Self-wicking Rain Water Container Garden




Here's a quick setup for a self-contained, self-wicking, sustainable rain water garden. I had most of these items around and terrible soil by me so I was looking for a way to have an organic garden without having to do a raised bed/box. The great part about this setup is everything can be changed and it can be used in backyards, balconies, rooftops, etc. Buckets can be added or removed, plants can be changed out according to growing season, and the entire setup can be dismantled and relocated to another site if needed. Hopefully this helps anyone looking to get into gardening a little or a lot at a time.

The way everything works is pretty amazing! The rain is collected into the rain barrel. This water is transferred to the tote via float valve and then equally distributed to the containers. The water is wicked up through the bottom of the containers to the soil above as needed, preventing the need to consistently check and water your plants. This saves time, money, and energy as the plants use what they need as they need it.

(Tip: You can add nutrients to the secondary containment tote and it will be equally distributed to the plants.)

Step 1: Find a Location

Location, Location, Location!

I had an overgrown area I tried to use for a raised garden last year behind my garage but weeds and pests took it over and most of my plants suffered.

IMPORTANT! Try to find an area that is slightly level already and that will save you some time during the setup. If not, level the area with whatever you have. This will determine the levels in your various containers. If you have a large slope, then the water level will be higher in some buckets and lower in others, so be sure to get them as level as possible. I used patio pavers, flagstone and some old boards I had leftover from various projects.

Step 2: Gather Your Materials

Materials: (These may vary according to your project) (Quantities will vary - this is for 9 grow buckets)

x1 -Landscape Fabric - 50' (If needed) Amazon

x1 -Fabric Staples - Amazon

x1 -A Large Tote w/ lid (I had one leftover from moving)

x1 -55 gallon Rain Barrel (These can be found cheap on craigslist to other sites - Be sure to get food grade)

x9 -Containers/Buckets (I have several Kitty Litter buckets that I had been saving, but use what you have or a 5 Gallon bucket works too)

x1 -Drainage Pipe w/ Sock 25' Lowes (Try to find it with the sock because this will help debris from filling the pipe)

x1 -Float Valve Amazon

x8 -1/2" T Fittings - Lowes

x2 -1/2" Flex Pipe Adapter Lowes

x1 -1/2" Cutoff Riser Lowes

x12 -1/2" Flex Pipe Elbow Female Lowes

x1 -1/2" Flex Pipe 50' Lowes

x1 -1/2" Flex Pipe Elbow Male to Female Lowes

x12 -1/2" PVC Adapter Lowes

x2 -1/2" PVC Ball Valve Lowes

x20 -Rubber Washers Lowes

x1 -Drainage Grate Lowes

x50 -Zipties - (I had these laying around)

x1 -Teflon Tape

Tools: (These may vary according to your project)

-Small Sledge

-1 1/2" Paddle Bit

-5/8" Drill Bit


-Straight Tin Snips


-Wire Cutters

-Heat Gun


-Saw with Fine Tooth Blade

Step 3: Level Growing Area

-I briefly mentioned this in the Location step, but be sure to level the area that you plan on using.

-Once level, lay down your garden fabric and staple as needed to prevent any weeds or other debris from impeding your work area.

Step 4: Layout

-Layout your containers and check for level again

-Layout your Tote (secondary containment) and your rain barrel (primary containment)

-Measure distances between containers, tote, and rain barrel to determine lengths and the amount of fittings and flex pipe needed.

Step 5: Drainage Pipe Prep

-Pull the sock back on the drainage pipe and cut the pipe to length according to the containers you are using.

-I cut 2 short lengths per container.

-Once the pipe is cut, pull the sock over the pipe and twist one end and apply a zip tie. Do the same to the other end of the pipe and cut off excess.

-Repeat this process as needed.

-This pipe is used to hold water in the bottom of the bucket. The pipe and sock keep rocks, debris, and soil above the water to prevent root rot. The water is wicked up from the pipe into the soil.

Step 6: Rain Barrel Prep

-Level and adjust the height of your rain barrel as needed (I stacked and used left over patio pavers 12x12)

-Cut a large enough hole in the top of the barrel to insert drainage gate. (This helps keep debris out of your barrel)

-Drill a 5/8" hole 4" up from the bottom of the barrel

-Place rubber washer on the PVC adapter over the threads.

-Apply teflon tape to the threads

-Push the adapter through the 5/8" hole from inside the barrel with the washer being inside the barrel and the threads protruding out of the hole.

