In this article, podcast episode and YouTube video, I am going to show you How to Build a Simple 5 Gallong Self-Watering Planter.
“How can I have a garden? I am a renter and can’t till up my yard!” As a renter and an apartment manager for several years, I totally understand this problem and dilemma. Some folks cannot dig up their yard due to rental agreements, covenants and restrictive Homeowners Associations.
Even if this is your situation, you can still grow food where ever you live! In our recent discussion about Victory Gardens, we talked quite a bit about Container Gardens. Doniel Freeman talked about Wicking Containers/Self-Watering Planter Systems, and this is what he was talking about in that podcast episode.
Why Self-Watering Planters or Wicking Containers?
I was at a local big box store and heard a young lady tell her mom that she had a black thumb. She killed all of her plants because she forgot to water them!
One of the biggest issues new gardeners have is remembering to water their plants. The fact is: people are busy and have a lot going on in their lives, and when they do remember to water their plants, they dump the water in and watch as the all the water they added ran all over the ground.
That is because planters and pots sold at big box stores have drainage holes in the bottom, not the side. People think this is the normal way that planters work, and they don’t know a different and better way to grow plants.
Wicking Beds, Rain Gutter Grow Systems and Self-Watering Planters take the mystery out of watering. You add water to the container or garden bed, and the plants get as much water as they want.
How Does Wicking Work?
Have you ever put your shirt or a towel near a puddle of water? Maybe just the edge of your shirt or towel touches the water. You leave to go swimming, get in the hot tub or take a shower or bath. When you return, you notice that the puddle is gone and your shirt or towel is completely wet.
This is “wicking,” and your shirt or towel has absorbed the water and soaked it up. Wicking is actually a simple way of saying “capillary action.” Capillary action occurs when the adhesion to the surface of the vessel, or in our case a shirt or towel, is stronger than the cohesive forces between the liquid molecules. That adhesion creates a force that pushes the water upward.
For example, if you put it into any container or test tube and look at it closely, you will notice the meniscus. This is created by the surface tension on the water versus the adhesion of the water molecules to the walls of the container. Because of the capillary action, or force pushing the water upward, the meniscus turns upward in your container.
Gardeners have learned to use this physical property to our advantage. We use a water reservoir at the bottom of our planters and use the surface tension between the water and soil to “wick,” or force, the water upward towards the roots of our plants. Plants get what they need, and depending on how we construct the Wicking Container, Rain Gutter Grow System or Self-Watering Planter, we might be able to control the water level in the garden.
How to Build Your Own Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter
Now that we are through the science, we can get down to business and show you How to Build Your Own Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter.
Tool and Materials Needed
Here are the tools and materials needed to construct these 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planters.
- Measuring Tape
- Sharpie Marker
- PVC Cutter (optional)
- 5 Gallon Bucket – I bought two Walmart food-safe buckets for less than $3 per bucket
- Piece of PVC pipe
- Piece of 4” Drain Tile
- Landscape Fabric
- Peat Moss (optional)
- Perlite or Vermiculite (optional)
Here are the instructions for building these Self-Watering Planters:
- Measure the diameter of the bottom of your 5 gallon bucket.
- Measure the length of drain tile you need for the diameter of the 5 gallon bucket.
- Cut the drain tile to fit across the bottom of the 5 gallon bucket.
- Cut 2 small 3-inch sections of drain tile. I used these to fill in the gaps between the long piece of drain tile and the side of the bucket.
- Cut a 12 inch by 12 inch piece of landscape fabric. I wrapped that fabric around the big piece of drain tile. Plants will send roots to find water, and the landscape fabric will keep the roots out of the drain tile. I am not really worried about the smaller pieces of drain tile and did not wrap them.
- Cut the piece of PVC to size. On one end of the PVC, I cut it at an angle, and that end will go into the bucket. If that end is flat, the water might not drain out of the pipe! My pipes are 16 inches long, and the Walmart bucket handle just clears the pipe.
- Put the wrapped and unwrapped drain tile into the bottom of the bucket.
