Tutorial: Homemade Self Watering Planter

I love planters-they are a great way to take a bit of garden and put it anywhere!  What I hate is keeping them watered. . . it is such a pain.  But the soil in planters dries out so quickly that daily watering is usually a necessity if you want to keep your plants alive.

Enter the self watering planter!  I just love being able to fill it up with water and then wait 3 or 4 days before worrying about it again.  I’ve slowly accumulated enough self watering window box style planters to line my front porch-spreading the cost out over several years.

After 2 years of the late tomato blight (which lives in the soil) destroying my crop, I decided it was time to plant some of my tomato plants in planters.  There are some fantastic big self watering planters out there that would fit two tomato plants each nicely. . . but I gagged when I saw the price.  It would be cheaper to just buy gourmet tomatoes at the farmers market!

That’s when I decided-I can do this-I can make my own self watering planter!  And since it was also time for my May DIY Challenge for the Walmart Moms I figured this would be the perfect project.  I hit the internet and looked at the plethora of different plans and ideas out there.   I took what seemed to be the best practices from a bunch of them and came up with my own plants on how to make a self watering planter at home. .. for a fraction of the cost of a store bought one!

Tutorial: Homemade Self Watering Planter


note: there are variations for the building materials-I’ll mention them as I go through the tutorial

Plastic Tote (purchased at Walmart, of course!) 1 inch PVC Pipe 1 inch PVC Elbow Duct Tape Plastic Baskets Zip Ties SharpieTools:Scissors Hack Saw Utility Knife DrillInstructions:

1. Place the PVC pipe into your tote and mark a cutting line with your sharpie.  You will want the pipe to reach all the way down to the bottom of your tote~how high above the rim you want it is up to you.  You will be adding the elbow fitting down at the bottom, so remember that  will add a bit more height.  Heck-you could stick the fitting on now to make measuring easier-I just didn’t think of that when I did it.

note:  The PVC pipe will be the watering tube for the self watering planter.  You have to have some way to get water down into the reservoir!  I thought about using a piece of garden hose, but the opening to that would be hard to pour water into with a watering can.  The PVC pipe is wider, and the fact that it is rigid helps too!  Plus it’s fairly inexpensive-I paid $2 for a 5 foot length.

Be careful and wear eye protection!

2.  Cut the pipe.  Or, if you are lucky like me, get your husband to cut the pipe for you.  Thanks honey!  Make sure the pipe is well braced so it doesn’t wiggle around and use all proper precautions (like holding your hand back from where you are cutting!)  Also make sure to wear eye protection-you don’t want a little flying piece of PVC in your eye!

3. Add your elbow fitting onto the bottom of your pipe.note: You don't want to have the flat end of the pipe sitting directly on the bottom of the tote-the water won't be able to come out and fill the reservoir! I just picked up 2 elbow fittings so I didn't have to worry about it-they were less than a dollar. Another option would be to cut the pipe at an angle on the bottom.Duct tape. It's good for everything!

4.  Secure the pipe into the corner of the tote.  I used duct tape.

note:  I have no idea if there are issues with chemicals leaching out of the duct tape into your soil and therefore your plants.  If that sort of thing concerns you then make sure you read up on it before making your decision.

note:  The lid of the tote becomes the insert that separates the water reservoir from the planting compartment.  I am now going to show you how I actually made the first insert of my two self watering planters-then I’ll give you notes on how I made my life easier-much easier-with the second iteration.  Please-learn from my mistakes!

5. Now it's time to cut your lid down to size for the insert. I decided that getting rid of the hard outer "lip" first sould make everything else easier. So I cut all the way around. This was HARD-the plastic on my totes was thicker than I thought it would be and my hands got a real workout.

6.  Use the bottom of the tote to trace around to get an idea of the size for the finished insert.  The sides of my tote are sloped, not straight, so I knew that the bottom was actually smaller than the insert would need to be.  Make sure you take that into account!

7. Cut out your insert. My tote lid had these thick "strut" like pieces. I cut through a few of them but it was very, very difficult and hurt my hands. I decided that it would be easier to cut around them on the slightly thinner plastic and completely remove them first, then cut around the perimeter. I also needed to cut out a notch in the corner for the watering pipe to fit through.

8.  After it’s cut, check the fit of your insert.

Note:  The insert will be held up by the baskets, which are also the soil “feet” or “wick” for the planter.  Place the baskets into your tote and then slide the insert in to see how it is going to fit.

