amount of Lime (Calcium) to my pots. Even then, the one I skimped on developed blossom end rot. How did your's fare? I will be trying your drain pipe idea in the reservoir as my system was difficult to construct and used twice as many buckets. Have a stash of cheap felt (2 yards!) which wicks water like crazy and because it is poly will not rot, so I may try that this year. Also, BTW, I made cover up for my ugly orange buckets out of old blue jeans (+/- turning them into skirts). Hokey, but cute. Looking for a new idea this year- maybe burlap or painter's canvas. Thanks for the ideas!

cforestell (author)2015-02-28

Please don't use PVC. I came across this while reading instructions on another blog-"

  1. I no longer use PVC in any of my boxes. PVCs have been demonstrated to leach plasticizers and harmful chemicals, including endocrine disruptors. There are plenty of alternatives, so there's no good reason to use PVC and risk putting these chemicals in your homegrown fruits and vegetables."
kartmanj (author)cforestell2015-03-31

PVC pipes are used in plumbing in houses.

holycow8 (author)kartmanj2015-04-20

The pics show grey pvc which is electrical. The white pvc pipes are for plumbing. (author)2015-02-19

Just wondering how do you know when to fill the reservoir again or how long between waterings? Love this idea and am going to give it a try this season.

merrittgene (author)teresa.lilly2015-02-28

The reservoir is only 4" deep, compared to the container depth which provides 8" of soil above that, so I watered every day or two to basically keep the reservoir full, thinking that the soil will wick up the water it needs.

It would be great if a Master Gardener could comment on the optimum water availability. :-)

ulysses1174 (author)teresa.lilly2015-02-24

There overfill holes that you should drill in the sides where excess water filters out. How long depends on the heat and the solar exposure I filled mine about every 4 days to a week unless extremely hot.

SarahR6 (author)2015-02-14

Would this work without the water reservoir? Just the PVC pipe on an angle and an overflow hole in the bucket?

merrittgene (author)SarahR62015-02-28

The corrugated pipe water reservoir holds more water than if the pot was packed full of dirt. Plus, I read online that the roots benefit from being exposed to air.

In an earlier trial, I had the overflow hole in the side (away from the corrugated pipe, and it didn't drain well because the dirt blocked the opening in the side.

jrambaldi (author)2015-02-26

Great, the buckets are very nice.

Gunslinger3 (author)2015-01-25

Where does the water you are putting in the pvc pipe water the dirt or plant? is it around the where the corrugated pipe hole is bigger than the pvc pipe? Or did you make little slits in the corrugated pipe, you didn't show that? I really am interested in this would make my planting tomato's so much easier for me, a little disabled right now.

KTirado (author)Gunslinger32015-02-14

The corrugated pipe is perforated, the same use to disperse rain water from down pipes in gutter system on houses.

jamie17007 (author)Gunslinger32015-02-14

corrugated pipe has holes and is used for drainage, mostly in septic systems.

cynthia.w.coyle (author)2015-02-14

Also to help out Use the innards from an (Unused) diaper mix in with the soil will retain moisture longer and evenly. I love this idea I too have many litter buckets.

ijtw69 (author)2014-07-11

I've made similar containers and they work well. I cut my pvc pipe at a 45 degree angle on the bottom. This helps keeps the bottom from getting clogged with any dirt that may have found it's way down the pipe.

ttowngirl (author)2014-07-10

You answered my question: what grows well in there? :) nice,,,and you can use any bucket...

Also, how long between adding water?

CurtosNoirDesign (author)2014-07-09

This is brilliant. We have tons of these litter containers too!

doodlecraft (author)2014-07-09

Cool, great idea! :)

crank_girl (author)2014-07-06


merrittgene (author)2014-07-05

I actually used 50/50 black soil and potting soil.

My tomato plants were purchased as seedlings, but everything else was started as seeds.

Ginga-Ninja (author)2014-07-05

Did you use putting soil or dirt and did you have seedlings or potted plants?

might have to try this one

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