Introduction: Upside-Down Hanging Self-Watering Earth-Filled Box!

Picture of Upside-Down Hanging Self-Watering Earth-Filled Box!

I've been using DIY versions of a self-watering container with a name similar to "Dirt Box" (or "dearth box") as well as upside-down tomato planters for the past couple years on my concrete, second-story balcony. Here's how I took the basic wicking water principles of a popular patented and trademarked earth-filled box, and applied it to my upside-down hanging tomatoes.

Upside-down planters are cool. The major weak point has always been keeping the plants hydrated, especially during the peak of summer while producing fruit. In the first year, with no special consideration for watering, my plants suffered due to my unwillingness to schlep water to the porch and lift it all the way to the top of each planter. I mean every day?!?! Come on. It was never going to happen.

Last year, I tried drip irrigation. I suspended a tank of water above the level of the top of the upside-down planters and ran a thin hose across the tops of the planters with drip nozzles. The problem was that I could never get the water balanced so the first planter would get the same amount of water as the last. I also had problems getting them to drip slowly enough to last all day. Most of the time, I would be able to keep them hydrated but there was a lot of waste as the the water would run through the plants after an hour or less. Going away for the weekend meant severe drought damage.

I made my own planters in the style of the planters named after a popular planet and marketed by a company with at least one trademark attorney, and that was the best thing to happen to my balcony. I could be relaxed about watering and my vegetable plants thrive. This year, I finally figured out how to give the hanging tomato planters a reservoir without adding weight to the planters and losing dirt volume. After setting up this system, 100% of the water is going into the plants. There is absolutely no run-off waste.

Step 1: Overview

Picture of Overview

My system has four planters and one reservoir. There is a hose from the reservoir that runs horizontally under the planters. Each planter has a hose at the bottom which is fat enough to contain wick. This hose is connected to the horizontal hose. The wick is about 10 inches long with half of it in the hose and half inside the planter. I made the reservoir out of a 4' long section of 4" diameter PVC pipe. The reservoir should be hung so the lowest point of the reservoir is just barely higher than the lowest point of the wicks. The reservoir should also be shallow enough that the water at its highest level is below the dirt. The water travels freely from the reservoir down the hose and back up into each wick. The wick, using the power of capillary action, takes the water up into the dirt where the plant roots have a party. If you understand this concept, you're 80% done.

My setup is only one example of how this can work. You can use this as a guideline to make 1,000 planters with 20 reservoirs. Go according to the materials you can acquire and what physics will let you get away with. While planning, always be mindful of how much your planters and reservoir will weigh when they are full, how strong the chains are, and the connections that hold them in place. My assumption is that you can figure out how to hang these large, awkward items in a safe way. I will show you how to build the parts for water and dirt.

Step 2: Materials

Picture of Materials
Since my system evolved over several growing seasons, I used stuff I already had. This instructable shows how I made mine, but since you are starting from scratch, I would recommend some changes (unstructable?):
  • Clear hoses are cool and useful to see if the system is working properly. However, sunlight + water + nutrients = algae. The algae hasn't been troublesome, yet, but I thought you should be warned. If you use clear hoses like I did, you might want to cover them with an opaque material.
  • The horizontal hose is 1/4" ID (inner diameter). The wick hoses are 3/8" ID. If I were you, I would make all the hoses the same size as the wick hoses to simplify the connections. In my instructions, I will call for 3/8" hoses even though the pics show 1/4" hoses.

All of my materials were purchased off the shelf at my local home-improvement store which is not even that good. I recommend reading the entire instructable to understand how this fits together before purchasing any connectors.