Note: ACK! A bit too much space there! The soil for the planter is just going to run right through there and fill up the water reservoir, completely negating the whole "self watering thing". Never fear-more duct tape to the rescue.

note:  Since I was making two planters, I realized this would be a good time to trace the first insert  onto the lid of the second tote with my Sharpie.  I gave myself a little bit extra all the way around to fix the gap problem.

11. On the insert, draw and cut out the openings for the planter's basket "feet"/"wicks".Oops!

note:  This is where my poor beloved kitchen shears bit the dust.  Sigh.  Fair thee well dear friends.  Luckily hubs came to the rescue.  Using a drill-with a sheet of wood underneath-I put holes in each corner of my outline:

I also drilled holes at the 12, 3, 6 & 9 o'clock positions. I was able to use a utility knife to cut from corner to corner on my outline-sort of like a kids game of connect the dot. WAY easier than using scissors. The other holes were there so I could use the zip ties to secure the baskets.

12.  Using zip ties (I got mine at the dollar store for a buck) secure the baskets to the insert.

note:  I thought about using some sort of glue or cement, but I wasn’t sure if the adhesives that would stand up to the moisture would be safe for a planter that was growing food crops.  I decided to err on the side of safety and use the zip ties.  Duct tape I was ok with, silicon caulk or E6000 glue worried me.  Hey, everyone has their own tipping point.

note:  The point of the “feet” is to provide a way for the water in the reservoir to get up into the soil. They will be filled with soil and, since they go all the way to the bottom of the reservoir they will remain in contact with the moisture at all times.   It doesn’t do any good to have your water down there if you have a gap of air between the top of the water and the bottom of the soil-they have to be in contact.  I chose these rigid baskets (2 for $1 at my local dollar store) because I wanted something that would have a good chance of holding up all the weight of the soil that would go above it.  You could use several of blocks of wood, some empty and well cleaned tin cans or whatever else you can think of to hold up the insert instead, and then make your wicks out of something with less strength-like a couple of large yogurt containers with holes punched in them.  Be creative!

13. Place the insert into your tote. If you cut it to the correct size (unlike me) it should fit fairly snugly and not need anything to hold it in place.14. Now that you can see exactly where the insert will fall, turn the tote on it's side and drill a hole about a half inch ABOVE the level of the insertnote: This is a drainage hole. Imagine your tote is out on your deck and it begins to rain. Water seeps down through the soil and eventually drains into the reservoir. But what happens if it's a really big rain, or if you just filled the reservoir up that morning? Where does the water go? Well first it will completely waterlog your soil-which is ok for a little bit but eventually is bad for the roots of almost any plant. Eventually if the water has no where to go it will fill up the tote and overflow. Not a good scene. By drilling a drainage hole, if it becomes completely water logged you've given the excess water somewhere to go. Actually, now that I think about it, it may be a good idea to drill a few holes, a couple on each side. An a few holes in the surface of the insert wouldn't have been a bad idea either.

15.  Fill the planter with soil.  Make sure you pack it into the feet well before you fill up the rest of the tote.

Note:  It took 2 large bags of soil to fill up my totes!

16. Plant your plants, add your water and enjoy!

Now, on to the lessons learned!

Drilling holes made cutting the squares for the feet so much easier that I decided to use that technique when I cut the insert for my second planter.  First I drilled a hole on either side of each of those evil plastic “struts”.

Then I connected the dots by cutting with the utility knife. Again-do this on a board or something protective! Finally I was thrilled to discover that cutting straight DOWN through the strut with the utility knife was a lot easier than trying to cut THROUGH them left to right :)

Cutting the second insert only took about a third of the time.  I highly suggest starting with this method :)

Finally I wanted to give you a cost analysis for making these self watering planters.

2 Totes $10
$2.05 1in X 5 ft PVC Pipe Plain
2 PVC Elbows approx $1
4 baskets $2
1container zip ties (with many left over) $1
duct tape, utility knife, hack saw, drill & sharpie $0 (already had on hand)

Total Cost:  $16.05 for TWO large self watering planters.  That’s about half the price of ONE similar size self watering planter.  Honestly, filling the things with soil is going to cost you more than making them!

Hmm. Now, how can I retrofit my herb garden whiskey barrel planters into self watering ones?  Thinking. . . thinking. . .

****This is a sponsored post****
Disclosure: This is a sponsored review I am participating in with the Walmart Moms. Walmart has provided me with compensation for this post. My participation is voluntary and opinions, as always are my own.

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