Introduction: The Dearthbox: a Low-cost, Self-watering Planter

Picture of The Dearthbox: a Low-cost, Self-watering Planter

Joining many other excellent earthbox instructables, meet ours, the Dearthbox! The Dearthbox costs about $13-16 per box, and can grow up to three plants, depending on the type of plant. At our house in CA, we've been testing these out for the last month or so. Our tomatoes are thriving and it's a relief to know our plants aren't parched in the afternoon heat.

Even if you've already planted stuff, you could still transplant to the Dearthbox and save some water this summer.

This instructable shows you the materials we used, the steps we followed, and how to plant a fairly big plant, as well as how to plant seedlings.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Picture of Gather Your Materials

If you already own most of the cutting tools and the drill, this instructable costs about $13-15. We got everything at Home Depot, but you can find similar stuff at any hardware store.

Materials pictured:

2 big paint buckets that stack (~5 gallons each)
1 lid
1 plastic tub OR drain grate (The height of the tub/drain grate should be approximately the same height as the gap between the two buckets when stacked)
1 2' long 1" diameter plastic pipe (make sure it is longer than the height of the buckets when stacked)*
1 mesh baggie (find them as packaging for fruit, veggies, other stuff!)

Tools pictured:

drill with 1 inch bit and 1/4" masonry bit
utility knife with extra blades
rounded file
permanent marker
tarp (collects all the plastic bits!)

Not pictured:

black plastic garbage bags
seedlings or established plants
potting mix

*I've read different things about using PVC after making this first version, which does use PVC. This project is made entirely of plastic, so if plastics in general bother you, you probably should not make this. If PVC specifically bothers you, it's easy to find other plastic pipes that will work, just poke around the garden supply store. Also, Greenpeace has a big database of alternatives. What do you think about PVC? What alternatives have you discovered?

Step 2: Mark the Buckets

Picture of Mark the Buckets

1) Hole for wicking basket
On the bottom of the first bucket, trace your drain grate or plastic tub and mark a circle on the bottom of the first bucket. Be sure your circle is smaller than the lip of the container.

2) Hole for pipe
Next, mark a hole for the pipe, also 1/2" from the wall of the bucket

3) Side drainage holes
On the side of the second bucket (not the one you've already marked!), measure and mark drainage holes. Finding this measurement is pretty easy--just place the buckets one next to the other and figure out how much of a gap there is between them when they stack together. Mark just below that line. Mark two drainage holes, one on each side.

4) Second hole for pipe
On the lid, mark a hole for the pipe (1/2" from the edge)

5) Holes for plants
Next mark holes for the seedlings on the lid, or one big hole for an established plant

Pictured is the finished bucket lid, so you get a sense of what the holes will be doing once you plant your dearthbox.

Step 3: Cut the Holes in the Buckets

Picture of Cut the Holes in the Buckets

Cutting plastic kicks up a lot of little plastic dusty bits. Protect your eyes and nose and mouth accordingly.

For the big holes on the first bucket and the lid, start them with a drill, using a 1" masonry bit. Use the utility knife to widen the holes.

Cut drainage holes in the bottom of your first bucket, using a 1/4" diameter drill bit.

Next, cut the side drainage holes on the second bucket.

Remember, do not cut the side drainage holes in the bucket with the holes in the bottom.

You can smooth the edges with the file if you want.

Note that I don't have a picture of this process for the bucket lid, but you want to do the same thing for the pipe hole and the plant holes you marked in step 2 on the lid.

Step 4: Prepare the Pipe

Picture of Prepare the Pipe

Cut an angled segment from the bottom of the pipe, using your hacksaw.

The reason you're doing this is so that water can flow out of the pipe when it's at the bottom of the buckets.

Step 5: Assemble the Wicking Basket

Picture of Assemble the Wicking Basket

Either line the drain grate with mesh, or cut holes in your solid plastic container. We found these as a three pack at the dollar store. You could also use food containers, etc., as long as there is enough of a lip and they are the right height.

Even though it's significantly more expensive, I highly recommend the drain grate option. They both seem to be performing equally well, but the drain cover just seems sturdier and better.

The last photo is of the wicking basket with dirt inside already. You don't have to do that part yet, but this shows you how the netting helps contain the dirt.

Step 6: Assemble the Bucket!

Picture of Assemble the Bucket!

Place the assembled wicking basket in the bottom of the bucket.

Push the pipe through the holes in the lid and the bottom of the inner bucket

Stack two buckets, with the basket hanging between the two.

Now you're ready to plant!

