By Liz Hottenstein
Photography by Paulette Phlipot
Gardening in the Tetons can be fickle and frustrating. A short growing season, with cool nighttime temperatures, and a hot and dry summer can cause a gardener to go nutty trying to keep plants watered and productive. And then there’s rodent control and weeding, weeding, weeding! So, while container gardening can’t change the short season, climate, or weather patterns, it can sure help the modern gardener get a better grip on some of the latter variables.
Self-watering containers are great for aspiring green thumbs with little available space. They don’t drain excess water, so they are perfect for decks, roofs, patios, and balconies. Having a “bottom” to your garden means that rodents can’t eat the plants from below, and weeds can’t infiltrate either. Due to the nature of the self-watering system, plants regulate the amount of water needed, cutting watering time to about once a week.
With elbow grease, time, and, ideally, some volunteers, you can whip up homemade, self-watering containers that won’t break your budget. The off-season time spent making these gems will provide you with ample free time later on—time that could otherwise be spent watering, weeding, and chasing chislers away from your veggies!
- one large storage plastic container with lid (5-gallon buckets, pickle buckets, old trash cans, or recycling bins also work well)
- three to five 5-inch diameter PVC, cut into 5-inch lengths
- one 1-inch diameter PVC cut one inch longer than the height of the container
- zip-ties (you can never have too many)
- cordless drill with a ¼-inch plastic boring bit
- jigsaw or shears that will cut plastic
- permanent markers
- a crafty buddy (or two)
The self-watering container has three major components: the water reservoir located on the bottom third of the container; the aeration screen, which allows oxygen flow to the soil and roots of the plants; and the fill tube used to add water to the reservoir. The 5-inch PVC pieces support the aeration screen and provide a means for the water to be transported to the soil and plants.
1. Take the lid off of the container and place the container, right side up, on top of it. Trace the circumference of the bottom of the container onto the lid.
2. Using a jigsaw or shears, cut the lid so that it will fit snuggly inside the container with 5 inches of space between it and the bottom. A tight fit is best, but don’t worry if you end up with a bit of a gap.
3. Using the jigsaw, cut the 5-inch diameter PVC into 5-inch lengths. This will support the lid. (If you are nice to the staff at your local hardware store, they may cut it for you.)
4. While in power-tool mode, cut the 1-inch PVC to a length that’s about an inch higher than the height of the container. Then, cut a 45-degree bevel on one end. This will be the water fill tube; the bevel will allow water to enter the reservoir.
5. Trace three to five 5-inch PVC circles (depending on the container size) and one 1-inch PVC circle onto the lid, making sure to leave an ample border around the edge. Cut out one to three of the 5-inch circles and the 1-inch circle using the jigsaw. Keep in mind that the uncut circles are for placement of the 5-inch PVC supports, so space them accordingly.
6. Drill holes at random all over the lid. This acts as the aeration screen, so you can’t have too many! Make sure to drill three holes around the uncut 5-inch circles to use for zip-tie attachment.
7. Drill holes at random in three of the 5-inch PVC pieces to allow the water to seep through the soil to the roots of the plants.
8. Drill three holes near the top of the remaining two lengths of 5-inch PVC. These are the supports. The holes in the PVC should coordinate with those drilled around the uncut circles in the lid for zip-tie attachment.
Now that you’ve completed the parts, let’s put it together!
1. Place the 5-inch PVC through the holes in the aeration screen. Thread the zip-ties through the PVC and screen to attach. Repeat the process with the PVC supports. Slide the finished aeration screen into the container, PVC first.
2. On the outside of the container, mark the level of the screen. Place an “x” about one inch below this level on either side of the container. Drill holes through the “x’s” to serve as overflow drains. (I typically place a bare foot underneath the hole and fill up the reservoir until the water hits my foot. Not an exact science, but it works.)
3. Fill the rest of the container with soil, plant your seeds, kick back, and watch your weed- and rodent-free plants thrive!
One note on watering:
Water the seeds from the top until the seedlings have roots. When roots have formed (sprouts can be viewed from above), you can begin filling the water reservoir. Roots need to be present in order for the plant to utilize water from below.