The Dearthbox: A low-cost, self-watering planter

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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.
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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?
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RyanT62 months ago

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.

junkie4diy6 months ago
Works great! Better Boy breed of tomatoes.
ayesamson1 year ago
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.
derskine2 years ago
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.
msnyder42 years ago
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.
Heating plastic will create hazardous gasses, Make sure you are in a well ventilated area.
nevroth3 years ago
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*
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.
nevroth3 years ago
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!
inalak3 years ago
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
meng19693 years ago
It's so fascinating! I want to practice. vegetables, plants are my favorite.
mguer1334 years ago
Great instructable, I'm thinking of doing the same with large 80L dustbins.
It qhould allow to grow patatoes, carrots etc.
irishman444 years ago
Great instructable!  I was wondering how many pants can you grow in one?
lindsaytorte (author)  irishman444 years ago
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!
merideth5 years ago
it's not a masonry bit it's a spade bit...worked great for me...fantastic project!
kamalbj5 years ago
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)  kamalbj5 years ago
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!
roberto19885 years ago
Hi, what drainage holes on the sides.
lindsaytorte (author)  roberto19885 years ago
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.
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.
lindsaytorte (author)  olddirtyspatula5 years ago
that rocks! this made our day. :)
lindsaytorte (author) 5 years ago
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.
allanspear5 years ago
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.
tkmarispini5 years ago
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.
allanspear5 years ago
Great idea! I will definitely be using it!
sail4free5 years ago
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.
sail4free5 years ago
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.
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-o5 years ago
An even better bit to use is a "hole saw" which will drill holes 2" in diameter and beyond... expensive, though.
jeff-o5 years ago
An alternative to PVC is ABS pipe.
j-orr5 years ago
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.

annekaelber5 years ago
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)  annekaelber5 years ago
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.
jcurme5 years ago
Plastic cat litter buckets should work too. They are square and a bit smaller.
lindsaytorte (author)  jcurme5 years ago
good idea! As long as there is enough space between stacked buckets for the wicking thingie, most any stacking bin would work well.
hzleyes475 years ago
This is so cool and it seems to be easy to put together. I like it !!!
crockl5 years ago
I built one last weekend to transplant some cucumber plants. They are doing great! Thanks for the great post!
gemgh5 years ago
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.
thepelton5 years ago
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.
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.
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