Yet Another Earth-filled Box




Intro: Yet Another Earth-filled Box

My version of a commercially available grow box. I have a real one, a gift, the produced a ton of tomatoes over the last two years, but at $50+, I can't buy too many in good conscience (at that price), when I could just go to the farmer's market and buy the tomatoes. So, I tried the less expensive route. Other than the weed barrier, this was $5 for the bin, $5 for the rocks and $2.50 for the dirt. I suppose $.05 for the watering device, too, but your mileage may vary on that (10 cents in Michigan, for instance).

UPDATES, some of which prove those who post comments are pretty darn smart:

I saw 25' of weed barrier for $7 at our local OSH; if you spread this over 7 bins (a good estimate), it's $1/bin, bringing the total to under $15, including the tomato plants.

The clear bins DO promote some algae.  The real one I have (green exterior) just got dumped out, checked and cleaned and has no algae in it. My recommendation - go with something other than clear if you can find plastic you trust.

If you drill or cut holes for the top, make them bigger than you think they should be. I had plants rub against the cuts, and, well: cut plants. So, I have put some paper around the surviving plants (the plants are too big to take out to re-cut the lid). I'm trying to reseed in some of the holes, which should be interesting.

Step 1: Box and Water Layer

It strikes me this is the only unique step in my instructable. I took a box (3/$15 at Costco), and put "Lava Rocks for Landscaping" in as the bottom layer. Note the corner where the rocks do not cover the bottom -- this will be for wick. There is another corner in the front for water.

Step 2: Dirt Holding Layer

Mark where you want the drain hole(s) and drill. I use 2 or 3, as I drill them with a small bit, around 3/8".

Step 3: Keep Soil and Water Separate

This is the semi-unique step. Instead of the box top (clever), another bin (pretty good, but expensive), I used some weed barrier I had in the garage. It is supposed to keep weeds down but allows water through. If I needed to buy it, it was about $15 for 100 feet, according to the tag I found on it. Cut to about twice the size of the bottom of the bin. Place in bin, fold corners and put some dirt on to hold it into place. MAKE SURE YOU READ THE NEXT STEP before actually doing this, as these two steps go together.

Step 4: Water Supply

Cut the bottom off a plastic water bottle. If you're willing to drink from it, it should be OK to use here. Remove cap, place nozzle in the corner (remember where you didn't have rock), push down, put some dirt to hold in place.

This is a half litre bottle from Costco someone tossed at work. I have also used the skinny ones, but I had to get 2 pushed together. To do that, I cut about a half an inch off the bottom of one, then carefully pushed the neck of the second one into the bottom of the first. The ridges mated and I had a longer water spout. I wanted to use one from TJ's organic ketchup, but I couldn't get the label off for love or money (soaked in water for 3 days). Some helpful souls have given suggestions (see the comments), but I'm still striking out--I have a 2 year old ketchup bottle in the garage right now.  That failure still annoys me, as the bottle is a good length and otherwise demands little real estate.

Step 5: Fill With Dirt

Now you have the box stabilized. Hint: move it to where you want it before you completely fill with dirt--it's heavy.

Add dirt, pat down, add some water to help compact, repeat until you have the dirt level where you want it. I used store-bought dirt, some "castings" from my worm bin, a touch of compost, and some lousy dirt from the lousy soil here.

I added fertilizer right after this photo. It seems to me the two big secrets of these bins are water control -- lots of water without root rot -- and lots of fertilizer, which gives the organic part of me the creeps, so I use less. The small secret appears to be the lid to keep evaporation, weeds & intrusions down.

I do not have a great idea for the top -- I was thinking of cutting a few large holes in the lid, and putting a garbage bag across the bin, snapping the lid on, and putting the plants in place through cut Xs in the plastic bag. Just using the lid might work (but creates a permanent pattern). Or, I may leave it open and deal with the evaporation--see my comments on the wine barrel on the next page.

Tomatoes, pole beans and peppers are on the agenda.

Step 6: Wait for Growth

I'm waiting for my seedlings to go in.

Also, I did this with a wine barrel (you might see it in the background of the rock shot) last year. I didn't do anything about a "top," as it was decorative and looked great with flowers, chive, one garlic clove and beans. Over the winter (Northern CA), we had marigolds from seed November - March (still there, for about 18 months until the lawn mowing guy tore them out).

Next up, I need a trellis for the beans. This may be a couple of 2x3s and some of the wire "fabric" they use to reinforce concrete. I hear they do great holding up tomatoes, too. Or it could be string, like last year.

Some Updates:   Mixed results on tomatoes, but I liked it.  Beans didn't do as well -- maybe they had too much need for water.

Cheers all!



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    16 Discussions


    8 years ago on Step 4

    It depends on the glue, but a bit of heat (a hair drier does a good job) will often loosen it up enough, it worked for us to remove masking tape from different surfaces.


    9 years ago on Step 4

    Try soaking the ketchup bottle in warm water + oxyclean. Seems to work well in dissolving all sorts of label glue!


    9 years ago on Step 6

    There are several "secrets" to the EB. One is the water supply below with an air gap between the water and the soil. This allows the water to oxygenate. The next is the two soil columns that wick water up into the potting mix. Potting mix, not soil or dirt or any nutrient containing plant growing matrix. The fertilizer is applied in a stripe or stripes between the plants which allows the plants to take as much as they need. Make the stripe by running a finger through the mix to open a slot, fill with fertilizer and cover with the potting mix. Next growing season remove the old stripe and refill and recover. The next item is the potting mix mounded up above the rim of the box and covering with the plastic sheeting. This sheds water and prevents the fertilizer from being washed down into the water and concentrating the fertilizer salts. I can't tell from the posts how many of these items you are accomplishing. Each of these points are vital to the EB usage...