  • 10-quart wastebasket/bucket (Umbra Garbino works great)
  • Lid or mulch to cover the dirt on top
  • 2" length of 1" diameter PVC (often available in lengths greater than 2" at a discount)
  • 12" length of 1-1/4" diameter PVC pipe
  • End cap for the 1-1/4" diameter PVC pipe
  • 10" wick that can fit inside a 3/8" ID hose (I used tiki torch wicks)
  • 6" length of 3/8" ID hose
  • (1) quick-connect male connector to connect the hose to the planter. THE WICK MUST BE ABLE TO FIT INSIDE (a barb-style connector will be a lot more difficult to use).
  • (1) quick-connect "Tee" connector to connect to the wick hose to the main horizontal line (unless this is the last planter on the end--then this should be an equivalent quick-connect elbow)
  • Small tomato plant (between 3" and 8" tall)
  • Good soil/compost mix (add some limestone to prevent blossom-end rot)
  • Some foam, gravel, or other material to raise the soil off the bottom of the planter

  • 4' length of 4" diameter PVC pipe
  • (2) 4" diameter PVC female adapters
  • (2) 4" diameter PVC male plugs
  • Quick-connect stop valve that connects to 3/8" ID hose
  • Some trustworthy pipe hangers and chains or cable. The reservoir will be heavy and unmanageable when full.
  • A large cork (possibly from a large bottle of good tequila)

  • Elbow connector, barbed for 3/8" ID on one end and threaded on the other
  • 8-10" length of 3/8" ID hose
  • Tiny piece of cork (smaller than 3/8" but large enough to see)

  • Enough 3/8" ID hose to reach from the reservoir to the furthest planter. Then get a few more feet so you can make mistakes. (hose is pretty cheap)
  • A few square inches of screen mesh to keep out mosquitoes
  • A rotary cutting tool to cut PVC and the wastebaskets/buckets
  • A fat soldering iron if you prefer to melt holes in plastic. I do. (ventilated area, blah blah blah)
  • Hot glue or sealant
  • PVC cement
  • Teflon ribbon for fixing hose connections and leaks
  • A ladder, step stool or long arms

Step 3: Make the Planters

Picture of Make the Planters
The basics of the planter is a bucket with two holes in the bottom. One hole for the plant. One hole for the wick. When you cut the holes, cut them smaller than you think they should be. If you don't get it perfect, it's much easier to widen the hole. I used a rotary tool to cut the bigger hole and a soldering iron to make the smaller hole.

Do the following for each wastebasket/bucket (hereafter referred to as "the planter"):

  • Look at the bottom of the planter.
  • Cut a hole for the plant 1" in diameter in the center of the bottom of the planter. (fig. 3a)
  • Cut a hole for the wick 3/8" in diameter near the first hole in the bottom of the planter. (fig. 3a)
  • Based on other guides I've seen on the internet, I chose to raise the plant above the level of the hole. I suppose you could skip it. If you don't want to raise the plant from the hole like I did, skip this step. Glue a 2" length of 1" diameter PVC pipe to the inside of the plant hole so the entire length of PVC is on the inside of the bucket. Use lots of glue so it's sturdy and seal it well. (fig. 3b)
  • Screw the threaded end of the 3/8" ID quick-connect male connector into the wick hole from the outside of the planter so the quick-connect end is on the outside. (fig. 3c)
  • Seal this connection with hot glue or some kind of sealant.
  • Get half of the wick into the 6" length of 3/8" ID hose (fig. 3d) and connect it to the outside of the planter, threading the other half of the wick into the planter through the wick hole. (fig. 3e)
Your planter should now have a bare wick sticking up 5" inside and a hose with the other half of the wick, sticking out of the bottom.
  • Attach the quick-connect tee connector to the end of the hose, so the connector looks like an upside-down letter "T." For the last planter, substitute the tee connector with the quick-connect elbow.

Now to make the aeration tubes so the roots can breathe... (you can skip these steps if you like, but I think this helps the plants)
  • Put a bunch of 1/4" diameter holes in the 12" length of 1-1/4" diameter PVC pipe. I used my soldering iron.
  • Put a 1/2" diameter hole in the end cap
  • Cover this hole with a small piece of mesh. Glue it in place on the inside of the end cap. This will help keep away the mosquitoes if the planter has standing water inside. Set this aside until you are ready to insert the plant..

