How To Make a Self-Watering Container

Posted on March 7, 2011


Self watering containers are a great solution for the yard-less gardener.  Even if you have to park them somewhere hot and dry you won’t come home to wilted tomatoes at the end of the day.  Create a big enough reservoir and you can even get away for the weekend without worrying about your plants!

The easiest way to do this is simply to buy containers.  Just google “self watering planter” and you will find plenty of sources.  If, like me, you are a thrifty do-it-yourselfer, making your own containers can be a fun weekend project.  Plus you don’t have to wait for warm weather to get started on your gardening.  There are many ways to make these containers, googling the phrase “how to make self-watering containers” turns up 75,500 results.  I’ll just tell you how I made mine.

First of all let me just say that I’m assuming you are a responsible adult who will take proper safety precautions when undertaking this project.  It is not my fault if you don’t wear the proper gear, mishandle your tools, and accidentally chop off a finger or blind yourself.  Be careful!  Just don’t try to say I didn’t warn you.

Let’s get started.

You will need two food-grade buckets of the same size, safety glasses, gloves, a cordless drill, a jig saw, a small pot or funnel, and soil to fill the buckets.  I also recommend having files on hand to smooth out rough edges, but if you are good with the saw you might not need it.

1. Get two food-grade buckets that are the same size.  Put one inside the other and make a mark on the outside bucket (A) where the bottom of the inner bucket (B) stops.  Measure from the bottom of the outside bucket to this mark.

2. Get a funnel or small plastic pot with drainage holes that is as tall as the measurement you just took.  (Or cut one to fit if yours is too tall.)

3. Cut a hole in the bottom of your inside bucket just big enough to allow your funnel or small pot to touch the bottom of the outside bucket without falling through.  (Make a pilot hole with the drill before sawing and things will go much easier.)

4. Drill a bunch of smaller drainage holes in the bottom of the inside bucket.

5. Cut a small hole in the outside bucket flush with the bottom of the inside bucket.  This hole should be about an inch square or an inch round.  It just needs to be big enough to accommodate the spout of whatever watering can you will be using to fill the reservoir.  It will also allow excess water to flow out of the bucket in the event of a  heavy rain or overzealous plant sitters.

6. Now place the inside bucket in the outside bucket and the funnel or small pot into the hole in the inside bucket.

7. Now you can fill the bucket with soil, compost, and/or natural fertilizers.  Just make sure the funnel is filled with dirt.  Don’t pack it in tight, but be sure it reaches the bottom.  This soil will conduct water from the reservoir to your plant’s roots.


To use your containers just fill the reservoir in the bottom bucket with water.  If you’re not sure how full it is just use that brilliant measuring device, the human finger.  Reach into the reservoir and check the water level.  If it needs more fill it up.  You can’t overfill it, because excess water will just flow out the hole.  Depending on the weather you can sometimes go days without watering‐ even with thirsty plants like tomatoes.

Use small 1-2 gallon buckets for plants like herbs, peas, and beans.  Larger 5 gallon buckets are perfect for tomatoes or melons. (Tip: Your local deli or fast food chain can be a good source of food grade buckets.   They will often give buckets to anyone who asks politely.  Just make sure you wash the buckets well, especially if they contained something salty, like pickles.)  If you really want to go big you can use Rubbermaid tubs.  Before you know it your porch or balcony will be a veritable jungle of homegrown produce.

Just don’t forget to replenish the soil from year to year.  Because water is being applied from the bottom up, you don’t lose as many nutrients to run off, but the raw materials behind those tasty tomatoes have to come from somewhere.  Just don’t forget to keep track when you try something new- whether you have the biggest tomatoes ever or a sickly mess you’ll want to know why.

Questions?  Comments?  Alternative methods?  I’d love to hear about it.  Even the best system has room for improvement and you might  know a tweak or trick I simply haven’t thought of yet!


(Article modified from one I wrote for the GreenTree Co-op Newsletter.  I did the illustrations too.)