-Screw on another adapter if needed, then screw on the ball valve (I used and adapter to another adapter due to the distance between my rain barrel and tote. Use Pliers if needed to ensure a tight fit. You may need another person to hold the end on the outside while you tight the inside or vice versa)

-Use rubber washers at every fitting as needed. (See pics)

-Screw on adapter after applying rubber washer and teflon tape to threads to the opposite side of the ball valve

-Drill a 5/8" hole in side of barrel 1" from top for over flow. (You can set this up any way you want. If you have a larger or smaller hose to a certain fitting or pipe)

Step 7: Secondary Containment (Tote) Prep

-Level and raise/lower tote as needed

-Drill a 5/8" hole in line with the fittings from the rain barrel

-Insert float valve from inside the tote (Be sure a rubber washer is on this before you push it through the hole)

-Apply teflon tape to threads protruding out of tote on float valve

-Apply rubber washers and screw on PVC adapter to threads on float valve as needed to get a tight fit on the outside of the tote

-Screw in PVC adapter to ball valve to complete the connection to the rain barrel (This was a little tricky for me as I had to lift the tote and spin it on the ball valve to get the connection right)

-Apply rubber washers as needed and teflon tape to all threads.

The next part is tricky and may require some calculations (or guess work in my case).

-Drill a 5/8" hole into the other side of the Tote. This will be your outlet flow to your containers. (I drilled mine approximately 12" from the bottom but this will depend on how level your grow containers are and the height you want the water to be in the container. I was aiming for about 3-4" per container and somehow got lucky enough to hit that.) Keep in mind that the float valve can be adjusted for the amount of water you want in the tote and if the hole you drill is too high, you will have to plug it and drill a hole lower to ensure a steady supply. (easy fix if necessary)

-Apply rubber washer to PVC Adapter and insert through hole from inside the tote

-Apply teflon tape to threads

-Apply another PVC adapter if needed

-Screw on PVC ball valve using rubber washers as needed

-Screw on 90 degree elbow male to ball valve and female to riser

-Screw on riser and measure. Cut to length if needed. Apply teflon tape to threads and screw on to 90 degree elbow

-Screw on 90 degree female to flex pipe fitting

-Measure length of flex pipe to first container and cut to fit.

-Apply heat to flex pipe end for no more than 10 seconds or until edge is slightly shiny and slide onto fittings.

Step 8: Self-wicking Container Prep

-Layout your fittings and measure the distances of flex pipe needed from secondary container and between buckets

Each container will need:

1 Tee fitting

1 PVC Adapter

1 Rubber washer

1 Elbow (female)

1 Short length of flex pipe


The first container will need an additional 90 degree elbow Female and flex pipe adapter male that links the TOTE to the first container and so forth.

The last container will use a 90 degree elbow instead of a Tee fitting to end the "circuit of water"

-Drill a 5/8" hole approximately the same height as the drainage pipe in your container (Around 3-4" from the bottom of the container)

-Place rubber washer on PVC adapter over threads and insert adapter through hole from inside the container bucket.

-Apply teflon tape to the PVC adapter threads

-Screw on elbow so that the flex pipe will enter elbow from the bottom

-Determine the height where you want the Tee fitting and measure to cut flex pipe (Mine is approximately 3-4")

-Cut flex pipe to length.

-Take heat gun an apply heat to flex pipe for no more than 10 seconds or until the edge is slightly shiny and slide the flex pipe onto the elbow fitting. (If the flex pipe folds in on itself as you slide it onto the fitting, apply less heat)

-Repeat this same process and apply to the top opening of the Tee fitting

-Repeat this process to all containers except the first and last container.

Step 9: Adjustments

-Fill your secondary containment tote with water

-Allow buckets to fill to desired height (3-4" for mine) and check to determine if hole is correct height in tote

-Adjust float valve once desired height in grow containers is set to ensure this level is maintained by secondary tote.

-Fill rain barrel enough to test for leaks and ensure transfer through float is correct and level is maintained in secondary tote

Step 10: Add Some Rocks and Growing Medium

-Once your water is at the desired height, add some medium sized rocks approximately 3-4" above drainage pipe to keep the soil from being saturated

-I didn't have any smaller stone on hand so I broke up some left over flagstone I had from another project

-Add soil mix to the top of the barrel (use what you prefer. I used the organic miracle gro for pottingin the black bag) Try to have at least 6-8" soil to ensure enough room for plant growth

-If you have a lid, you can apply it to keep the moisture from evaporating from the soil and also helps to keep bugs out. (I had the lids from the kitty litter containers. I cut 2, 1 1/2" holes in the lid to have the plant go through. I cut a slit from the hole to the front of the lid to be able to get the plant in and the lid over and around the plant. This was a tricky process but turned out great).

