New improved homemade self watering container / Earthbox

May 30, 2005

Hello all,

I know I am sorry that I am late with this but I have found a way to make my homemade earthbox cheaper and stronger than before (Six million dollar man theme song here). I have replaced the paint pail with 4" PVC drian pipe (the one with the holes alredy drilles into it. It comes in 10 foot lengths for 5 bucks at the Borg (Home Depot). One pipe makes 18 supports for 4 and a half tubs or 2 tubs with 5 supports see pictures below. Another advantage of using the PVC is that if you have not drilled your overflow hole yet you can change the height of the screen to increase the amout of the water the resovoir will hold by making the PVC pipe supports longer. First remove the paint pails from the screen.


Make sure there are hole at both top and bottom of the PVC to allow air and water to access the area inside the PVC pipe. Also a few holes a different heights will also help with water flow.



These are cut from 10 sections of drain pipe.


Attach the PVC supports to the screen using wire ties just like the paint pails were.


Here I used 5 supports just to see if it would be better. The ceneter support just sits under the screen it it not attached although you can attach it if you want to.



The new screen instaled into the tub waiting for Soil and and plants.



Comments (89)

  • veggie_fun_garden

    Hello All,
    Sorta Off Topic, but with intent to help :its_kristy,
    I have a tool suggestion. There is an extended drill bit
    device, that uses an allen wrench set screw to attach a
    drill bit size of your choice, to make that longer reach.
    I found one, cheap, at a Big Lots Store, here in Va. If
    you have these stores near you check it out or check at
    one of the major big box stores in their Tool Sections.
    Hope this helps.

  • bruce825

    Below is a copy my response to to a post emgardener made on showing photos of his automated watering system for earthboxes on another thread. I think it's a good way to cheaply water a bunch of boxes and wondered if anyone had thoughts on how to improve it.


    Nice post emgardener. I've been looking around for a cheap automatic watering system, yours makes a lot of sense.

    What do you think of this idea -

    Why not put the Hudson valve in the 5 gal bucket and then you could get rid of the reservoir? If you mount it high enough on the side, you should always have enough water to keep the feeder/outlet tube under water (and preserve the siphon effect to the rest of the containers.) Or am I missing something?


    I'm going to try it on the 30 homemade boxes I've got on my garage roof. My pics are here.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Rooftop boxes that need an automatic watering system

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  • vicinsea

    I am way too cheap, errr, FRUGLE to actually buy an EB but I have read a lot about them. One of the things I have read is that "they" get really testy about us common folks using the name EarthBox(R) to discuss anything except their company's product. In light of that I propose that we start calling our homemade versions something else-I call mine Soil-Cells!

    This year I am experimenting with a Soil-Cell design that I can build for $1.50 each.

    So far this is the cheapest & fastest way I have found to make Self-Watering-Containers. And, yes I will be hooking mine up to an automatic watering system this summer.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Up close look at my Soil-Cells

  • tarotmama_gmail_com

    I find that the best way to feed plants is to foliar spray them weekly. I mix weak compost tea, seaweed tea,and any other organic nutrients that I want to give my plant into a spray bottle and spritz the leaves in the early morning before the sun gets hot. This works much better than feeding thru the roots, and causes no problems with the water in the reservoirs getting mucky.

  • seanseansean

    where do you guys get your buckets for these and how do you go about asking for companies to donate these buckets to aspiring gardeners? :-)

  • vic01

    We made some of these containers last year and they are great. Made some modifications, a plastic container you buy coffee in is a good substitute for the paint pails, drill some holes in the sides and fasten it just like the pails or's about 6 inches high. We plan to make more this year, had super results and so much easier than bending over with a bad back.