Step 4: Hang the Planters and Insert Plants

Picture of Hang the Planters and Insert Plants
Fill and hang each planter one at a time. So for each planter...
  • Attach chains to the sides of your planter for hanging.
  • Hang the planter on a low hook, temporarily, where you can easily reach into the top and touch the bottom. If you are tall and strong, you can just hang the plant where it will live.
  • Cover the bottom of the planter with an inch or so of foam, gravel, or other material to raise the soil off the bottom. Make sure not to cover the wick. The wick should poke through this layer and stick straight up into the soil.
  • Gentlyremove the tomato plant from its plastic nursery pot, turn it upside-down and fold the leaves into the hole as you lower it into the planter. The dirt part of the plant should rest on its own and the green part should stick out nicely from the bottom.
  • Place the aeration tube in the planter, along the planter wall, with the end cap on top.
  • Fill the rest of the planter with your soil/compost mix, making sure the wick stays as vertical as possible, reaching up into the soil. Add some limestone to the mix now to avoid blossom-end rot (you can learn about that on the internets).
  • If you used a temporary location to hang the planter, move the planter to its home.
  • Lightly water the plant. It's advisable to water your plant after you moved it. It will be quite a bit heavier.
  • Cover the dirt with a cut foam piece or some kind of mulch. The aeration tube should stick out the top.

Step 5: Make the Reservoir

Picture of Make the Reservoir
Before making the reservoir, calculate the potential weight. Originally, I spent a little too long with a pencil, paper and calculator trying to convert five different units and correctly apply my high school geometry. As of the time of this writing, I found it much easier to run the following query into Wolfram Alpha: What is the volume of a cylinder 4 feet long with a diameter of 4 inches? With the dimensions I entered, it told me that the volume is 2.611 gallons and this much water would weigh 22 lbs. Substitute your own figures so you can calculate the volume of water you can safely suspend.

  • Glue/cement/seal the female adapters to the ends of the pipe.
  • Holding the pipe horizontally, make a hole at the bottom towards of one ends and insert the stop valve. Seal it. Keep the valve near one end so the system can use every last drop of water with the reservoir at a slight incline.
  • Make a larger hole at the top, close to the opposite end, for filling. Large enough to fit a garden hose or whatever you will use to fill it.

Optional water level gauge
  • Make a hole next to the stop valve. Insert and seal the male-to-barb elbow in place with the barb on the outside, facing the front. The "front" is the side you will stand on to view the water level.
  • Fit the hose on the barb.
  • Place the cork ball in the hose.
  • Jam a small piece of screen mesh into the end to keep the skeeters out and the ball in.
  • Glue or tie the hose against the pipe so it stands up.
  • Look at the ball.

Finish the reservoir:
  • Screw the male plugs onto the ends.
  • Drink a fancy bottle of tequila.
  • Put the cork in the fill hole.
  • Hang up the reservoir near the planters.

Step 6: Hook 'Em Up!

Picture of Hook 'Em Up!
So you've hung everything up, despite your wife or your neighbors and you're giddy with anticipation. Time to hook it up.

  • Cut and connect a length of hose from the reservoir stop valve to the quick-connect tee connector on the first planter." Don't make the hose too short. It's good to have a little room to raise, lower or move the reservoir or planters.
  • Connect each planter to the next in series.
  • Put water in the reservoir.
  • Stare at it and wonder if it's working. Water moves through the wicks slightly faster than paint dries. In a couple days, you will be pleasantly surprised to see your plants are still alive and happy and you will be able to relax.

When I first hooked everything up, I noticed some air bubbles gathering under the wicks. I worried that they would block the water from being absorbed by the wicks. Punch a small hole just above the bottom of the wick. Squeeze the area around the hole until water comes out. Patch the hole. Teflon ribbon does the job very well.


Mrs Texgrand (author)2016-06-21

Awesome! Great job explaining this in VERY simple easy to follow instructions. I live in Texas and we are already experiencing 90+ days and all I do all day is water my garden! I see creative times in my near future as I get ready to do my second round of planting!

adammw_80 (author)2011-06-14

My dad and stepmom did something similar, but they reported their plants started Curling up instead of growing down. Did you have an experience with this? Thanks!