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I would like to try to make some of these boxes, try them in my roof top container garden and possibly introduce them to other people working for NGOs. Working in Rural Development in Mexico I am extremely limited in what is available and would like to know what I could use as barrier between the soil and the rocks....would a sturdy garbage bag work ( they are available in white and black ) or does anyone of you have other ideas ? Thanks.....

    2 replies

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Hi there, the idea we can get this into rural areas, NGOs and others looking for a meal makes me smile. I hope this helps.

    I doubt a garbage bag would be a good idea for 2 reasons, first, it's not water-permeable, and second, it's plastic. I think part of this box trick is that you have the ability for the soil to soak water up the "wick" area (the part where I didn't put rocks, and the commercial product have an opening in the false bottom). I also think you shouldn't put anything in the box that you wouldn't eat--this is a pretty intense gardening device, so I personally assume anything in the box ends up in the fruit/vegetable; there are several discussions in some of the other threads about PVC and other materials that may or may not leech into the soil (I don't really know, my science is physics, not chemistry, so I don't judge 'volatility' or other emission in plastics).

    The plastic bag may work as a lid--again, one of the commercial products comes with a plastic bag-material cover (one side black, one white, for use in cooler and warmer climates respectively; depending on your location, you choose, but unless you're mountains or coast, I think white).

    As for alternatives -- You could use newspaper (torn to strips, shredded or maybe whole) brown paper bags (ditto), burlap sacks, screens of some sort (if you get comfortable with the material), and if I think of anything clever, I'll put it here. The idea is to slow the drift of dirt into the rocks, but not block roots and water entirely, in case the wick doesn't work.

    One of the other instructibles (cool-fool's:!/) cuts the lid of the bin down to size, and drills/cuts a bunch of holes in it. Take a look at that. There's no reason you couldn't put some rocks down, cut the lid to size, drill it, put some holes in it, and put it on the rocks which would work as supports, and then put your dirt down. If I understand it, he uses the rim of the lid to hold down the plastic on top of the dirt. If you're in a hot/arid/dry place, the white plastic bag on top would really be helpful to keep water in.

    Let us know how it goes; write back for any comments, I check in about once a week!

    (Hey, anyone want to rate me? I want to see how I stack up against the other clones!)


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for your reply. I finally put the last piece of the puzzle together. Since ( as a non-native speaker & writer of English ) I understood that the rocks and the soil had to be kept separate, I thought a Garbage bag was appropriate. Now I understand better. I have no plans to introduce the boxes into NGO programs, but make them available to NGO volunteers to grow their own vegetables and herbs, especially lettuce and other salad veggies ( plants for salads not being available in the more indigenous areas ). I will try the boxes here in Mexico City ( almost 9000 feet high ) and then in Chiapas where there is a humid, hot jungle climate at about 15 -45 ' altitude. If I have questions and /or comments I will report back. I am really glad to have found this will be very useful in our team plan to eat a fresher, better and more varied diet. Thanks again

    interesting. so basically this is a "pot" with a water resevoir which forces the plant to send down deep roots rather than surface roots? I have just done something similar with a 1.5m round fish pond. can I make a suggestion though? it might be a good idea to use an opaque container as plant roots are photosensitive.

    4 replies
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    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I don't know that it forces the roots down (although having disassembled one at the end of the season, there are roots at the bottom) as much as it creates a way to saturate the soil (wicking the water up) without getting root rot. I know good drainage is especially important in tomatoes (according to my dad, who claims Jersey tomatoes of his youth were so good because they came from the sandy soil in south eastern New Jersey). There have been a lot of discussions on the clear/opaque pros and cons in the Instructables for smaller vessels made from 2L soda bottles, etc., primarily around algae growth. Some have suggested painting the outside of the box. If it looks bad going into summer, I will do something (paint or bag) and post, but for now, I'm taking the lazy route -- after all, I just put 7 pole beans in the right hand box and I need a drink! I would tend to agree that an opaque box is better than clear, but it was surprising how few plastic bins I could find, and the clear ones were the only ones that were made of plastic that you can use on food (I won't say "food safe," as I'm sure there's a world of difference in PE 5s).


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Nice, I like your design. One good thing about having a clear box is that you can see the level of water in the reservoir. If you are worried about using fertilizer, there are organic ones available such as earthworm castings or compost tea.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    My worms are taking their sweet time. I used composted material as best I could, and just a little fertilizer. I have faith. Thanks for the comment(s).


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Will do. I hope I didn't get annoyed and toss the empty ketchup bottle.... Many thanks.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Hey all - two things: 1) thanks for the positive comments; 2) those of you who think clear boxes may cause algae, you win the big prize! I've had this going with dirt and water (some bean plants, and I'm trying some radishes) for 2-3 weeks, and you can already see a good bit of algae around the bottom. For now, I'm leaving it grow. So far: 1 radish sprout is up, 2 beans have taken really well, and I've put in 6 more bean seeds after having some transplant trouble. I think I'll put together 2 more boxes this weekend, as the tomato seedlings are now over 2", so they could be ready within 2-4 more weeks, depending on what happens. Further updates as the situation warrants.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    please don't be mad at me if this comes through twice!! Igot bumped off by Outlook Express before I could post---I LOVE!! your earthbox clone!!! Can't wait to get my stones and get this done tomorrow!! Last year I did the cut off box inside another box but it was a mess!! I have been looking all over the internet for a easier way. I made one of the ones with the cut top as the tray last week, but it was very hard for me. 30 years ago, I could have done 5 of them before lunch, but I don't seem to like power tool very munch anymore! THANKS!! for showing me an easier way!!

    I'll be building a few of these in the fall here in Arizona. Hopefully I'll get some beans and lettuce going. Keep us posted on how well they work. Thanks for the instructable!