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Picture of self-watering planter from found dresser drawers
Love the idea of the earthbox but can't help feeling like sticking living things in giant blocks of plastic is somehow just wrong? Don't think much about plastic but highly allergic to ugly? Like finding something old and making it new? This instructable is for you.

If you want more details on why the basics are set up a certain way, there are plenty of great instructables both here and all over the web, so I won't reinvent the wheel in this one, but this should be everything you need to get up & running.

Not starting with a pre-built plastic container as the main housing means some extra steps, time, and care, but for me the final product is worth it.
 
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Step 1: Gather materials

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Materials:*
- (3) found dresser drawers

***Before you get the other materials, take careful measurements and know what you're working with. The length and width of any drawer determines the size of the screen/basket(s) you'll need; the height of the bottom drawer determines the height of the ABS pipes, etc.

- 1 piece of 2" diameter PVC pipe (length should be the total height of all drawers stacked, or slightly longer)
- 3 pieces of 3" diameter ABS pipe (about 1/3 of the total height)
- 2 plastic baskets (or something stiff and porous enough to serve as a nontoxic, waterproof, weight-bearing screen)
- outdoor stain & sealant combo wood finish, or paint for waterproofing
- brush
- wood glue
- drill
- utility knife
- wire, string, or cable ties
- landscape tarp, opaque plastic bag, or river rocks
- potting mix
- fertilizer
- plant(s) or seed(s)

Optional:
- painter's tape (to prevent bleeding)
- tarp or old newspapers (for easy cleanup)
- gloves
- river stones or rocks (as one more layer between the soil & water reservoir, and as a topsoil cover)
- Leatherman (it just feels good)

*from the hardware store, .99 store, nursery, your local curb, or the Craigslist free section

Step 2: Remove hardware & bottoms

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Remove hardware by unscrewing from the inside, and take out any nails that prevent the bottoms from sliding out. Pull out the bottoms from all but one drawer and set them aside for later.

Step 3: Stack, glue & sand

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Sand the outside to get the surface ready for staining and end up with a clean, even coat. If you don't mind marks, found drawers without them, or decided to use paint instead, feel free to skip this step.

I used a cinderblock for weight while the glue set, since I didn't have large enough clamps, but anything heavy with a flat base should work. Wipe off any excess wood glue before it dries.

The original plan was to stain each one separately to prevent dripping/bleeding, but the timing was such that I needed to take up less space, so I ended up assembled them first and just using painter's tape instead.

Step 4: Stain & seal

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Lay down a tarp or old newspaper. Use painter's tape if you want different colors with clean lines between them, and brush along the grain until all areas are covered. Let the first coat to dry completely before applying another. While that's drying, you can switch to the drilling and cutting.

Step 5: Drill holes & cut screen

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Drill holes in all ABS pipes to allow the soil to pull water up from the reservoir without spilling into it.

I also used holes at the bottom of the fill tube instead of cutting it at an angle, only because the drill was out and it serves the same purpose of allowing water to flow into the reservoir.

I needed 2 baskets to fill in the extra length of the drawer, so I did the same (see photos) to both, cut down the edge, and laid one on top of the other. Yours may be a different length or from a different material, as long as it serves as a screen and ends up fitting snugly against all sides.

Use one of the ABS pipes to mark a spot for the overflow hole, then drill. This is to allow excess water to flow out, so your roots will never be water-logged.

Step 6: Cut, connect & attach the insides

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Set all pipes on top of the screen/basket bottom and trace around them with a marker.

Cut inside the lines to allow some space to help support the weight of the soil. Some designs only use one pipe as the wicking chamber and the others as pure support (uncut at the top), but I decided to try using all 3.

Use wire, string or cable ties to attach the wicking chambers and fill tube to the screen.

Once all drawers are completely dry and assembled, place the screen, wicking chambers and fill tube unit inside and layer with river stones or small rocks.

Step 7: Add soil, plants & topsoil covering

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Fill at least halfway with potting mix.

Transplant something you already have, or follow the directions on the seed packet(s) to start something new. I chose these peppers since they were the most in need of room to grow.

Add more soil and enough fertilizer for the size of your container. Leave at least an inch from the brim for the topsoil cover, which could be a piece of landscape tarp, opaque plastic bag, or more river rocks.

Step 8: Soak it, sit back & watch it grow

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Water the way you normally would (from the surface, not the fill tube) to give the transplant roots a chance to mix with the new soil and the fertilizer a chance to seep in. Give it a nice thorough soak for the first one.

After that, all you have to do is use the fill tube maybe once a week, watering until some spills out the overflow hole, sit back & watch it grow.

Deltic3 months ago

Love this! Since the contents are quite heavy & drawer bottoms are invariably a flimsy piece of ply it might be an idea to strengthen the drawer base. I have always found offcuts of laminate flooring ideal for the job.

addison_tomas6 months ago

What should someone worry about if owning these? if I dont plan on harvesting anything will the water cause any damage over many years?

Beautiful! One question: I don't understand how the bottom is waterproof. It seems like the water is just settling in the bottom drawer, and that will rot the whole thing. Am I wrong, or do you have some sort of bottom catch for the water?


I used an outdoor stain and sealant wood finish to help with waterproofing. See this comment.