Dilisana (author)adammw_802015-06-09

I'm going to wire a tomato cage to the bottom of the container. This way as the plant grows you can manipulate the branches through the cage so it doesn't grow so wild looking. Most importantly, it will stabilize the plant.

velvel (author)adammw_802011-06-14

They will always try to grow "up." Your best bet (for next time) is to use tomato varieties known to have more flexible stems.

They will eventually hang down when the fruit gets bigger. Until then, you can give it some help and try to train the stems downward so they won't snap under the weight when the fruit comes.

badgernatmom (author)2015-04-16

Looks cute, but .. what is it for???? how does this improve on nature somehow?

ondoratmo (author)2012-03-30

I wanna ask you something about the sprinkling.
is it an automatically sprinkling or you must open the faucet from water reservoir??
thanks before.

shanej007 (author)2012-03-23

I tried this, but I couldn't get the tomatoes through the bottom hole... Seriously, awesome idea and well written.

cyndielou (author)2011-08-12

my mom has been growing upside down things for yrs and years......way before any topsy turvy stuff came out. she did find out she had to water daily, so she put layers of newspaper and hay or straw like mulch in the top of the bucket to cut that down. there has never been any crop failure. she even had 1 ~5 gallon bucket with tomatoes at the bottom, and sweet potatoes growing from the top. that was interesting as the bucket was filled with taters. that's my 2 cents!

asiedentopf (author)2009-06-25

This is a great project and idea. There is only one problem I see with your containers...they are made of a type of plastic that is NOT UV (Ultra Violet) stabilized and in the sun they will break down and come apart. It may take a summer or 2 but they will. Maybe use Black containers instead. Also, rather that hanging them from those weak handle use a regular plant hanger that cradles the container. Thanks for sharing!!

velvel (author)asiedentopf2010-04-29

The planters are disintegrating as you predicted. I knew you were right when I first read your comment, it's just that I already had them up. I haven't yet decided what to do about it. Maybe the rope cradles as you mentioned.

kayak4water (author)velvel2011-07-08

People who properly maintain their boats know: the sun will eat your stuff though you can protect it with a varnish or paint that resists UV light. Local hardware stores sells Marine spar varnishes and paints for less than $16 per quart. One brand even makes their product in a spray can. Paints can make your DIY project look pretty.

If you don't use the whole quart, ensure preservation of the leftovers by pouring into a compressible plastic bottle, squeeze out air and screw tight the cap.

May the tomato be with you.

amandakay1 (author)asiedentopf2010-04-30

 Are the black versions of this UV stabilized?

doccat5 (author)2011-05-14

I just add a coffee filter with a slit for the root then add the sponge. The dirt stays in and it's super easy to water. The hangers with tomatoes did much better than the one's in the main garden this year. We had very high temps for a very long period of time. Just couldn't get enough water to the one's in the regular garden. But I got enough of the buckets to do some canning. Sure was good in Jan/Feb ^-^.

aw76 (author)2011-04-04

wow, well really impressed by the setup....i understand why the lowest point of the reservoir needs to be higher than the lowest point of the wick, but i dont understand why the
"The reservoir should also be shallow enough that the water at its highest level is below the dirt. "????

have there been any improvements or problems since u posted this?

awesome job...thanks

hspam (author)aw762011-04-23

If the water in the reservoir is above the dirt level then the water will flood the bottom of the planter. This will cause a pool of water in the bottom of the planter and and may cause the roots to rot or the water to flow out the hole the plant is coming out of. The idea is that if the water is only touching the wick then the wick will "wick" up only enough water to keep the soil moist not wet. I hope I make sense.

Motta (author)2010-11-01

This is just GREAT!

container_gardener (author)2010-08-29


pmartinez (author)2010-08-24

Thank you, I've been thinking to do something like this, very professional and nice looking.