  • silversofva

    i know some have issues about using pvc,which I find odd. Do they realise that the potable water coming into their homes to drink out of is the same stuff?It gets heated up too when you turn the hot water on,lol. Anyway ,thanks for the tip on the coffee containers , I knew I was saving them for something. With only 3 days of rains in over 8 months here, I can't get my garden watered enough as well as the molecricket problem so my husband and I are making 24 boxes this weekend to start off. Thanks everyone for all the tips and pics. I"LL keep everyone posted and re-read your comments if I forget something, I usually manage to do that,lol. Another alternative I'm going to try are the hard plastic colanders I found at the dollar store.

  • iyengar21

    I'm planning to make a few of these containers this year for tomatoes and eggplant. Does anyone have recommendations on a specific fertilizer? I have some Miracle Gro that's been sitting around for a while and would like to use up and was wondering if I could use that. Thanks!

  • npthaskell

    Silversofva wrote:

    > i know some have issues about using pvc, which I find odd

    PVC is normally rigid. To make PVC flexible, plasticizers are added. Some plasticizers are not toxins or carcinogens in a classic sense, but they mimic steroid hormones and may effect the way your cells read the genetic code (example: feminization of males). I bring up this issue in a thread about using vinyl coated window screen as a material to make pots. I bring up a similar issue, involving using fabric made from recycled PET soda bottles, in another thread about using bags as pots (Wal-Mart has cheap bags, made of recycled PET, that I think could be used as pots).

    PVC pipe is somewhat rigid. Therefore, I assume that these "dangerous" plasticizers are not added to PVC pipe. I agree, the concern seems "odd" given that drinking water comes through PVC pipe in many homes.

    It is just an example of how stories mutate upon retelling. "Some PVC products may be dangerous" mutates to "All PVC products are dangerous".

  • npthaskell

    I now see that there is a thread in this forum specifically about PVC pipe; this thread in turn links to a more detailed thread about PVC pipe in the tomato forum. Link below.

    Upon reading the thread in the tomato forum, I realize that my concern about fabric made from recycled PET was based on reports about polycarbonate bottles. I was confusing PET with polycarbonate. OOPS! Sorry.

    Upon reading the other thread, I now realize that part of the PVC concern isn't just about plasticizers; but about issues related to the manufacture of PVC and the disposal-by-burning of waste PVC (or accidental fire of non-waste PVC). In regards to PVC pipe, these other issues have some merit. In my opinion, these other issues do not have enough merit to reject using PVC pipe as a structural component in home made earthboxes. Most of the other issues (except accidental fire) probably have simple technological fixes and just require enforcement of rules and laws already on the books.

    Here is a link that might be useful: PVC thread in this forum.

  • mikewrt

    about 2 years a go I found plans for making EB type containers, they used 2 rubbermaid totes, a 14 gal inside an 18 gal. I haven't been able to find the plans again on the web. Does anyone have copies of these plans.

  • vic01

    jmalt, we made our own version of these growing containers last year. They worked great but due to expense hubby substituted a red plastic coffee cannister( commonly sold in most groceries now). He drilled plenty of holes in the cannister and used it as the main wick. Works just fine and saves money too as well as recycling the coffee containers.

  • hollan

    I made several boxes by combining some of Joe's ideas. They have 2 wicking chambers, no holes in the screen, and 1-4" aeration tube. I used Miracle Grow Organic potting mix and white plastic on the top so it wouldn't get too hot. I put 2 cups of lime in the tomato box.


    I planted them just over a week ago, and so far most all of the plants are starting to turn yellow. The top of the soil has stayed wet since it rained 6 days ago.


    The pepper in the bucket is from the same tray as the 2 in the back of the self watering container that are now smaller and more yellow . I've read on this board that you don't have to use the plastic cover, so I'm thinking maybe I should take it off, take out the fertilizer strip, and hopefully allow the soil to dry out a little more so the plants won't turn yellow. I'm wondering if I should've used a different soil. Anyone having better luck that could advise me?

