Corey’s Self-Watering Tomato Buckets

This is Corey: I don’t have the energy right now to set up my own blog, so I’m just posting this on Ryan’s.  Last Christmas, Ryan bought me a great book called The Urban Homestead.

Book with the veggie pot instructions

One of the many interesting projects designs in the book is for a self-watering container for growing veggies.  If you’ve been to the Microfarm, you know we have a lot of feeding and watering tasks before work, so self-watering tomato pots sounded great to me.

The basic design for the pots is pretty simple – two 5-gallon buckets nested together, the upper (inner) bucket holds the soil and the plant while the lower (outer) bucket holds the water reservoir.  A column of soil is used to wick the water from the reservoir to the soil in the top bucket without the plant’s roots sitting directly in water.

Here’s the procedure:

Get yourself two five-gallon-ish buckets.

You can buy them, of course, for about three bucks, plus two more for a lid, but I wanted to make 10 of these things, which would have added up.  I also wanted to do it with found materials, so I looked around until I found some restaurants that used ingredients (usually pickles) in big buckets.  Pictured above is a six gallon bucket and a five gallon bucket.

The first thing you do is drill a bunch of 1/4 in holes in the bottom of the inner bucket.  Notice I’m using the smaller bucket for the soil (top), which allows more space in the water reservoir (bottom).

This is the fill pipe which runs from the top of the plant through the soil, to the bottom bucket.  Ryan and I bought some 3/4″ PVC for a hoop house a couple years ago which we never got around to building, so I had a few ten-foot lengths of it gathering dust in the garage.  You could certainly junk-pick a piece of this from a construction site.  I cut it 28″ long, and put the little angle on the end so the water can flow out of it easily where it meets the bottom of the lower bucket.

Pictured above are the holes I drilled in the upper bucket and the lid.  a 7/8ths inch paddle bit was just the right size for the fill pipe.  Getting twenty of these buckets took a while.  If you try to do this yourself, look for restaurants that get their pickles in these containers, and talk to the manager about setting them aside for you.  Most sandwich places near where I work (Potbelly, Jacobson’s Deli, Jimmy Johns) got their pickles and sauerkraut in containers like this – not Subway, though.  Microbreweries get their grains in this kind of bucket, too – we got a few buckets from Hamburger Mary’s this way (along with the spent grain, which we fed to our chickens as a special snack).

Above are the deli containers I used for the “soil wick”.  We bought these wholesale at a restaurant supply store in the west loop, right by Ryan’s office. Notice I drilled a bunch of 1/4 inch holes in them.  These were the perfect height for the 5-gal/6-gal setup I used for these.

Scribe a hole on the bottom of the top bucket.  The perforated deli container is going to stick out the bottom of this thing, so you want it to be just smaller than the container you’re using for the soil wick.  I started cutting these with a Dremel tool, but soon realized I could do a fair enough job with a utility knife, and not get plastic snow everywhere.

This is the bottom of the inner bucket with the soil wick container in place.

Drill a small “overflow” hole in the outer bucket (left).  This is what keeps the roots of the plant from sitting in water. The height of the hole depends on the size of the buckets, but when assembled, the bottom of the upper bucket (right) needs to be above the bottom of the hole – this was just right for this setup.

Then cut a  relatively small hole in the lid.  The actual stems of the plant won’t be all that big, and a smaller hole allows less water to get out.  I eventually used a utility knife for cutting these, as well.

So, here’s a picture of the inside of the assembled container.  All it needs now is dirt, a plant, fill it up, and you’re growing!

When filling the upper bucket with soil, be sure the deli container in its bottom gets filled up well.  Sorry, I wish the picture was better.

The bright plastic colors weren’t our thing.  A couple cans of Krylon Fusion gave them a demure brown color.

Tomorrow we’re going to populate them with some of the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers we’ve started under an HPS light in our basement.  When temperatures are consistently over 65, we’ll move them outside, onto the roof of our porch.  Here’s to salsa in August!

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