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Self-Watering Container Bargains: DIY Roundup


Last year, I talked about the joys of self-watering planters, the types I use (including one especially for water plants) , and the enormous amounts of water (and plants) you can save with them.

This year, I’m going to broaden my self-watering horizons a little, and introduce more ways to have affordable water-saving containers for different garden purposes. All the photographs here are from my own self-watering containers, to give you some ideas on how you can use them in the garden.

Even those of you who mostly plant in the ground could take advantage of self-waterers.

What about all those seedlings and small plants that need constant watering to make it to the point where you plant them? If you have a timed watering system, great, but if you can’t afford one, or you want something more water-conservative than a sprinkler going off four times a day, you might want to consider these humble self-waterers, made out of old 2-liter plastic bottles.


The simplest big self-waterer are the kinds I’ve described in past posts: put a large pot in a large bowl, or put a short bucket in a longer bucket.

A little more sophisticated, but along these humble lines, is this amusing, fast-paced video on making self-watering containers out of 5-gallon buckets.

A system that  some refinements, not to mention more space to plant, is the tote-box-container method at Josho.com, laid out in text, with good clear instructions and photos.   One writeup I saw on this method extolled self-watering tote boxes for their greatness for tomatoes. They would also work well with other large plants, as well as being good containers for a crowd of plants instead of single specimens.


If you prefer a more stately approach, try this video from Tom Cole, head of department at a horticultural college in London.  (If you’d rather read directions that watch a video, there’s a list of instructions on the same page. ) It’s a more elaborate video on the same topic, with a careful and thought-out approach. You could use the same 5-gallon pails, or you could use the garden container of your choice, as long as it doesn’t have a hole in the bottom.

This page  shows the two-pot method, where you put two pots together to create one self-watering container. In the photos, they show terracotta pots, though, and these pots are heavy water-users, since they diffuse water through their porous walls. They do show one painted, which helps, but if you’re really looking to save water, don’t use terracotta. Unless you’ve got some plant, like a succulent or Mediterranean herb, that really doesn’t want much water – just some.

Mike Lieberman gives a low-key, low-price approach to making self-watering containers: the container-in-container method, the container-with-a-pipe method, and the vinyl tile method, which was new to me.  This is just a guy sitting in his basement, but he really knows his stuff, and shows it to you clearly.

In these videos, the urban organic gardener (as Mike Lieberman styles himself) gives you everything, including his tips on where he gets free materials for containers, how to keep track of your containers, so you know which proportions of tank to plant work best, the principles of self-watering containers – plus really good directions on how to actually make them. He gives written material lists, to make it easy. Even I, challenged in handiness skills, was not intimidated by his anyone-can-make-it-dirty style.

With a little ingenuity, most of these DIY versions can be adapted to use scavenged containers that are a little more appealing than a 5-gallon bucket. Flea markets, garage sales, dumps, trash for removal on the street can all be rich fields for mining container material. The essence of DIY is to open your eyes and use what’s around you. DIY can save more resources than water. We just have to use our imaginations more than our pocketbooks.


{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Genevieve June 10, 2010, 4:09 pm

    Pomona, I love the variety of ideas you share here! How fun! I’ve been missing all the fun of container gardening because I get so sick of trying to keep them watered. Thanks for the reminder that there are other options!

  • The-Java-Gal June 12, 2010, 4:00 pm

    This is my year to experiment with containers with water reservoirs. I originally made one from one 5 gallon bucket and have instructions posted, but right now I am working on a quicker 2 bucket system. So I thoroughly enjoyed all your different ideas.

    Loved your pictures, and I have bookmarked so I can do further reading.

  • lostlandscape (James) June 20, 2010, 10:21 am

    I haven’t gone so far as to construct the double-container self-watering devices, but I’ve gone so far as sticking lengths of leftover pipe deep into some of my containers. It’s not a self-watering pot, but it helps me get water to the entire rootball instead of watering just the top layer, which is what usually happens when I’m in a hurry.

  • Pomona Belvedere June 20, 2010, 2:16 pm

    That seems like a useful item for saving water and plants, James, since I think a lot of the time, in containers, the bottom of the rootball gets neglected. Being lazier, I just set my containers into big bulb bowls and water from the bottom.

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