Thursday, May 8, 2014

DIY Self Watering Container and Mini Greenhouse from 2 Storage Totes: Ultimate Edition

Welcome to Bucolic Bushwick. Here you'll find advice on rooftop vegetable gardening, as well as several plans for DIY self watering planters. Please share this page with others and help spread the vegetable gardening movement.

This planter is the most labor intensive of all my designs, but it's also the most useful. Having a greenhouse/cold frame on top of your planter opens up a lot of growing options.

To make this self watering container you need 2 totes with lids. One tote should be clear. You'll also need several fabric strips to act as water wicks and a tall water bottle to act as a fill tube.

The clear tote will be cut into 2 pieces. The top piece will act as the greenhouse and the bottom piece will form the water reservoir. The opaque tote will be the planter.

In one lid cut a window and tape clear plastic to the top. This will be the top of the greenhouse. Leave the other lid as is.

Mark the sides of the clear tote with where you want to cut it into 2 pieces. The bottom piece will determine the size of your water reservoir so make it as big or as small as you want. Keep in mind the larger you make the water reservoir the heavier it will be when full so don't go overboard with size.

I noticed clear plastic is much more prone to shattering than opaque plastic so keep this mind when cutting into the clear tote. Don't go too fast with the saw or handle the tote too roughly while your cutting it because it will crack if you're not careful.

Mark the bottom of the clear tote with air holes and a larger hole for the fill tube.

Add slits for the fabric strips.

Once the clear tote is cut  you'll have 2 pieces, the water reservoir and the greenhouse/cold frame.

Add the fabric strips and the fill tube.  Make sure the strips are long enough to reach the bottom of the water reservoir. Fabric strips that are 100% natural will eventually rot away so use synthetic material.

You'll notice in the above photo the water reservoir is sitting very high in the planter, not leaving much room for soil.

To get it to sit lower in the planter I cut slits into the short sides of the reservoir. These slits will allow the reservoir to collapse in on itself and fit into a smaller space.

With the slits added the reservoir now sits much lower in the planter. Depending on the shape of your totes you may be able to avoid this step.

Once the reservoir is in its permanent location cut off the top edge of the fill tube so it sits lower than the rim of the planter.

Why bother with this step? So you can cover the planter when it's not in use and block water, weeds, pests, etc. from getting in. 

Drill a drainage hole in the planter. Make sure the hole leaves a comfortable air gap between soil and water. I like to leave a 2 inch air gap that way even if the planter is placed on a slanted surface no area of soil will ever sit in water. Very few plants like their roots in swamp like conditions.

All that's left is to paint the planter. Painting protects the container from the sun. If left unpainted the plastic will quickly become brittle and unreliable. I don't want to apply paint anywhere that touches soil so those areas are covered in all weather duct tape instead. I also taped the outer edge of the rim since that's the area that will be handled the most. Tape will protect it from the sun and improve its durability. If your tote is advertised as rugged or rough you can most likely skip this painting step.

One more look before everything is taken outside to be painted.

An optional feature is taping window screen mesh to the drainage hole and to the top of the fill tube.The mesh will prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the water reservoir.

I used one can of spray paint for one planter, one windowed lid and one standard lid.

The final product. When gardening season is over the greenhouse will be removed and the windowed lid will be replaced with the standard lid to keep out water, weeds, etc.


  1. Thank you for showing this step by step process! That's an awesome SIP! I'll have to try it one day!

  2. Great DIY !! May i ask what is the best synthetic material to use?

    1. Hi, I don't have a preference. As long as the fabric is not prone to rot its fine to use.

  3. I like your updated design, but why do you believe it is better that the previous one made?

    1. The previous design used a soil cup to wick water to the upper chamber. It was effective, but it also lead to very soggy soil in which to grow things. This design allows for water transfer, but avoids the swamp like conditions in the previous design.

  4. Hi, can this be used over winter indoors? i was thinking it can even be used without the top cover indoors.

    1. Hi, yes indoors is no problem. Just make sure you have a strong light source. And something to catch the water under the drain holes, don't want to ruin your floors!


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!