Step 7: Planting

Picture of Planting

Use your favorite potting mix, compost, plants, seedlings, etc., and put it all together! This part is really up to you, but I would encourage you to soak the wicking basket first, and only use a small amount of fertilizer. The bucket recycles it, so you probably won't need to add fertilizer again for a very long time.

If you cut smaller holes in the lid, gently thread the plants through the holes before lowering the lid completely.

If you cut one big hole, line the top of the bucket with black plastic. This helps keep the potting mix moist. (see Mr. Beefhead's comment about why it's important to use potting mix)

To water the dearthbox, just pour water down the pipe. You know it's full when water comes out the drainage holes on the sides. We started with moist earth to make the wicking basket's job easier.

Thanks for checking out our instructable! If something doesn't make sense, please tell me and I'll fix it!

ps: we just got our copy of Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen's The Urban Homestead ( in the mail, and it's great! Their SWC recipe is really really similar to ours, but with a few cool extras and best of all, lots of advice about which plants do well in SWCs and which plants do not. You should definitely check out their book if you're using or thinking about using any sort of earthbox.


PaulM352 (author)2017-06-27

Wine making shops usually have cheap, used food grade buckets from the juice. $1.00 locally currently.

Zinsser makes a vinyl & plastic primer (289379) if you want to paint. Rustoleum also has spray bombs that bond to plastic.

ScottE40 (author)2016-03-29

Why does the drain have potting soil in it and the pot that the holes were drilled in does not?

HanleyB (author)2015-06-30

Can the growing medium in the dearthboxes be reused? I'm assuming I'll have to add more fertilizer and dolomite/lime but replacing all of the vermiculite/coir/perlite/etc. could get expensive. Thanks.

*I've made five and so far everything is kicking butt.

doug.dahlquist (author)2015-04-02

If you have any old pantyhose with runs, etc. you can use small sections to hold your fertilizer. Knot one end, pour in your solid fertilizer, trim and knot the other end. The fertilizer sack should be on the topmost layer of dirt in a trough. When the growing season is over, you can throw this away and start a new one. I live near Ellenton FL where the earth box was invented. They have a 1 acre farm of earth boxes. Some of the earth boxes have been using the same potting mix for 14 years.

RyanT6 (author)2015-01-23

Firehouse Subs also sells their 5-gallon "pickle" buckets for about $2. I believe a portion or all of those proceeds are donated to charity as well.

Not positive if it is food-grade plastic, but I would assume so if they are shipping pickles in them.

junkie4diy (author)2014-09-12

Works great! Better Boy breed of tomatoes.

ayesamson (author)2013-12-03

Luckily for me I had everything except the 4 inch drain grate. I whipped one of these SWC and will be planting tomatoes since it is about that time. I'm probably going to create a few more as this took a little less than 20 mins. Plus their easy to move about.

derskine (author)2013-01-30

I'm thinking it would be wise to use food grade plastic materials where possible.
Lowes has food grade buckets for about a dollar more than Home Depots "homer" buckets.

msnyder4 (author)2013-01-12

i found a small diameter rod and heated it up with my torch. push the hot metal through the plastic and bam. holes in seconds. the hotter you make it the more holes you can do before reheating is needed.

derskine (author)msnyder42013-01-30

Heating plastic will create hazardous gasses, Make sure you are in a well ventilated area.

nevroth (author)2012-02-09

Thanks so much! I live in southern CA and think this will definitely help some of my veggies thrive longer. Can you, or someone, clarify why the pipe needs to be cut at an angle? It said to let the water come out, but won't gravity take care of that??? *confuzzled*

ariviera (author)nevroth2012-04-11

Gravity does take care of it, yes. The point of the angled cut is to allow gravity to work faster.
Think of it this way: if the pipe is cut flat, 90 degrees to its length, and the flat end rests directly on the bottom of the container, there is really very little clearance for the water to actually flow from the pipe, into the container. This means the water can only flow out at a low rate, much less than the flow rate from the hose.