  • yaquigrande

    I just built my first box. I followed the instructions found on Here where I live, there is a "second hand" materials store where I bought a 25 foot of extruded aluminium pipe (less that 1/8" thick) for $5.00 dlls. After I cut the pieces I need, I'll be paying less than a dollar per tube. For my first box, I went all out and bought a copper pipe for $5.00 at Lowe's. So far, the birds ate all the cantaloupe plants but one and it is doing ok. I haven't noticed it growing any faster than the cantaloupes growing on regular soil, but it is not growing any less either. I went on vacation for a week and it was great not having to worry about watering. If this works, I'll be building more of them next year.

  • phyllis__mn

    To the poster above with the pictures....if you have no holes in the "screen" your plants are probably too wet.

  • wd8lee

    I am confused about where to put the landscape material. Does it go over the aeration screen? Do I cut a hole in the landscape material so that the soil is able to wick the water up to the roots? I just assumed that it would go over the screen to keep the soil from falling down in to the lower water reservoir. I see that in some of the pictures, the landscape material is covering the tubes for aeration. I would appreciate any help on this.

  • jleiwig

    yes to both your questions. I put window screen over my aeration bench, and cut holes over the wicking chambers.

  • jmalt31

    Hello All,

    The latest version of my documents can be found here:

    Making a Self Watering Container 1.45 MB
    Dual Tub Self Watering Container 498.33 KB
    SWC Comparison Results 4.03 MB
    Decorative Self Watering Containers 2.81 MB


    Here is a link that might be useful: Here is the same link

  • wd8lee

    One more question about the landscape material: Do I need to put this around the 4" PVC supports that is used for wicking? If not, does the soil get in to the water reservoir?

  • jmalt31

    No the supports do not get covered. Yes a little of the potting mix gets into the water reservoir but not enough to worry about it. These things work, I and many here have been using them successfully for 5 years (at least for me) or more. I have not had any problems with them.

  • wd8lee

    Thanks Joe. I appreciate all the information that you have provided. I have 2 containers and I have already cut out the lids. The next step is to cut the pipes. I am looking forward to getting these ready for the planting season. Thanks again.

  • vic01

    Joe, I tried clicking on the link you provided but it says you do not have permission to enter this site. Any suggestions?

  • jmalt31

    I do not know what happened to person who was sponsoring the docs must have folded the website. I have uploaded them to Google docs for now. If you are a member of Google docs please send me an email and I will send an invite to download them. (it is free to join and they did not ask for personal information) The link to Google docs is below. Otherwise send me an email and will have to email them to you. This may take some time if I get a lot of request.


    Here is a link that might be useful: Google docs

  • jmalt31

    These are now back online the link is below.

    Here is a link that might be useful: SWC PDFs

  • kawaiineko_gardener

    Hello, this sounds like a great idea. I have a few questions about it though. First off, what is an earthbox?
    Second, could you use this homemade self-watering container
    for container gardening? If so, how? Would I have to make changes and measurements to your design based upon how big the container I use would be?

    So far, I know the most common size containers I would use for container gardening would be 1 gallon, 5 gallon, and 10 gallons; possibly 15 gallon containers, but that's not likely unless I plant something that needs lots of space, like melons, tomatoes,
    eggplant, or any type of squash.

  • azbookworm

    Anyone from Arizona use these Earthboxes?

    Just wondering since the heat can ruin plants so fast! How often you have to water, etc.

    Share your experience?

  • jmalt31

    The heat can be an issue in your area. We had a guy from Texas if I remember correctly and he had a problem with the tomatoes wilting until he planted another container next to the first one. The second one shaded the side of the first container the the roots we not being roasted. the first container did fine from that point on. I believe that tied a few boards to any side that was in full sun. the plants were about 3 inches from the side of the container. perhaps moving them closer to the center may help as well. I have also head of people mounding dirt around the boxes as well or partially burying them with a chamber for the overflow hole.

  • catlady10

    I read about a simple solution to the PVC pipe problem in Organic Gardening.You simply use a tube of cardboard like one that comes in the plastic wrap or aluminum wrap and shove it into the soil.Then you pour pea gravel down the tube and slowly remove it.I guess you could leave the paper tube in since it is biodegradable.

