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DIY Self Watering Planter

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Self-watering pots and containers have grown in popularity recently for good reason. No matter a person’s busy schedule, these planters keep your plants watered and happy for days (or weeks) at a time. Wondering how you can make a DIY Self-Watering container at home? It’s not difficult at all, and your plants have a better chance at success from not being over watered!

self-watering planter on porch
DIY Self-Watering Planter

I love DIY self-watering planters for their easy of use and functionality. As the name implies, these types of containers make watering a cinch by using capillary action, as the roots absorb the water they need for the rest of the plant. I love them particularly in the summertime for my tomato plants and in the fall and winter for salad gardens on my porch and patio.

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The Perfect Container Garden

A container that waters itself is a help to any gardener who is pushed for time. And though several DIY methods of self-watering have been popular over the years, such as using an empty wine bottle as a watering tool, the self-watering container remains the most consistent long-term solution to watering containers.

One of my favorite store bought self-watering planters is the Earthbox. Using an Earthbox is how I first started container gardening. Containers are notorious for either drying out quickly due to quick drainage, or causing root rot from improper draining and watering pooling up at the bottom of the planter. Simply put, if you’re not diligent about monitoring your container’s water, your plants can suffer.

Self watering planters solve both of these issues. Gardeners don’t have to worry about over watering plants or heading out of town for a few days. A DIY self-watering planter takes the guesswork out of over watering, and it also cuts down on how often you need to water plants.

How Self-Watering Planters Work

Curious as to how a self-watering system works? Whether you’re planning to purchase a self-watering container or put together one of your own, the components are the same. They can be make in almost any type of container, from 5-gallon buckets to galvanized troughs. Here are the basic components. (See the diagram below for a visual guide.)

  1. Water Reservoir– Unlike a traditional flower pot or planter, a self-watering planter’s soil does not touch the bottom of the pot. Instead there is a barrier that keeps the soil raised above the bottom water reservoir chamber by at least several inches. This reservoir of water is there when the plants need it.
  2. Wicking Container– This wicking container is what will absorb the water and allow the plants to get water themselves.
  3. Water Tube- This tube is put in place before the soil and allows the gardener to fill the water reservoir when it gets low.
  4. Potting soil– A good quality potting soil will go a long way to a productive container garden! A trench of fertilizer is also a great idea in a self-watering planter. You can see how I put in a layer of fertilizer in my Container Salad Garden.
  5. Landscape Fabric– If your soil and water separator is not a solid piece (mine had lots of holes in it) then landscape fabric can be added to keep your soil from falling directly into the water reservoir.
  6. Optional Support– If the material you’re using to separate your soil and water reservoir is not quite sturdy enough, you can support this piece with small plastic containers (think 1/2 cup size or simply cut a plastic cup to 2-inch rings).
  7. Optional Cover– A black plastic bag or other dark fabric covering can be placed over the top of the container to help keep weeds from growing, keep moisture in the soil, and to absorb heat from the sun. This is optional, as mulch can also be used on the soil surface.
self-watering planter
self-watering planter diagram

Building a Self-Watering Planter

What exactly do you need to build your own self-watering planter at home? Here are the needed supplies for creating one of your own.

  • Container– The sky is the limit. I loved the galvanized container I found at my local hardware store. You can find similar ones on Amazon. Any type of container will do from plastic pots to concrete planters (if you have a good drill).
  • Small plastic flower pot or container– this will be the wicking container
  • Plastic plant flat or any larger piece of plastic that can be used as a barrier between soil and water reservoir. (Your local nursery or hardware store has these and would probably be happy to give you one.)
  • 1-inch PVC pipe, cut to height of container
  • Potting soil (purchased or make your own)
  • Plastic cups or containers for extra support (optional)
  • Plants or seeds: determine what will grow in the self-watering planter. See my list at the bottom of this post for recommendations on what grows well in a planter like this and what to avoid planting.

