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Monday, April 18, 2011

How to make a cheap, self-watering bucket planter

I don't know about you, but I've found that pots of any kind are expensive - self-watering pots even more so.  Last year, I grew some of my plants in 12" plastic pots that I purchased at Home Depot.   Unfortunately, a 12" pot isn't anywhere near big enough for the root system of a tomato plant, and what you end up with is a pot that dries out after a few hours in the 95 degree summer sun here in North Carolina.  Self-watering pots help with this quick dry problem, but store bought containers like the Earthbox or the Autopot are $50 or more.

Fear not, cheapskate gardeners, there is a solution - and it might even be better!  Here's what you need to make a self-watering 5 gallon container:

  • (2) 5 gallon buckets
    preferably food grade buckets.  Your local fast food joint will often have pickle buckets that they just throw out.  Ask them to save some for you.  Home Depot sells nice orange buckets for less than $3 each but that's a bit pricey compared to free if you can get them.  Try Chick-Fil-A, they go through a lot of pickles!
  • (2) feet of 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" PVC Pipe
    You can get this from your neighborhood hardware store, Home Depot, plumbing supply, etc.  You need about 2' for each planter.  They sell 2' sections at Home Depot for like $2 but you can get a 10' section for less than $4 if you want to make multiple planters.
  • (1) 5" net cup / mesh cup
    This is a little harder to come by, but the 5" size is just about perfect for this application, and they cost around a dollar.  Home Depot or Lowe's generally won't carry these, but you *might* find them at a garden supply nursery - but more likely you're going to need to find a local hydroponics supply store, or buy online from Amazon or eBay.
Here's how you do it:

Step 1, 2, and 3.
  1. Cut a 5" hole in the center of one bucket.  It's easiest to do this with a 5" hole saw, but at $35 or $40 at the local hardware store, if you don't own one of these you probably don't want to go buy one.  My dad actually rigged up his router to cut my buckets for me, but that's an even more expensive tool if you don't have one!  There are two more options here - use a reciprocating saw, some kind of small bladed hand saw (like the kind used for ripping drywall), or just a good sharp utility knife.  The plastic bottom of the bucket is pretty thick so please don't cut your fingers off trying this last method.  I did one bucket this way and it worked, but it was a little scary.
  2. Drill a 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" hole near the edge of the bottom of the bucket.  Your PVC pipe will fit through this hole.  I would definately recommend using a hole saw for this.  Make sure you use the right size so your PVC pipe fits through it snugly.
  3. Using a small drill bit (3/16" or 1/4") drill a bunch of small drain holes in the bottom of the same bucket.  This will allow excess water to easily drip back into the outer bucket.
  4. Place the bucket with all the holes in it inside the other, as yet unblemished bucket.
  5. Figure out where the bottom of the inside bucket is, and drill two 1/4" holes just below that point on the outer bucket.  These are your overflow drain holes.  When you pour water into the container, you'll know when to stop when water starts to flow out these holes.
  6. Cut a notch in one end of the PVC pipe so that it doesn't sit flush on the bottom of the bucket.
  7. Place the PVC pipe into the hole in the inner bucket.
  8. Place the net pot into the large hole in the inner bucket.
  9. Fill the bucket with moist potting mix - pre-moistening the potting mix is an important step to making sure the self-watering process works properly.
  10. Plant your seed or transplant your seedling and fill the reservoir with water using the PVC pipe.
  11. If you have a lid for one of the buckets, Cut a 1" hole in the center, and thread your plant through the hole - OR cut the lid in half and just put it on underneath the plant.
Here are pictures of the complete process:

Materials Used

Close up of the mesh pot or net cup.

Bottom of the inner bucket.

Bucket Lid with hole in center for plant and hole near side for PVC pipe.

Close up of the notch you need to put in one end of the PVC pipe.

Assembling the planter.

Start to fill the planter, make sure to use pre-moistened potting mix.

Finish filling the planter.

Transplant your plant into the pot (not shown) and put on the lid!


  1. I use a flymesh over the inside base before putting the potting soil in...and a bit of flymesh over the top of the pipe and also a bit stuck on the overflow hole to stop mosquitoes.

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