Circulating Self Watering Vertical Planter

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This is a collaboration with my son, who isn't old enough to have his own instructables account. He had the original idea of a vertical planter system with circulating water. His initial plan was to circulate the water through the dirt in each pot, so that nutrients wouldn't drain out of the pots but be circulated back to the top. He also wanted it to be more like a set of posts.

After we talked about it for a bit, we decided it probably wasn't a good idea to run the water through the soil as this would over water the plants and could also clog up the pump. I did some research and we learned about the ancient irrigation method using "ollas", which are clay pots that hold water and slowly leak into the soil.

I came up with the idea of a "reverse olla" where the potted plant, in a terra cotta pot, would sit inside another pot containing the circulating water.

Finally, mom procured a nice rustic wooden door and a rectangular wooden window box planter. My son compromised on his original vision of poles, to use the wooden door. The box planter serves a place to put the pump and the water reservoir.

So ultimately, it was a family effort!

Supplies:

Black PVC pipe (1) https://www.lowes.com/pd/Charlotte-Pipe-1-1-2-in-x...

Aluminum strips (3) https://www.lowes.com/pd/Steelworks-6-ft-x-0-5-in-...

Terra cotta flair cylinder pots (5) https://www.lowes.com/pd/5-in-Flair-Cylinder-Pot/1...

Terra cotta orchid pots (5) https://www.lowes.com/pd/6-in-Orchid-Pot/100071195...

Old wood door (could be made from scratch with 6 pickets: https://www.lowes.com/pd/Severe-Weather-Common-5-8..., and a 2 x 3 stud..).

Old window box (here's a new one: https://www.lowes.com/pd/39-96-in-W-x-12-in-H-Carb...

Waterproofer paint (https://www.lowes.com/pd/DRYLOK-White-Flat-Waterpr...

Urethane water seal (https://www.lowes.com/pd/Minwax-Pro-Series-32-fl-o...

Plastic tubing https://www.lowes.com/pd/EASTMAN-3-8-in-x-10-ft-PV...

Solar Water pump https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07P8XPJ3X/ref=p...

Plaster of paris

Copper spray paint

Assorted plants

Tools

Basic shop tools including a hack saw, pliers, drill.

Teacher Notes

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Step 1: Prepare Backing Board

We found what looks like an old gate and a window planter box to repurpose for this project. You can buy one new, but we loved the aged look of the used ones!

It had some nails sticking out randomly, and it had a little stand which we moved so it could stand the tall way.

We also water sealed it with clear urethane varnish.

Step 2: Prepare Pot Hangars

Using the 1/2 inch aluminum strips, I cut 20" sections with a diagonal pliers and wrapped them around the pots. I used the littlest pots for this, since the strips will flex back somewhat, so you have to bend them more than what you intended for the final shape. Using a regular pliers I bent the "hooks" that will keep them on the boards.

The pots will lean forwards a bit but that's fine.

You will also need some brackets to hold up the water channels. These are also bent from the 1/2 aluminum strips.

Step 3: Cut Tube Water Channels

Use a hacksaw with the blade mounted sideways to cut the tubes in half. I recommend cutting the length of one channel (this depends on the arrangement of pots and the size of your board) first, and then cut off the pipe to get the two pieces, then repeat. I tried cutting the pipe off first and then splitting it, and this was much harder!

Use some sandpaper to smooth off the edges, you'll have a lot of burrs.

Step 4: Paint

We wanted the channels to look more like copper pipes, so we spray painted everything with copper spray paint.

The insides of the larger water pots need to be painted with a waterproofing paint, otherwise the water will seep through. We don't want that on the outside, only on the inside pots!

Step 5: Prepare Pots

For each larger pot, you are going to plug up one or two of the holes in the sides (our pots had 3 holes), and also the hole in the bottom. The remaining hole(s) will allow the water to flow into the water channels. Depending on how you arrange the pots, you will need one or two open holes. Use some masking tape on the outside of the holes to keep the plaster in.

Prepare the plaster as instructed on the package. It should be 2 parts plaster to 1 part water. I didn't even need the half cup of plaster I mixed up.

Attach a 3" tube on the inside of each larger pot going upwards and out the hole. Seal the tube in the hole with plaster of paris. This will let the pot fill with water before it reaches the top of the tube and drains out.

Each of the small pots will also need the hole in the bottom to be filled in.

Then you will need to water seal, we used Drylok. This will create a watertight seal because the terra cotta pots will let water through. This is what we want to happen with the inner pot, but not the outer pot. For all the little pots, you should water seal the plastered in hole on both sides, but not the rest of the pot. For the larger pots, water seal the entire inside.

Step 6: Attach Pots and Water Channels

Place each of the smaller pots into the bigger pots.

Situate the pots the way you like, and attach the water channels to flow from the bottom holes of the higher pot into the tops of the lower pots. We had to trim a few of the water channels to get a good fit

The last pot will need to drain into the tube that goes into the water reservoir.

Step 7: Create a Water Reservoir

Inside the planter box will be your reservoir. Here is where you will place the water pump. You will need a pipe for the last pot to drain into. We used a funnel but you could also just use some of the remaining pipe.

Connect the plastic tubing to route the pumped water back up to the top pot. Drill a hole in the back board to pass the tube through.

Step 8: Turn It On!

Turn it on and adjust all the water channels and pots to get the water flowing.

Enjoy your new creation!

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    14 Discussions

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    FuzzyBearGeek

    22 days ago

    So cool! Keep on building and learning!

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    CuriousJeff

    25 days ago

    Have you considered adding fish? Like goldfish at the bottom so the fish poop would act as a natural fertilizer to the plants.

    1 reply
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    Aric CaleyCuriousJeff

    Reply 25 days ago

    The idea of a system with a fish tank and plants on top with the water circulating through it was something we also talked about. Maybe that will be a future project!

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    Aric Caleyneil.glazebrook

    Reply 25 days ago

    I don't think it counts as hydroponics because the inner pots still have soil. It's more like the Ollas I referenced, which have been around for thousands of years as a form of irrigation.

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    zakbobdop

    5 weeks ago

    I'm excited to see your son do even cooler things when he grows up :D hope he ages enough to get an account soon!

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    allenswan

    5 weeks ago

    Does it work? the "Reverse 'ollas'"?. Have you had it in operation long enough to say that the plants get enough water, without being waterlogged and actually grow?

    1 reply
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    Aric Caleyallenswan

    Reply 5 weeks ago

    Well, turns out the pots are actually a little TOO permeable to the water. Initially, the plants were getting too much water! So I cut the tubes down so the outer pots wouldn't fill up so high. This way the water is only at the bottom and can wick up as the plants use the water.

    Which makes me wonder how a real olla works. It seems like the water would really quickly drain out of the ollas into the dirt, no different than if you had just put water into a hole. Maybe there are different types of ceramic that would leak less water? Or maybe you would paint them with waterproof coating to control how quickly the water would leak out?

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    Aric Caley

    6 weeks ago

    We won a first prize! My son's head nearly exploded! Thank you so much.

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    Starkey0417

    6 weeks ago

    What a great project!

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    Birdz of a Feather

    6 weeks ago

    Brilliant collaboration with your son; love it!

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    Aric Caley

    6 weeks ago

    My son desperately wants to win so he can get a 3d printer.. :) I wouldn't mind that either...

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    seamster

    6 weeks ago

    Nicely done! I love the idea of a family project where everyone is involved. Bravo! : )