Self-watering container gardening

By Jim Swettenham

Ready to be cleaned out and prepared for another season.

There is no excuse for people not to be able to grow a garden.

You may not have a quarter section of land or even a backyard, but you can still grow a garden.

My daughter and son-in-law have six children and live in an urban row-housing complex with a relatively small backyard with not the greatest of soil in which to plant and grow a garden, but they grow the greatest tomatoes and other vegetables in containers. Plus they don’t have to weed their garden nor do they need to water it every day.

They have been doing this for the last three or four years with great success and so last spring I decided that my wife and I would give it a try.

Now we have a nice sized garden plot in our backyard, but the soil is not the greatest and we fight for moisture with a towering ash tree in the back yard. Not only do we fight for water with the ash tree, but we also fight for produce with bush rabbits which are intent on destroying almost everything in sight.

I hate “wascally wabbits” and my battle cry in my best Elmer Fudd imitation is “Kill the wabbits…kill the wabbits…”; but my wife won’t hear of it!!!

So we purchased four large plastic storage bins with lids and set about establishing a different garden…self-watering container gardening.

It takes a bit of work to get started…and so I will try and take you through the process that we followed.

We began by taking the lids of fthe bins and using a sharp utility knife I cut along the inside ridge of the lid to remove the flat center part of the lid because we had to form a “sub-floor” inside the bin. The “sub-floor” being used to separate the water reservoir in the bottom of the bin and the garden soil in the top of the bin.

We had a collection of empty plastic one-litre yogurt containers and empty plastic peanut butter jars that we placed in the bottom of the bins to support the lid “sub-floor”.  The center of the lid was cut out slightly smaller than the diameter of the center yogurt container into which several small holes had been drilled. That container was filled with wet dirt because the principle behind the self-watering container is for the wet dirt to serve as a wick to draw moisture from the bottom of the bin up into the dirt-filled growing chamber.

In one corner of the “sub-floor” lid you cut a smaller hole the diameter of a small ABS plastic tube (a little longer that the full depth of your bin). This section of ABS pipe will serve as the water fill-tube once your container is set up. At one end of your garden bin you should drill a small hole just below the level of your “sub-floor”; this is basically an overflow hole so that you know when your water reservoir is full.

So with your empty yogurt containers in the bottom of the bin, your dirt-filled container in place under the center-cut hole, and your fill tube inserted, you place the plastic “sub-floor” in place inside your bin. Next you can proceed to fill the top portion of your bin with your potting soil or dirt.

Once you have selected a location for your container garden bin, using a garden hose or watering can, you can proceed to fill your water reservoir. The bin is easily moved with the dirt but much heavier once the water reservoir is full. (Editor’s note: If you need to be able to move the container to take advantage of the sun, place it on a piece of plywood with casters attached. This will make moving the container easier than dragging it around. This is ideal for small spaces such as balconies or patios, where full sun is limited.)

You are now ready to plant your “garden”. You begin by digging a bit of a trench in the center of the dirt into which you will place some slow-release plant food (fertilizer) and then re-fill the trench and plant your seeds or transplant your seedlings and water them to ensure they will get a good start. Once your garden has started to grow you can cover the top with a sheet of plastic (an opened garbage bag) and cut slits to allow the young seedlings to grow through. You can secure the plastic in place by snapping the ring of the lid onto the top of your garden bin. The plastic will serve to keep the soil warm and helps prevent evaporation as well as controls the growth of weeds. Add water to the reservoir through the fill tube and watch and wait as your garden grows. You will be amazed at the abundant growth and bountiful harvest you will see and enjoy as the growing season progresses.

We made one mistake during our first season of self-watering container gardening. We placed our bins side-by-side along the fence on a strip of plywood to eliminate weeds and grass growing between the bins which was a good thing; except that created an unforeseen problem…

When it came time to harvest our celery was overgrown with tomato vines on one side and zucchini vines on the other, and our garden was one large mass of entwined foliage. It not only interfered with the growth of our celery but also hid some of our luscious tomatoes and peppers.

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Spare yourself that agony if you are growing more than one container…space the containers apart so that the peppers, tomatoes, etc. get plenty of air and sunshine and room to grow!

Enjoy the experience of your garden greenery and bountiful harvest.

Good Gardening,


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