- Put the PVC fill pipe down into the bucket.
- Drill one drain hole in each bucket. I drilled the drain hole 5 inches from the bottom of the bucket. This will allow excess water to drain out when you fill the bucket or when it rains.
- Add the soil mix into the bucket until it is half full.
- Add any fertilizers or additives into the bucket.
- Fill the rest of the planter full of soil.
- Plant your plants in your new 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter!
Thoughts on Soil for Your Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter
People often get hung up with soil. I have a feeling it is because each method of gardening has its own unique soil mix that MUST be followed. If you dare to deviate from the plan, they will literally make you walk the plank and off the good ship of Garden System X.
How do I know?
Well, the simple answer is that I have been banned from a Facebook garden group or two in my day. My high crime is heresy for not sticking to the prescribed methods and system. What can I say? I like to experiment with different systems and styles.
Suggested Soil Mix
Here is the deal about soil mix:
- Too course of compost won’t wick properly. This means big clods of compressed peat moss or soil that you didn’t break down before dumping into your 5 gallon self-watering planter. Take the time and break the clods up before putting them into your planter.
- Too fine of compost won’t dry out and will always stay wet. This is usually the compost you get from your yard or compost that has a lot of clay in it. You need to make sure you don’t have too many fine particles; fine particles keep that moisture and don’t dry out. When it does finally dry out, it gets hard as a rock and cracks. Michael Bell talked about this problem on his urban farm in Dallas, Texas, on a recently podcast episode titled “Starting a New Urban Farm with Michael Bell,” and you can click on this text to read and listen to that episode.
You want to get a soil mix that is “fluffy.” You can use straight compost from your compost pile or from a bag. The only danger could run into is that your compost might have too many fines in it.
My Own Wicking Beds
For my Wicking Beds and Rain Gutter Grow Systems, I usually have a blend of compost, peat moss and vermiculite. The exact ratios of each don’t matter too much, but you would like something to hang your hat on, here is what you can use:
- Compost – 30%
- Peat Moss – 30%
- Vermiculite – 30%
This is a mix developed and used in Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening Method, and I have used this since my first gardening efforts in 2009. If you would like to learn more about Square Foot Gardening, check out the latest edition of the book that started it all for me.
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Perlite vs. Vermiculite
If you want to add perlite or vermiculite, you can. It is optional, and it helps “fluff” (add air voids) to your soil mix. In simple terms, both are non-toxxic, lightweight additives, and vermiculite keeps soil more wet while perlite helps soil drain.
To cut down on cost, just use a 50/50 blend of compost and peat moss. You will have a lot of soil mix left over, so you should naturally build a few of these!
I will have more information about soil mixes in an upcoming Soil Mix Guide available in the Seed Vault on Small Scale Life (smallscalelife.com). Stay tuned for that!
Coming Soon: FREE PDF Version of the Instructions
I will be including a link to a guide on How to Build a Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter on the Seed Vault on smallscalelife.com. Just click this text (when available), sign up for the e-mail list and get access to the Seed Vault. You will get the Seed Starting Guide and How to Build a Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter for FREE. We do not sell information, and you will receive e-mail newsletters from Small Scale Life.
Click the link to get the PDF instructions for How to Build a Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planter.
Your Turn to Learn, Do and Grow!
Go ahead and give this a shot. If you get creative, you can build Simple 5 Gallon Self-Watering Planters in tubs or bigger containers using this same method. In fact, I essentially used this method to build my Wicking Beds out of 257-gallon watering tanks.
How about you? Read to try these?
The two beautiful planters pictured above were made by my friend Mr. Tactical yesterday! Mr. Tactical was on the show recently talking about gardening and mushrooms, and you can click here to listen to that podcast episode. We talked through this concept and the steps, and he put these together in a half hour. They will be on his deck since he is experiencing some hungry deer pressure in his backyard in his raised beds.
If you have more questions or need a kit of materials including the cut PVC, drain tile or landscape fabric, please contact me using the Contact Page here on Small Scale Gardening. We can work something out!
The key is to get gardening!