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.

Step 1: 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?

Step 2: Mark the Buckets

1) Hole for wicking basket
On the bottom of the first bucket, trace your drain grate or plastic tub and mark a circle on the bottom of the first bucket. Be sure your circle is smaller than the lip of the container.

2) Hole for pipe
Next, mark a hole for the pipe, also 1/2" from the wall of the bucket

3) Side drainage holes
On the side of the second bucket (not the one you've already marked!), measure and mark drainage holes. Finding this measurement is pretty easy--just place the buckets one next to the other and figure out how much of a gap there is between them when they stack together. Mark just below that line. Mark two drainage holes, one on each side.

4) Second hole for pipe
On the lid, mark a hole for the pipe (1/2" from the edge)

5) Holes for plants
Next mark holes for the seedlings on the lid, or one big hole for an established plant

Pictured is the finished bucket lid, so you get a sense of what the holes will be doing once you plant your dearthbox.

Step 3: Cut the Holes in the Buckets

Cutting plastic kicks up a lot of little plastic dusty bits. Protect your eyes and nose and mouth accordingly.

For the big holes on the first bucket and the lid, start them with a drill, using a 1" masonry bit. Use the utility knife to widen the holes.

Cut drainage holes in the bottom of your first bucket, using a 1/4" diameter drill bit.

Next, cut the side drainage holes on the second bucket.

Remember, do not cut the side drainage holes in the bucket with the holes in the bottom.

You can smooth the edges with the file if you want.

Note that I don't have a picture of this process for the bucket lid, but you want to do the same thing for the pipe hole and the plant holes you marked in step 2 on the lid.

Step 4: Prepare the Pipe

Cut an angled segment from the bottom of the pipe, using your hacksaw.

The reason you're doing this is so that water can flow out of the pipe when it's at the bottom of the buckets.

Step 5: Assemble the Wicking Basket

Either line the drain grate with mesh, or cut holes in your solid plastic container. We found these as a three pack at the dollar store. You could also use food containers, etc., as long as there is enough of a lip and they are the right height.

Even though it's significantly more expensive, I highly recommend the drain grate option. They both seem to be performing equally well, but the drain cover just seems sturdier and better.

The last photo is of the wicking basket with dirt inside already. You don't have to do that part yet, but this shows you how the netting helps contain the dirt.

Step 6: Assemble the Bucket!

Place the assembled wicking basket in the bottom of the bucket.

Push the pipe through the holes in the lid and the bottom of the inner bucket

Stack two buckets, with the basket hanging between the two.

Now you're ready to plant!

Step 7: Planting

Use your favorite potting mix, compost, plants, seedlings, etc., and put it all together! This part is really up to you, but I would encourage you to soak the wicking basket first, and only use a small amount of fertilizer. The bucket recycles it, so you probably won't need to add fertilizer again for a very long time.

If you cut smaller holes in the lid, gently thread the plants through the holes before lowering the lid completely.

If you cut one big hole, line the top of the bucket with black plastic. This helps keep the potting mix moist. (see Mr. Beefhead's comment about why it's important to use potting mix)

To water the dearthbox, just pour water down the pipe. You know it's full when water comes out the drainage holes on the sides. We started with moist earth to make the wicking basket's job easier.

Thanks for checking out our instructable! If something doesn't make sense, please tell me and I'll fix it!

ps: we just got our copy of Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen's The Urban Homestead ( in the mail, and it's great! Their SWC recipe is really really similar to ours, but with a few cool extras and best of all, lots of advice about which plants do well in SWCs and which plants do not. You should definitely check out their book if you're using or thinking about using any sort of earthbox.

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    59 Discussions


    Question 3 months ago

    Hello! I forgot to drill the tiny multiple drain holes in my top buckets. Should I panic or will my tomatoes be ok? (I used the drain grates with mesh method) Thanks!


    2 years ago

    Wine making shops usually have cheap, used food grade buckets from the juice. $1.00 locally currently.

    Zinsser makes a vinyl & plastic primer (289379) if you want to paint. Rustoleum also has spray bombs that bond to plastic.


    3 years ago

    Why does the drain have potting soil in it and the pot that the holes were drilled in does not?


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Can the growing medium in the dearthboxes be reused? I'm assuming I'll have to add more fertilizer and dolomite/lime but replacing all of the vermiculite/coir/perlite/etc. could get expensive. Thanks.

    *I've made five and so far everything is kicking butt.


    4 years ago on Step 7

    If you have any old pantyhose with runs, etc. you can use small sections to hold your fertilizer. Knot one end, pour in your solid fertilizer, trim and knot the other end. The fertilizer sack should be on the topmost layer of dirt in a trough. When the growing season is over, you can throw this away and start a new one. I live near Ellenton FL where the earth box was invented. They have a 1 acre farm of earth boxes. Some of the earth boxes have been using the same potting mix for 14 years.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    4 years ago

    Works great! Better Boy breed of tomatoes.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    6 years ago on Step 3

    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.

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Heating plastic will create hazardous gasses, Make sure you are in a well ventilated area.


    7 years ago on Step 7

    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*

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    7 years ago on Step 3

    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!


    8 years ago on Step 5

    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


    8 years ago on Introduction

    It's so fascinating! I want to practice. vegetables, plants are my favorite.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Great instructable, I'm thinking of doing the same with large 80L dustbins.
    It qhould allow to grow patatoes, carrots etc.


    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!


    9 years ago on Step 3

    it's not a masonry bit it's a spade bit...worked great for me...fantastic project!