How to Build a Self-Watering Bucket Container

Materials needed for a self-watering bucket container.

Materials Needed:

  • Two (2) food-safe 5-gallon buckets (if using recycled buckets, make sure they’ve not been previously used to hold caustic and/or toxic substances)
  • One (1) 3-inch atrium drain
  • One (1) 20-inch length of 1/2-inch PVC rated for use with drinking water (if you get a longer length, you’ll also need a hacksaw to cut it down into shorter pieces)
  • A power drill
  • A 1/4-inch drill bit
  • A 3-inch hole saw
  • A 1-inch hole saw
Materials needed for a self-watering bucket container.
3-inch atrium drain

Steps (instructional video below):

  1. Make sure that your buckets do not stick together when you put one inside the other. If you ever need to pull them apart for any reason and they stick together, you could be in trouble, particularly if they are full of soil and plants.
  2. Take the bucket that will be used as the planter and set the other bucket aside; the bucket you’ve set aside will serve as the reservoir for your self-watering container.
  3. Take your planter bucket and turn it upside down.
  4. Using the 3-inch hole saw, cut a hole in the center of the bottom of the planter bucket.
  5. Using the 1-inch hole saw, cut a hole to the side of the bottom of the planter bucket near the edge.
  6. Using the 1/4-inch drill bit, drill a bunch of holes all over the bottom of the bucket but leave enough space between them to maintain the structural integrity of the bottom of the bucket.
  7. Place the planter bucket inside the reservoir bucket.
  8. Take the atrium drain and insert it upside-down (open end up) into the 3-inch hole at the bottom of the planter bucket.
  9. Insert the PVC through the 1-inch hole
  10. Fill the planter bucket with soil

Once your bucket containers are built, mark on the outside of each lower bucket where the bottom of the upper bucket sits, then mark a spot a 1/4 inch below that. Drill a hole at the lower mark. This is called a weep hole. You want a gap of air between the top of the water level in the lower bucket and the bottom of the upper bucket so that proper drainage of the upper bucket can occur. It won’t drain if it’s sitting in the water. The weep hole keeps the water level from raising too high by providing over-flow drainage.

If you have children who may tend to over-water things, if your buckets are too dark to see through to know how much water is in the reservoir without pulling them apart, or if you’re gardening with someone with memory problems who may accidentally water things too often because he/she can’t remember having watered them before, you need a weep hole to prevent over-watering. Even if you don’t over-water, a sudden downpour could still drown your plants without adequate drainage. See the images below (click on them to see a larger image of each).

Weep Hole Weep Hole

How It Works

All the little holes you drilled in the bottom of the upper bucket provide drainage for the soil that the upper bucket holds. If the soil gets saturated, the water will work it’s way down into the reservoir through all those little holes.

The atrium drain in the bottom of the upper bucket fills with soil when you fill the whole upper bucket and dangles down into the reservoir from the upper bucket’s underside, wicking water up into the soil as it is needed by your plants. Click on the image below to see a larger version and the draining and wicking details will become more clear.

Follow our instructions to build your own self-watering bucket container.

The PVC pipe is the tube through which you refill your reservoir when it runs low on water. You will know when your reservoirs are full when water comes out of the weep holes as you are refilling them.

Self-watering bucket container diagram

Here, you can see in the diagram how water moves up from the reservoir through the atrium drain and into the soil during the self-watering process.

Watch the video below for specific how-to guidance.

Simplify the DIY with GroBucket!Make self-watering containers in minutes for about the same cost as a total DIY project & way less work

Our how-to instructions utilize recycled and/or inexpensive materials to make a self-watering container using recycled and/or inexpensive materials is easy and inexpensive. But, when an affordable alternative that saves time and improves on performance comes along, we have to stop and take notice!

We've discovered an affordable, easy alternative: GroBucket! We started talking with the lovely folks at GroTech, makers of GroBucket, on Instagram when they discovered our self-watering container gardening-based food security curriculum and commented on what we were doing. Fast-forward to now and we've found an affordable alternative that cuts the DIY time down to just a few minutes. Really. Just a few minutes and you've got a self-watering container with added user features that make self-watering container gardening even easier than it already is, including a universally designed water level indicator to monitor when it's time to refill the container's reservoir.

The GroBucket kits come in 3-packs for $39.99 and 10-packs for $109.99. That's $13.33 and $10.99 apiece, respectively, depending on the size of the pack you get. Even if you have to pay $5 for a single bucket plus $13.33 for one of three GroBuckets in a 3-pack, that's just over $18 to make in 5 minutes or less what could have otherwise taken another 5 or 10 minutes and made a big mess with plastic cuttings and drilled out bits everywhere that then have to be cleaned up. If you're making a bigger garden than that and purchase the 10-pack, plus you get your buckets for free, you've got the whole system in minutes at $10.99 per container.

If you follow our affiliate links for the GroBucket kits, a portion of all proceeds will be used to fund our continued provision and development of sustainability and food security education to all. #TeachEverywhereGrowAnywhere #FoodSecurityIsFreedom #LearnAndGrowEdSeries




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