Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Container Gardening Experiment

Last year I believe I mentioned here that it is impossible for me to grow any heat loving, wind sensitive plants in my backyard. Thus I rely solely on my front patio to grow things like tomatoes. While last summer I used standard pots, with great success, to grow my toms, my harvest was pretty small because of the size of the containers - I didn't use anything larger than five gallons - and I got really sick of watering all of those thirsty buggers every day at the right time - water too late at night and you attract pests or water in the middle of the day, the water evaporates and you have a greater chance of burning the plants, which leaves the early morning and that's just out of the question for a sleepyhead like me. So this season I decided to try something a little different: self-watering containers. These puppies are supposed to keep the bottom of the pot consistently moist, encouraging the plant to put down deep roots, which is universally accepted as good growing technique.

Not being one to trust every newfangled fad, I thought I would experiment with a variety of types of self-watering containers: a homemade contraption similar to the EarthBox, a plastic bottle with teeny tiny holes buried in the pot, and an upside down plastic bottle with the bottom cut off and the top buried at the root of the plant so that water can be poured into the open bottom and delivered directly to the roots. At the end of the season I will assess which containers held water best and how well each plant grew and produced in it's environment. The latter will be more of a subjective analysis as there are too many variables that can affect production and growth.

With so much buzz these days about container gardening, I had been pretty excited to test out the EarthBox style. I basically used these designs that create a reservoir at the bottom of the container and use a wick system to pull the water up to the roots. This was by far the most labor intensive in terms of construction, requiring far too much sawing and drilling of PVC and plastics for my liking. I've heard that these guys will only last a couple of seasons, which better not be the case since it took me at least an hour to put together each one. Fortunately, I had a bunch of PVC pipe laying around so the containers weren't as costly to build as they could have been.

Another criticism of the homemade EarthBox type of container is that since they are recommended to be made with  Rubbermaid's Roughneck storage containers, they are rather unattractive, exuding more meth lab aura than Better Homes and Gardens magazine cover luster. Some folks like that look. I, however, am not a big fan, having grown up in the Midwest where there are as many meth labs are there are farms.

While aesthetics are an important consideration for me - these containers do sit in the entrance way to my home -, cost is also a concern. I wanted at least 13 pots and with the EarthBox's $30 price tag, they may look nice but my tomatoes this season would have cost me a pretty penny had I chosen that route. So I went with elbow grease and creative substituting of materials and came up with these:

I love the look, but quickly understood why the Roughnecks were recommended as the bottom of the purple container cracked under the weight of the soil rendering the water reservoir useless. The blue and green containers are holding up well, though.

I'm testing a few different types of reservoirs to see if any work better than others. With the help of my mini farmhand,

I put together three 5 gallon and four 20 gallon containers with this method. Here are a couple of the inserts that create the water reservoirs

I should have used a couple more of the four inch PVC pipe supports on these and will most definitely add them next year since one container has already imploded, leaving me with half a reservoir.

The other two types of self-watering containers are pretty self explanatory so I'll just show you pictures.

I also expanded beyond tomatoes this year with peppers, cucumbers, melons, and companion plantings of herbs and flowers. And I used straight compost rather than the pricey bags of potting soil that I went with last year. I'll report back at the end of the season with the results. If you have any questions about the construction process, drop me a line.


  1. Love your site and what you are doing. On July 14th am beginning a new meme `We Can Wednesday' at my site A Green Earth and would welcome one of your posts.

  2. I would be happy to contribute! Thanks for reading :)

  3. We recently moved and I no longer have the room I used to for gardening (sad face). I read several books on gardening in small spaces. I decided to try out container gardening with hydroponics as well. I recycled tubs from our move and set them up as you did. So far I have mixed results but its early...right. I am looking forward to seeing how you do with yours. Good luck and here's wishing you a bountiful harvest!

  4. @ a view from a brown dog - How is the weather where you have your containers? That is a HUGE factor for us. What kind of soil did you use? I went with straight compost. Had good luck with bagged organic soil too. not so great of luck with a planting mix with half compost and half dirt. hope your plants grow! and don't worry, everything is off to a slow start this year given all the crazy weather we have been having.

  5. Maybe the cracked tub could be salvaged by adding some sort of liner in it next year? Love the colors of the bins!

  6. i live in the inner sunset, where the fog covers us like a blanket thru out all the good hot weather months. so, we made a cold frame from salvaged windows from the sf salvage yard (cool nonprofit place). the owner of green jeans said that enough sun light makes its way thru the fog for plants to grow, they just need to be kept warm. and wouldn't you know it...he was right! we got cukes and strawberries and mellons for the first time ever in our cold foggy back yard. i recomend you give it a try!

  7. what a great idea! we are doing something like that, but instead of a cold frame we will have an entire glass shack! pictures to come :)

  8. I have to make some SWCs next year.

  9. Is there indeed a follow up to this?

  10. can we go for container gardening in full shade? we've got shady balcony - negative point is - we can clearly see the sunlight all day long but it doesn't come a single hour in our balcony - can we go for vegetable and fruit container garden?