Now consider a 45 degree angle cut. Only the tip of the "point" is resting directly on the bottom of the container. The "open" portion of the cut allows fast , direct movement of water from the pipe into the container. Instead of the miniscule clearance provided by the 90 degree cut, there is now a wide-open space for the water to flow.

nevroth (author)2012-02-09

For the bootleg people like me, you can heat a phillips screwdriver on a stove (that's on, obviously, lol), and then stab holes into the plastic. I anticipate using a flathead to make a larger circle, and just stab around the circumference. Worked like a charm when I recycled some kitty litter tubs into planters. Unfortunately I used both as planters, but I might buy two more just for the opportunity to convert to self watering tubs!

inalak (author)2011-07-09

Another good thing to use instead of the mesh from the garlic is a paint strainer bag from a hardware store. They are only around a buck each have a finer mesh so I think less soil will be able to get through. The small paint strainer is about the size of a small can of paint. My girlfriend and I have been using the 5 gallon size to cover our basil as we've had an onslaught of leafminers. Obviously the 5 gallon size is a little more expensive but only by about a buck more. Great work on this btw. Much mahalo for this instructable

meng1969 (author)2011-05-28

It's so fascinating! I want to practice. vegetables, plants are my favorite.

roulopa (author)2011-01-12

Great instructable, I'm thinking of doing the same with large 80L dustbins.
It qhould allow to grow patatoes, carrots etc.

irishman44 (author)2010-04-24

Great instructable!  I was wondering how many pants can you grow in one?

lindsaytorte (author)irishman442010-07-28

hi! wow, sorry it took me ages to notice your comment. It depends on the plant. We've grown a few pepper plants in one, but generally just one tomato plant/box. i hope your garden is doing well!

merideth (author)2010-03-27

it's not a masonry bit it's a spade bit...worked great for me...fantastic project!

kamalbj (author)2010-02-21

Have you seen this cool idea? It looks very similiar to this instructable, in fact form the parts list etc I'm wondering which idea came first?

lindsaytorte (author)kamalbj2010-02-21

cool, thanks! I like the drainage stopper thingie on those. I've seen the basic version of this thing in many different contexts. Here on instructables, there are a bunch of similar containers that use bigger tubs, like the "earthtainer." We decided to use these buckets because they're smaller and easier to move around. And then after making the bucket version and publishing the instructable, we read about almost exactly the same process in the book _Urban Homestead_, which would have been in development years ago.

So, it seems to be a trend. Thanks for adding this link to the comments!

roberto1988 (author)2009-10-14

Hi, what drainage holes on the sides.

lindsaytorte (author)roberto19882010-02-14

hi! i just noticed your comment 5 months later. I'm sorry. Got lost in email, I guess.

I'm not sure if you have a question about drainage holes, or? There have to be some holes in the outer bucket so that the water in the bottom doesn't become stagnant, and so that you know when you've filled it up. If something doesn't make sense in the directions, let me know! Would like to clarify.

olddirtyspatula (author)2010-02-14

this is amazing. I'm a first time gardener and had all-around success with green beans, peas, chives, peppers, and carrots. I stopped watering these a few months ago and was just explaining how they work to my neighbor and I pulled out a carrot the size of a wine bottle.

that rocks! this made our day. :)

lindsaytorte (author)2009-09-30

thanks for all your comments! I'm excited to hear that your plants are doing well. Re growing tomatoes, I read in Urban Homestead that using 'box' variety tomatoes works best, as tomato plants have extensive root systems and can suffer from being contained too closely. That said, we didn't know that when we planted our tomatoes, and they have done very well.

allanspear (author)2009-09-28

I built 3 of these and planted tomatoes. It was real easy and fun. Looking forward to the "fruits of my labour". Great Instructable, thanks.

tkmarispini (author)2009-09-26

Great idea. I gave it a try and planted a cotton plant in it. I also planted another cotton plant in a regular pot directly next to it as a control. The bucket lagged behind for about a week or two then surpassed the regular planted cotton plant. Awesome results - Can't wait to make another. Thanks again.

allanspear (author)2009-09-20

Great idea! I will definitely be using it!

sail4free (author)2009-08-11

Another way to protect your recycled plastic buckets from UV exposure is to paint them (outside only). Unfortunately, you may have to use a good oil-base floor enamel to find something that will STICK to the plastic (latex paint peels off way too easy). This concern about the UV breaking the plastic down is actually how I got started building my containers from wood and lining them with black plastic.
You could also build a round (or square) box to enclose the bucket and shade it from the sun . . . looks better too. We use this approach to build outdoor ashtrays for our commercial buildings and simply fill the buckets mostly full with sand.

sail4free (author)2009-08-11

I agree with Mr. Beefhead -- potting MIX (not soil) works best. If you're inclined to make your own, it's about 40% peat moss, 20% perlite, and 20% compost. Some tomato growers (like Ray Newstead) think it runs a little wet; feel free to experiment. I use the 2.5 cubic foot bags of Miracle Gro = h-e-a-v-y . . . bring a helper.
Taking my cue from wicking boxes, I think we're wasting a lot of buckets (and time drilling holes) when ONE bucket will work just fine. I'll do an instructable on this and link to it soon. For now, you can scope out two wooden versions of "EarthTainers" which I built here:

