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Seeds   Planting the Self-Watering Container    Introducing The EarthBox®    A Frost-Free Community Solar Greenhouse 

Make your own Self -Watering Container

out of Totes

by Pat Baumes

Materials for container


2 - 32 gallon Totes    Other sizes will also work.
2 tall Styrofoam cups or 1 empty tall plastic bottle.
1 top section (saw it off) of plastic bottle with threads
3/4 inch non-PVC plastic pipe (larger if you can find it.)
(You may also use PVC pipe but some people say bad chemicals leaches into the soil from it and can be taken up by the plants. Other people use PVC for everything. I have to look into it further - so for now I am using ¾ inch PEX pipe)
Funnel or make one out of top section of plastic bottle.
Coconut fiber
Garden Fabric or Black plastic garbage bag
Elastic cording or string





Drill with ¼ inch bit, 1 inch circle bit and 3 inch circle bit (or size of wicking cup)
(No 3 inch circle bit? Drill small holes for circle and then cut out with utility knife.)
Utility knife
Pencil or something to poke holes into the Styrofoam cup.  A finishing nail punch works great.
Scissors or tin snips
Hack Saw or Saber Saw
Curved Rasp
Permanent marker
Safety Glasses



The Outside Tote

Measure up the center of the length of the outside wall of the Tote for the height of the water level plus 1 inch for air. My Tote was 17 inches high and I marked mine 5 ¾ inches up.
When finished, the inside Tote will be turned upside down and inserted into the outside Tote.



The Inside Tote

Measure down the inside Tote (for a 17inch high Tote, about 10 ¾ inches.)Mark several times around the Tote, Take a yardstick or ruler and draw a line going around the Tote following the dot pattern.. (Because of the slant of the ends of the buckets, the inside Tote will sit a little high and won't rest on the bottom.)
Drill a hole on the line and then cut along line using your saber saw, tin snips or whatever works for you to get it cut. The bottom section is what you will now be working with. (Save the top section and the lid! At a later date I will show you what they can be used for.)
Turn the bottom section upside down. Take your wicking cup and place it in the Tote center open end down, and draw around it with your permanent marker. You are now going to cut the circle out either with a drill bit that size or by drilling holes around the inside of the circle edge and cutting between them with your utility knife. Using the rasp, file the edge smooth until the top of the wicking cup fits through snuggly.
Now drill ¼ inch holes all over the remaining surface of the Tote bottom. These allow air to enter the soil.
Place the upside down Tote into the outside Tote. Because of the angle of the ends they may scrunch up. Note where the problems are, remove the tote and with Tin Snips, scissors or something, cut out sections of the ends. This may be 1 ½ inches or so. It will still scrunch somewhat.
Now with the inside Tote in place, (Press down on it) look at the mark you made on the outside Tote for the drain to make sure that when you drill the 1 inch hole it will line up to go through the inside Tote. Adjust the mark if needed. Take the inside Tote out and drill a hole through the outside Tote. Then put the inside Tote in place and mark through the hole for the inside hole. Either drill through or take it out to drill.

 Wicking Cup

               Styrofoam cup

Put the Styrofoam cup into the center hole and see if it reaches the bottom. If not you will have to make an extension. To do that, take a second cup and cut off the bottom section about an inch below the neck. This small section will set inside your wicking cup to make it taller.
Now take a pencil, stylus, nail punch or something pointed and poke holes all over the outside of the Styrofoam cup.

      or   Plastic Bottle Wicking Cup

If using a plastic bottle, put it through the center hole you have made and mark it where it will extend above the hole.
Take it out and cut top section off the bottle where you have marked it.   The top section can be used as the funnel if you wish..
If using a hard plastic bottle, drill holes all over the sides using a ¼ inch bit. For soft plastic, poke holes all over sides of bottle.
Set cup aside while working on the Water Overflow.

Water Overflow

Take a plastic soda bottle or something similar and saw off the top section with a hack saw, below the top ridge. Take this and reaching through the wicking cup hole, screw it through both Totes to the outside. It should fit snugly. If for some reason it doesn't, you could add a couple of washers and drill a hole through the center of the bottle cap and screw that onto the bottle top from the outside. If you look carefully,  you can see it in the lower right photo or two top photos.


The funnel/tube will fit going down an end of the Tote to the bottom.
Measure plastic pipe/funnel combination so it is about an inch or so taller then the assembled Totes.
Cut bottom edge on an angle so water has a place to flow out when tube rests on the bottom of the Tote.



Insert the wicking cup and tube and everything should now be in place. Take the coconut fiber and stuff it into the ends of the Tote. Both ends will now also act as wicking areas.
Now you are ready to add the damp potting mix, fertilizer and lime, following the instructions I have written for planting the Self-Watering Container.




All photos by Pat Baumes

Happy Planting!



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© 2007-2015 Crestone Solar School - All rights reserved - Disclaimer - Design P.C. Baumes - Updated 13.07.10