WickedSpindle (author)2010-07-05

Wow this looks amazing, and I love the instructable, very thorough with tons of picture tags. I love it. I think I will make these for the next our next house when we change duty stations! I'm so excited. Thank you!

velvel (author)2010-06-28

Why are you here?

Is that a question or a confrontation?

Your comments are neither positive nor constructive. It is clear that you haven't read this Instructable. I'm not sure what your interest is in commenting here.

trailleadr (author)2010-06-29

Even if it is patented, why would I want to go spend money on it when I could have the accomplished feeling of building it myself? (and probably for less than the commercial product)

to support local business and the economy which is in the gutter

A valid reason, but not good enough for me to avoiding building it since I already own a majority of the parts listed. What parts I don't have I would buy from the local hardware store. Which while it wouldn't have the same financial impact as a bigger purchase, also supports the economy and local businesses. Thus allowing me to save money and support my family in these hard times until I can find a job. At which point I would be able to better support the economy by purchasing one or two of these, should the need arise. BTW velvel, this is a well done 'ible regardless of it's patent status, and will be very helpful. Thank you for sharing. :)

frogmama (author)2010-04-17

I'm planning on making some up-side-down planters this year and really like those waste baskets - but looks like they aren't available anywhere anymore  :(

For those who like the frosted white wastebasket look, though, the Dollar Tree has some similar shaped frosted garbage cans that would probably work, but you'd have to drill holes for the chains.

fegundez1 (author)2010-04-04

this one rocks, I have had a few problems getting the plants to thrive. For some reason they dont grow as well as the ones I hang rt side up. I will keep trying though as I hate to fail!!

blaskos (author)2009-08-09

Do you have a total price that this costs. What you did looks awesome and i just want an idea or ball park range so i can figure it out. Im thinking about trying this or doing a hydroponics set up, do you have any suggestions which would produce more fruit for tomatoes? Also, it will be in my basement since its coming to winter time!

velvel (author)blaskos2009-08-11

I built it gradually in iterations over a few years, so I don't have an exact price tag. For sure under $100. Hoses and PVC pipes are cheap. Connectors and caps can get expensive - $2 here, $5 there - it all adds up. From what I understand, hydroponics generally yields better volume but has smaller margins of error. Soil is much more forgiving. Good luck!

velvel (author)2009-08-04

Not at all. The plant would break before getting sucked out through the hole. But the plant won't break. The stem and roots are plenty strong.

treesneedtobehugged (author)2009-07-18

best of luck on the get in the garden contest!

drwarm (author)2009-06-28

How does the dirt stay in the basket? ie why doesn't it just fall out the hole in the bottom? Is it because you make a small circle in the foam/gravel etc for the stem of the plant to go through but the rest of the dirt just sits on top? I don't really get why then you have a 1/4" hole (plant hole) for the stem to come through. Sorry it might be really obvious!

velvel (author)drwarm2009-06-29

I guess the dirt stays in the basket because it "just does." The loose bits fall out when you first put the plant in and then everything else is just stuck. The dirt sticks together a lot better than sand in an hourglass. I'm sure more bits fall out over time, but nothing to jeopardize the plant.

YotaTruck (author)velvel2009-07-18

In his design he puts a PVC pipe "collar" around the hole the plant passes through. So things can't easily get washed out.

Big Ugly Mich (author)drwarm2009-06-29

I've never done this myself, but I'm told you plant your tomatoes in it, care for them for a week or so, then flip the basket over AFTER the root ball forms so the root ball can hold the dirt in the bucket.

crocodialrock (author)2009-07-07

Hey. I love this Instructable! I am trying currently to put it together using supplies I am able to collect from work (hospital). The best containers I've found to use have been one liter bottles that I am going to cut the tops off. They have a nice size hole in the bottom that perfectly fits a 60 cc syringe that I am going to use as the "piping". My question is do you think these liter bottles will be large enough to house a tomato plant? I am also going to give this a shot with something a little smaller like a basil or other herb plant

velvel (author)crocodialrock2009-07-07

It's possible, but I think tomatoes would do better with larger containers. But if that's what you have, give it a shot. Heck, even if the container doesn't fulfill the plant's potential, the plant would do well for that container's potential. Your best bet for tomatoes would be with a bite-size variety. Herbs could work, but I read that they do better with a little water stress instead of consistent moisture. Good luck!