  • lightfusegetaway

    azbookworm, and others in hot climates,

    I am in southern AZ and just built my first self-watering container the other night.

    While I can't answer you on the basis of experience, I was in Lowes the other day and ran across some stuff that may work really well for insulating. It looks like a roll of foil bubble wrap. It was near the plumbing parts. I didn't catch what it was exactly. I believe it's made for insulating AC ducts, but it looked like it was about the right height for wrapping the Rubbermaid containers. Just sort of popped into my mind after reading your question.

    Hope this is helpful.


  • vmckague

    This is my first year with earthtainers and was also wondering about the rubbermaid totes getting to hot. I'm going to try and use the leftover lids for shading the boxes. Any ideas on how to attach the lids to the sides of boxes leaving a 1 or 2 inch air space between the lids and the side of the tainers? This idea won't probably be pretty but it should work. Shouldn't it???

  • mollywk

    sorry if this has already been addressed, but are there alternatives to using pvc tubing? not because of the pvc concerns mentioned up-thread, but simply because i don't have the tools to cut it! any thoughts on this?

    also, are the fertilizer strip and mulch necessary? i was planning to build a SWC for root vegetables, which would mean that I'd have quite a number of plants per container, and, if I understand all of this correctly, would therefore have to cut a corresponding number of holes in the covering? I'd just as soon leave the top open and use slow-release and/or fertilizer in the water; am I missing something here?


  • jmalt31

    Hello Mollywk,

    If you have a drill then just drill 2 or 3 1/4 holes to the bottom of the tube. It does not need to be cut. Also I have included a link below to see what can be grown in a SWC. Yes you can use fert in the water it has been done before. The reason for the cover is to protect the fert strip from getting wet and releasing too much fert into the soil at once and burning the roots and also, to keep the soil from drying out due to evaporation.


    Here is a link that might be useful: What to grow in a SWC

  • jmalt31


    You can use some scrap wood or branches as spacers and then just tie a string around the tub. It will not look pretty but as you say it should work. A better solution is to use 1 inch foam insulation sheets sold at the home centers they are not that expensive. Foam coolers may also work if you cut them and tie or glue them on.

  • trungson

    I just built a test box and use the Earth-Gro potting soil ($5 per 2 cuft at Home Depot) and leave it outside under the sun and wind. It still stays pretty moist, not wet.

    One problem I have is with cutting the lid, with a knife, it's still quite challenging and time-consuming.

  • jmalt31

    The dual tub design is the easiest type to build. It does have the cost of the extra tub (one 18 gallon tub and a 14gallon tub to fit inside it). See my instruction from the link above and here below. No need to cut the a lid with this design.

    Here is a link that might be useful: link to SWC instructions

  • imstillatwork

    Joe, these have been downloaded over 200 times since I started hosting them. A lot of people are finding them. Mine are working great. I plan on having about 20 18 gallon SWC's next year.

  • jmalt31

    Cool that's great news! I glad people are able to use the information and put it to good use.

  • tn_veggie_gardner

    What are your opinions on a still very cheap (poor man's version) of the Earthbox/SWC for someone who doesn't own a drill? I'm goign to HD later & would like to maybe get the stuff to put one together.

  • imstillatwork

    If you are really cheap for tools, find stuff at yard sales. Just be careful with battery / cordless tools this way, often the batteries are toast, and cost a LOT to replace.

  • jmalt31


  • imstillatwork

    might as well get this to the top for new people to find it :) I'm glad I did when i did.

  • johnny_tomato_seed

    Thanks for bumping.

    I am building the 18 gallon tote SWC. What is the middle smaller pipe for in the very first picture, filling ? I am thinking about putting the filler tube inside one of the corner 4" pvc support.