Here’s a quick video breakdown before the detailed instructions:

Building Your Bottom Watering Planter

  1. Begin with a container you love. My dad built his self-watering planters using rubbermaid tubs following directions he found online. They work really well for him, but I wanted a more decorative planter that I could use on the front porch. So feel free to get a large container that may not really be for plants.
  2. Grab a plastic lid or plant flat for your separator between water reservoir and soil. I used a flat that plants come on. I cut the corners using a utility knife, since my container was not a rectangle and placed it in upside down. The existing edges could be used to support the weight of the soil. (If you use a solid piece of plastic for this barrier, be sure to put holes in it.)
  3. Next, cut a hole in the middle of your plastic for the wicking container (small flower pot) to go into. And also cut a hole or space in the corner of the flat pieces of plastic for your watering tube.                   
DIY Self-watering planter
bottom of planter with plastic tray inserted
  1. Grab your small plastic pot and punch or drill small holes in it all around. You want water to be able to come into this pot from the reservoir but not have clumps of soil fall out. Place the pot in the hole you created in the middle of your plant flat.
  2. Now add the watering tube. Be sure it does not sit flush on the bottom. Water needs to be able to get into the reservoir. (My container had ridges at the bottom, so the tube was slightly elevated, but you could set your tube at a slight angle, or cut the bottom of your tube at an angle.)
  3. NOT PICTURED: Before we go further, you’ll need to grab a drill and make several holes in the side of your container. Use a sharpie to mark on the outside of the container slightly below where your plastic soil separator is sitting.
  4. Drill a few holes side by side in this area. These holes will allow you to know when your water level is high enough. When excess water comes out of these holes, you’ll know the reservoir is full.
DIY self-watering planter
self-watering planter with wicking container and watering tube inserted
  1. If your reservoir separator needs extra support for the weight of the soil, use small plastic containers (think sour cream containers) that are cut to 2 inches high and place them under your separator so there’s no risk of it caving in. Then lay landscape fabric over your separator and cut the fabric so the wicking container isn’t covered.
DIY self-watering planter
landscape fabric covering the plastic partition and cut to lay inside the wicking container
  1. Fill your wicking container with MOIST potting soil. You want to pack that potting soil into the container before you fill the entire thing. 
DIY self-watering planter
moist potting soil going into the wicking container
  1. Now you are ready to fill your container with potting soil, add in a fertilizer trench for feeding the plants, and move your planter to its final location before filling with water!
  2. Optional: Many store bought self-watering planters include some kind of covering over the soil surface that the plants stick out of. This could be a black trash bag or other dark colored fabric. I simply mulch around my plants to keep the moisture in. 

Here’s my planter three weeks after making it and planting some salad greens. And if you’ve seen my Container Salad Garden post, then you know that these salad greens looked pitiful when I planted them. Yay for self-watering planters! Don’t mind the stick… it’s holding up my faux cabbage moth to help keep them away! (See my full post on how to prevent cabbage worms naturally to get the details.)

container salad garden
self-watering planter full of fall greens

Perfect Plants for Self-Watering Planters

While almost any kind of plant grows well in a self-watering planter, I love to use them as an extension of my vegetable garden. The reservoir beneath guarantees the plants get enough water. Here are a few different plants I like to grow in self-watering planters:

  • Tomatoes: these summer favorites can be finiky and prone to disease. But inconsistent watering can also cause those cracks that develop on tomatoes, so they are perfect for growing in a self-watering planter where the amount of water is better controlled.
  • Lettuce/Salad Greens: Since most planters are perfect for a porch or patio, I like using them for salad greens and lettuces that can be cut just before dinner. These types of plants will grow for a long time if the greens are harvested properly, giving gardeners the chance to harvest again and again.
  • Ginger: This past summer I grew ginger in my galvanized self-watering planter and it flourished. If you’re a fan of fresh ginger, this is a great way to give it a try in a container that is easy to harvest from at the end of the summer.
  • Herb Garden: Create a small herb garden for any season. For spring or summer try dill, cilantro, and basil. For fall/winter consider parsley, sage, and thyme. Use any combination of herbs that your family enjoys and watch them thrive in this container.
  • Beets: Beets can sometimes be tough to grow, but with the water reservoir for consistent watering and a trough of fertilizer for feeding these bulbous roots, success is almost guaranteed!
  • Flowers: Many types of annual flowers grow well in these containers. Consider beautiful zinnias, marigolds, or nasturtiums (See my guides on how to grow zinnias, how to grow marigolds).

Plants to avoid in self-watering planters

While many vegetables grow well in self-watering containers, there are a few that wouldn’t be as good of a choice. A few veggies to be avoided would be:

  • Potatoes: Since potatoes are a tuber produced below the soil surface, they require a lot of space and depth to produce. Most self-watering container’s growing chamber wouldn’t be able to hold a large potato crop. The exception would be if a container like a large rubber tub is used and there is at least a foot or two of soil in place. Only with a deep layer of soil would I suggest planting potatoes, any variety.
  • Perennial Herbs: Perennial herbs such as rosemary should be avoided, unless you want the plant to remain for years and years. Rosemary essentially grows into a shrub and will eventually outgrow the planter. I would opt for a more traditional planter for a perennial herb like this.
  • Asparagus: Much like rosemary, asparagus is perennial and requires years of growth before producing spears. Asparagus would best be grown in ground if possible and if not, a large raised bed where multiple asparagus plants can be grown and harvested year after year.