Step 11: Add Your Plants!

-I chose to try this out with some vegetables and fruits to see how it goes this year.

-I planted lettuce without the lid and tomatoes and peppers with the lid and a marigold to keep those pests away.

Step 12: Harvest and Enjoy!

I will add follow up images as the plants continue to grow and what my final harvest looks like.

Enjoy the fruits of your hard labor!

This project can be a little daunting at first, but after the initial setup you can wipe your hands clean and let nature and gravity take over!

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    18 Discussions


    10 days ago

    Really neat system. I wish I were able to connect to our water barrel. I have now posted a wicking system that is directly collecting rainwater. The principle is working and time will show if we have enough rain :-)


    Question 20 days ago on Step 12

    This is awesome! Would you consider doing a YouTube start to finish?


    23 days ago

    Mum and I have wicking beds in polyfoam broccoli boxes, no lids but we do place a piece of shade cloth on top of rocks before adding compost and soil. Keeps the soil separated


    Tip 24 days ago

    Love a good bucket!! The tidy cat bins really are the best!


    25 days ago

    Cool idea and execution. I've daydreamed a lot about using float valves with my rain barrels and garden, but never got very far before getting sidetracked. This is getting me back on track.


    26 days ago

    Could you please give a simple sketch / drawing of what you are doing?


    27 days ago

    Good morning. I'm confused. The water in the buckets is at 3". The rock is 3" above that. The soil is above that. It is possible for the soil to never touch the water.

    What am I missing?

    2 replies

    Reply 26 days ago

    Correct. You don't want your soil to be saturated or your roots may rot. The water "wicks" up through the rocks into the soil as needed. There are some videos online that go more in depth. Some designs may use an actual piece of fabric or "wick" that works similar to a cloth wick in an oil lantern. To clarify further, there are some gaps in the rocks that the soil can directly access the water. I used a very large rock as I had to manually break apart flagstone in random chunks that I had left over from another project. This left many small gaps that allow the water to "wick" up into the soil. You want the water to be able to access the soil but not so much that the soil remains too saturated, leaving your plants susceptible to root rot. Also if you had no rock and just soil, it would be highly likely that the inlet to your grow bucket would become clogged and could potentially clog the line further down. Its a balance that will be different for every project depending on the size and amount of container used and the height of the outlet on the secondary containment supplying your grow containers. Hope this helps!


    26 days ago on Step 4

    To avoid having to spin the tote, you can use a piece they call a "union".

    1 reply

    27 days ago

    just moved into an apartment from a house and I was looking for a way to garden. I am now saving the kitty litter buckets. I did want to garden and I wanted it to not drip on the neighbours. Thanks for the design. I am hoping to figure out how to get the rain off the roof into the rain barrel. I have a covered roof so it should work. Any suggestions would be helpful.
    I voted for you in the garden contest n once again thanks for the instructable.

    1 reply

    Reply 26 days ago

    Perfect! If you can't route water from a gutter, you may be able to use a small tarp or something similar and have it funnel rain to a collection area but be sure to have some sort of overflow drain in case your collection system gets full and you need to release some water. Hopefully this helps. Feel free to post picture or any other questions. Thanks for the vote!


    4 weeks ago

    What a brilliant design! Just favorited your project for to check back on it later when you harvest :D

    1 reply

    Reply 27 days ago

    Thank you! I'll try to post monthly pictures of the growing process and the final harvest.


    27 days ago

    VERY NICE!!! Just one comment. In the bottom of the bucket, you could have made a "U" instead of two pieces and run the pipe into the bottom of the "U" then maybe zip tie the sock around the pipe, if possible, or not.
    Truly a wonderful design. My compliments!!! :-) ;-)

    1 reply

    Reply 27 days ago

    Thanks for the feedback! I did initially try to do a "U" shape but the pipe did not want to bend as much as I needed it to, however if you have a larger container than that would be a better option. Less cutting and less work.


    4 weeks ago

    Little things sometimes give birth to great happiness :)