    Originally, I was going to put the 14 gallon tote inside the 18 gallon tote. This allows about 6 inches of space for aeration and water, which is plenty, even too much if you ask me. It seems 14 gallon is plenty of space for the mix. But I am thinking 4" is plenty for the aeration and water rather than 6". I don't mind filling every other day. It's only 5 containers and eventually probably set up automatic watering.

    Anyways, so there I was at lowes getting ready to buy the rubbermaid 14 gallon tote. Then I see the sale price for 18 gallon at $6 and 14 gallon at $7.47. Sheesh, paying more for less material.

    So I decide I am just going to put one 18 gallon into another. I will use 5 piece of 4" X 4" support to allow more space for water but at the same time give almost 18 gallon of potting mix. There will be small gap the 18 now won't sit snug on top of the other one.

    Comments welcome.

  • wd8lee

    I am posting a follow up to let you know that I made 2 boxes and the plants are doing amazingly well. I don't know how to add pictures to this post but take my word for it, the plants are spectacular. I am growing some Jolokia peppers and from all that I have read, they are suppose to be very hard to raise. Well, you wouldn't know it from the way these are growing. The amount of peppers that it is producing is incredible. For me, there is no other way to garden.

  • jmalt31


  • ilovegardening10

    Not to knock the do it your-selfer but there is a cheaper stronger box available at
    It does the same thing but it will save you alot of time and aggravation.

    Here is a link that might be useful:

  • ggrizzyg_aol_com

    I followed Joe's plan for last two years. I think mounding the soil mix is crucial so the mix does not get too wet during rain. I use landscape fabric in the wicking chamber and it work well. I put two tomatoes in an 18 gal roughneck and also put five peppers in that size. I put one tomato in a five gallon Home D bucket, one inside another. I make the wicking chamber a little higher now so there is more water in the bottom bucket and it also allows for air to surround the soil bucket which now does not sit all the way into the resevoir bucket. I wedge some scrap wood between the two buckets to allow air to surround the soil bucket. This works so well all of my engineering effort is figuring out how to support 12' tall tomato and 6' tall pepper plants.

  • MammaBlogga_xsoldx_com

    There is no need to be concerned about using PVC, or drilling out bamboo, etc. Simply eliminate it altogether! Rather than drilling a 1/4" overflow hole in the reservoir container, drill a 1" hole instead and use it for filling until water runs out. You can even stick your finger in the hole to check for water remaining in your reservoir if you like.

    Here is a link that might be useful: My Blog On Gardening

  • spurs2150

    Thanks to all of you who shared your designs and experience with self watering containers. My husband is building some for me to plant veggies in as I am typing this. We have 2 wheeled ice chests we want to recycle, and since they already have the wheels, we want to make them into self watering containers. Does that sound like it would work ok, or can you think of a reason why we should not. We are also making 4 self watering containers out of 14 gal. totes. Is that too small for 2 indeterminate cherry tomato plants? I was thinking maybe only one tomato should be planted per container. I have already viewed the recommended Earthbox diagrams, but it has one plant being planted in one corner. Wouldn't it be better to plant one plant in the center? I will be using a 5-6-6 organic fertilizer. Sorry for the multiple questions but I am new to this. Thanks in advance for your help and advice.

  • Yme405

    This is my first year with a self watering system and I used PVC for the fill pipe and some PVC lattice we had laying around to support the soil before I realized that that was probably not a good idea. So I am interested in making a switch to bamboo because my systems work and I don't want to mess with the design, just incorporate friendlier materials. Can those who used bamboo as a fill pipe please tell me about your experiences? Forgive me if I did not find a thread on this already. I did try searching but am new to the forums so may have some operator error going on there. My concern is that the bottom of the bamboo will be sitting in water and the majority of the rest of the pipe will be in moist soil. Has anyone had rotting issues? Is there a preferred bamboo type for use in this situation? How much of a lifespan do these bamboo fill pipes have (copper may be more $ up front but less in the long run)?

    Thank you for any help,

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