Is the waterproofing foodsafe? I am not a stickler about stuff like PVC pipe and most plastics, but I did wonder about the sealant.

metqa2 years ago
What's the purpose of the river stones sitting in the wicking cups and porous screen?
bongobong73 years ago
Is there a specific reason to needing a porous screen to hold the soil above the water (the plastic baskets)? I am not sure what the benefit of having it porous is over just using a solid sheet.
chandra.nalaani (author)  bongobong73 years ago
A porous screen allows for some airflow, but as long as there's something for the plant to wick water from (like the pipes), it might be fine. You could try it with a solid sheet and report back...
Thanks for the reply. Looking into it more the other reason I found was so that if there was too much water in the soil it could drain out through the screen.
chandra.nalaani (author)  bongobong73 years ago
Actually, there's an overflow hole in this one - see Step 5.
Lee-in-Iowa3 years ago
This is great, and I see people throwing away broken desks and chests of drawers all the time, so I can create some great wood planters. Thanks!

One thing I learned elsewhere that would work here: Instead of needing the plastic mesh and pipes down in the bottom, you can save time and work, and recycle some plastic drink bottles. Just drill small holes all over three sides of each bottle, cut a slit (about 1 by 3 inches) in the bottom, keep the original lid ON. Make as many of these as you need to lay into the bottom of your planter. These serve to "self-water" through your main pipe to the soil's top just as well as the mesh-and-cut-pipes do. I tried this with one large fig tree and it worked splendidly.
chandra.nalaani (author)  Lee-in-Iowa3 years ago
Thanks :)
crossless5 years ago
 Wood can't hold water like bucket. It would be good idea to hide some pot in inside of wood so it will loo nicer. :)
chandra.nalaani (author)  crossless5 years ago
Agreed. It would've been more practical to use a rectangular bin that fit perfectly inside, or let the bin determine the size and configured the wood as a shell around it, but the peppers still thrived.
You could use eaves-trough for the water storage. Cut it to length, cap and seal the ends, and treat the rest of it as you would a double bucket or double rubbermaid solution. For wider containers just do the eaves-trough in multiples and use a T or X pipe fitting on your watering tube to split the input pipe so it flows into the multiple troughs.

You can also use different width eaves-trough, it comes in 4 - 10" widths.

It's fairly cheap to do, and would let you keep most of that moisture off the wood. Would also let you customize to almost any size/shape of wood container.

I'm planning to try this using a long window box style planter on my front deck - it gets lots of sun and is quite dry so having the self watering container will be key for growing the planned tomatoes and cucumbers.
oirfideach4 years ago
Like it, and thanks for doing something that allows us to reuse, recycle and reduce!
EmKay735 years ago
Could you have used galvanized "hardware cloth"? Its a fencing item like chicken wire that comes in a 1/4" or 1/2" grid widths.
chandra.nalaani (author)  EmKay735 years ago
I thought about that for the screen, then did some research, and galvanized metal leeches into the water over time - I'm not sure how much time or in what quantity, but I decided against it since these are edibles.
Lazooka5 years ago
Unique idea!
Donnisha235 years ago
I love this idea, now time to find some drawers.  Do you have an updated so I can now how it's coming aong?
xhmko5 years ago
How is the wood going with water sitting inside it all the time...is it rotting? I guess the stain would help that along.....i have also heard that if you burn the wood enough to char it but not destroy it it helps prevent rot Also, once the roots start growing through the basket at the bottom won't the contact with air be a problem? good idea though, i really like it
chandra.nalaani (author)  xhmko5 years ago
Thanks xhmko. It was fine for the life cycle of the peppers, then I harvested, emptied it and moved to an apartment with no outdoor space... If I did something similar again, it would be a lot less work to go with something that was already built to hold water.
i think a cool addition would be to connect the fill tube somehow to your eavestraughs (spelling?) so that whenever it rains it waters without you doing anything at all. itd be completely maintenance free till harvest time (if your growing food) =P
this might have been incredibly obvious to every1 but me... but is there soil under the basket mesh?
chandra.nalaani (author)  mathew1122345 years ago
Yes, but it's contained within the ABS pipes, which have holes to allow water from the reservoir to be pulled up into the soil above it without too much soil escaping below.
awesome thank you
Very cool idea. I'm with you on the plastic bucket thing not looking so nice in the garden, so this is a great option.

I'm going to add a link to this over on our forum. Our website is centered on homesteading type subjects. Gardening and alternative ideas is definitely a large part of that mindset.

Great job!

http://www.theruralindependent.com

RayBanFan6 years ago
Pretty neat! Good job!
justinhyp6 years ago
This is pretty cool!
pleabargain6 years ago
Cool. What of the the stagnating water at the bottom? Do you get an odor?
chandra.nalaani (author)  pleabargain6 years ago
Good question. Any excess water flows out through a hole in the back just below the soil line (see Step 5) at the top of the reservoir, so the roots take what they need steadily without getting waterlogged. The water won't be sitting there long enough to do anything besides be pulled up by the plant... unless your plant is dead, in which case you should probably clean everything out and try again :)
guy906 years ago
Nice effect!
yofortune6 years ago
want to keep slugs and snails of it?try my instructable about using a plant to repel snails. just search aloe vera!please vote for me too.
SinAmos6 years ago
I am glad you are addressing the root growth, because most planters don't. Plants need plenty of room to create a root network, or they will suffer in their development.:) Good work. The ground is the best place for plants, but if you must use a planter, a tall one is the way to go.
Kaelessin6 years ago
brilliant idea! can't wait to see the rest!