Feel free to leave any constructive comments.

howdotheydothat (author)2009-08-11

I love this! I grow tons of plants from cuttings and seeds in my backyard. Because I grow so many plants, I try to be very frugal when it comes to the containers I use, such as using small plastic trash cans from the 99 cent stores and empty plastic laundry soap buckets. The downside of this I have learned is that plastic containers not made specifically to be left out in the sun will become sun rot, get very brittle and will disintegrate. To keep this from happening you have to block the sunlight from getting to the plastic. Such as wrapping the bucket with foil.

jeff-o (author)2009-08-06

An even better bit to use is a "hole saw" which will drill holes 2" in diameter and beyond... expensive, though.

jeff-o (author)2009-08-06

An alternative to PVC is ABS pipe.

j-orr (author)2009-07-29

I am experimenting with this method this year. Next season, if all goes well, I will employ enough self-watering buckets for a full crop of tomatoes, peppers or other fruits or vegetables. I think I can get a few used 5 gallon buckets from a fast food place.

I am using information posted on the Global Buckets website as a guide also. There is more information on growing media and watering systems for a rooftop garden. All of your visitors can get a lot out of these self-watering buckets. I'll post photos of my results on my profile later on.


annekaelber (author)2009-07-09

In my Arizona household, we have 2 disabled adults (out of 3) and 10 ferrets (yes, ten!). We've wanted to grow tomatoes and potatoes indoors but have been seeking a way/place to grow them safely, so the ferrets cannot reach the nightshade leaves (poisonous!). This is the first Instructable I've seen which might meet all the qualifications our household requires (we're demanding, I know!). Thank you for sharing this one. I'll report back if we actually get these up and running! Anne.

lindsaytorte (author)annekaelber2009-07-09

One thing to keep in mind, which I learned from the amazing Urban Homestead book I mention at the end, is that tomatoes have HUGE root systems. You should look for varieties designed to be grown in containers. I think they are called box tomatoes.

Re ferrets, gosh, I'm still not sure they would not find a way. Check out these beautiful upside-down earthboxes: Maybe if it were hanging it would foil the ferrets. That's a lot of ferrets.

jcurme (author)2009-07-09

Plastic cat litter buckets should work too. They are square and a bit smaller.

lindsaytorte (author)jcurme2009-07-09

good idea! As long as there is enough space between stacked buckets for the wicking thingie, most any stacking bin would work well.

hzleyes47 (author)2009-07-05

This is so cool and it seems to be easy to put together. I like it !!!

crockl (author)2009-07-05

I built one last weekend to transplant some cucumber plants. They are doing great! Thanks for the great post!

gemgh (author)2009-06-27

Love the article. I can use this year round in the house if I want as long as it is close to a sunshiny spot. Thanks for taking the time to post such wonderful information.

thepelton (author)2009-06-20

How can I get free potting soil? I live on the second floor and have a balcony with plastic planks, so there isn't any dirt up there.

Mr. Beefhead (author)thepelton2009-06-21

I don't know if anyone else has any experience with alternatives, but in my personal experience you MUST use potting MIX (not soil) for the wicking action to work properly. Using soil results in either dry soil or root rot. I think that potting mix is mostly peat and pearlite, so it's not likely that you'll be finding any for free. Around me it seems to cost about $12 - $14 for a 2 cubic foot bag, which would probably almost fill three of these buckets.

Yes, we used potting mix. We also put some compost in there. And no, not free! I know our county has a composting project where you can get compost for either free (on certain days) or cheap all through the year.

trf (author)lindsaytorte2009-06-22

Just a little hint...instead of using the the utility blade...they make this thing called a hole saw.
they work on a range of things from metal to wood to plastic..its pretty much universal...i used 1 and cut thru about 1/4 of cast iron with no dulling to the bit

lindsaytorte (author)trf2009-06-22

oh cool! I should get one of those! thanks.

thepelton (author)lindsaytorte2009-06-24

They are available at a number of Lumber Stores and Tool Stores. Just be sure and get the ones that are not cheap sheet metal. The first rule to learn about buying tools is YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. Spend a little extra up front and it won't fall apart in mid-job.

thepelton (author)trf2009-06-22

I know. I have a whole array of them from 5/8 in to 3 in.

thepelton (author)lindsaytorte2009-06-22


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