JJungJr (author)2009-06-29

This is a pretty good plan. I have made my own 'topsy turvy' planters out of 5 gal buckets . . . the plant is put through the large hole in the center, 1" in this instructable. To help keep the plant in the bucket, I took a regular kitchen sponge, any color, and cut it in half. I then cut one of the halves nearly in half again, leaving about a half inch or so connecting the two ends See photo 1. I then used this slit sponge to help support the root ball by placing it against the bottom of the bucket (on the inside) and put the stem in the center see photo 2. It also has the advantage of telling me when the planter is dry by feeling the sponge at the hole. Here are a few pics to help you visualize what I have done. I included my multi planter with green pepper on the left, cilantro in the center, cucumber on the right and tomato on the bottom.

HobbyistX (author)2009-06-25

Its always good to see green instructables, but I have a problem with the current fad of upside-down planting: plants don't like to grow upside-down! Plants are phototropic and gravotropic meaning they make significant effort to grow upwards in response to gravity and illumination. Plants grown upside-down are invariably less healthy than plants grown right-side-up, as they expend considerable energy trying to orient themselves. Show me a photo of an upside-down plant that isn't all twisted up and sickly looking, and I'll show you a photo of a plant that was only just recently turned upside down.

stengah (author)HobbyistX2009-06-29

I'll second that. In spite of this being all fun and cool - any green project that does not support plants' health is a bit selfcontradictory imo. Anyway - would be nice to see if you (velvel) or others actually have managed to grow a decent healthy harvest with a low failure rate? Personally, I sort of doubt it and If that indeed is not the case - well, then I don't really see the point...

velvel (author)stengah2009-06-29

I will post updates, for sure, including pics when the tomatoes start coming in.

buschmeister (author)2009-06-28

This looks like a great project...I think i'll be building a few of these!!!

hybridracers (author)2009-06-26

I kind of wish you had actually did the step on this instructable as you wrote it. I find myself confused with the wick, aeration hole and that stuff. I tried to use some 2 liter bottles but I dont think they work for even small tomato plants, too small of a container. Maybe strawberries though.

velvel (author)hybridracers2009-06-26

I'll try to get more materials this weekend and elaborate some steps.

velvel (author)velvel2009-06-26

Actually, I don't think I'll have time to buy the parts. I'll make some detailed diagrams. Stay tuned. (I'll message you when I have them up). Thanks for the feedback. (That goes for everyone else, too!)

Rartemass (author)2009-06-25

Great system, however you could use the same method for right side up plants. The wick watering system will still work regardless of the plant orientation. Simply cut a hole in the bottom for the wick, but keep the rest of the planter base sealed. The aeration tube would still be effective too.

Dale 1944 (author)2009-06-25

Using female connectors and male plugs on each end of the reservoir is in my estimation expensive and prone to leaks. A cap on each end sealed with primer and solvent would be much cheaper and trouble free. If cleaning the reservoir is ever needed, simply cut the cap off one end, clean, and glue a new cap on the exposed end. Other than that, I think it is a great plan.

velvel (author)Dale 19442009-06-25

It was a few bucks more than regular caps, however at the time, I didn't want to commit to permanent seals. Though I ended up tightening one end to the point that it became permanent. I'll post a picture of the "wrench" I had to make to keep them tight. Lining the thread of the male plug with Teflon ribbon seems to be doing okay. But I totally see your point. Thanks for the feedback and the compliment!

albumgeek (author)2009-06-25

Awesome instructable. I'm planning on doing some hanging tomatoes and cucumbers next season. One other thing you might want to consider when choosing containers is using something that doesn't allow sunlight onto the roots. Roots don't like sunlight, also sunlight plus a damp, well fertilized environment equals algae. Keep up the good work.

indeepknit (author)2009-06-23

You may have solved a watering problem for me. Thanks :)

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