I’d love to know if you try making a self-watering planter of your own! Comment below and let me know what type of container you used and what you ended up growing in it. I love to hear from other gardeners like you!

Yield: 1 planter

DIY Self Watering Planter

self watering planter on porch

Making a DIY self-watering planter isn't nearly as difficult as it seems! Follow these simple steps to create a bottom watering planter in just a few hours at home.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Active Time 45 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Difficulty Easy

Materials

  • Container
  • Small plastic flower pot or container
  • Plastic plant flat or any larger piece of plastic that can be used as a barrier between soil and water reservoir.
  • 1-inch PVC pipe, cut to height of container
  • Potting soil (purchased or make your own)
  • Plastic cups or containers for extra support (optional)
  • Plants or seeds

Tools

  • Utility knife
  • Garden spade

Instructions

    1. Begin with a container you love. My dad built his self-watering planters using rubbermaid tubs following directions he found online. They work really well for him, but I wanted a more decorative planter that I could use on the front porch. So feel free to get a large container that may not really be for plants.
    2. Grab a plastic lid or plant flat for your separator between water reservoir and soil. I used a flat that plants come on. I cut the corners using a utility knife, since my container was not a rectangle and placed it in upside down. The existing edges could be used to support the weight of the soil. (If you use a solid piece of plastic for this barrier, be sure to put holes in it.)
    3. Next, cut a hole in the middle of your plastic for the wicking container (small flower pot) to go into. And also cut a hole or space in the corner of the flat pieces of plastic for your watering tube.
    4. Grab your small plastic pot and punch or drill small holes in it all around. You want water to be able to come into this pot from the reservoir but not have clumps of soil fall out. Place the pot in the hole you created in the middle of your plant flat.
    5. Now add the watering tube. Be sure it does not sit flush on the bottom. Water needs to be able to get into the reservoir. (My container had ridges at the bottom, so the tube was slightly elevated, but you could set your tube at a slight angle, or cut the bottom of your tube at an angle.)
    6. Before we go further, you'll need to grab a drill and make several holes in the side of your container. Use a sharpie to mark on the outside of the container slightly below where your plastic soil separator is sitting.
    7. Drill a few holes side by side in this area. These holes will allow you to know when your water level is high enough. When excess water comes out of these holes, you'll know the reservoir is full.
    8. If your reservoir separator needs extra support for the weight of the soil, use small plastic containers (think sour cream containers) that are cut to 2 inches high and place them under your separator so there's no risk of it caving in. Then lay landscape fabric over your separator and cut the fabric so the wicking container isn't covered.
    9. Fill your wicking container with MOIST potting soil. You want to pack that potting soil into the container before you fill the entire thing. 
    10. Now you are ready to fill your container with potting soil, add in a fertilizer trench for feeding the plants, and move your planter to its final location before filling with water!
    11. Optional: Many store bought self-watering planters include some kind of covering over the soil surface that the plants stick out of. This could be a black trash bag or other dark colored fabric. I simply mulch around my plants to keep the moisture in. 

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Ann

Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

Hi I’m so intrigued and just inherited a large round galvanized tub! If I leave the container outdoors would the water freeze ? Is it too early for me to try this? Should I wait til early spring? I live in 7b NC. Thank you

Courtney

Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

Great question! I am also in NC in zone 8b, and I do leave mine outdoors year round. Since it's on my porch, I don't have an issue with it freezing up, and unless you have freezing temps consistently, then I think you'd be fine to leave it outdoors year round. Hope this helps!

Sus

Tuesday 22nd of September 2020

Does the top of the wicking pot sit level with the potting soil layer or sit above it at all?

Courtney

Thursday 24th of September 2020

Great question! The wicking pot sits just slightly above the bottom of the potting soil layer (1/2 an inch or so).

Terri Adams

Wednesday 18th of September 2019

Hello, I would like to do this, but would like to know how deep of a water reservoir is ideal?

Courtney

Friday 20th of September 2019

Hi Terri! I would say 4 inches is plenty deep for your reservoir. Hope this helps!

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