How to make an earthbox

Earthbox Gardening: Information On Planting In An Earthbox

Love to putz in the garden but you live in a condo, apartment or townhouse? Ever wish you could grow your own peppers or tomatoes but space is at a premium on your tiny deck or lanai? A solution just might be earthbox gardening. If you have never heard of planting in an earthbox, you are probably wondering what on earth is an earthbox?

What is an Earthbox?

Simply put, earthbox planters are self-watering containers that have a water reservoir built in that is capable of irrigating the plants for several days. Earthbox was developed by a farmer by the name of Blake Whisenant. The commercially available earthbox is made of recycled plastic, 2 ½ feet x 15 inches long and one foot high, and will accommodate 2 tomatoes, 8 peppers, 4 cukes or 8 strawberries – to put it all in perspective.

Sometimes the containers also contain a band of fertilizer, which continuously feeds the plants during their growing season. The combination of food and water available on a continuous basis results in high production and ease of growth for both veggie and flower cultivation, especially in areas of space restriction such as a deck or patio.

This ingenious system is great for the first time gardener, the gardener who may be occasionally forgetful about watering to downright neglectful, and as a starter garden for kids.

How to Make an Earthbox

Earthbox gardening can be achieved in two ways: you may purchase an earthbox either through the internet or a gardening center, or you can make your own earthbox planter.

Creating your own

earthbox is a relatively simple process and begins with selecting a container. Containers can be plastic storage tubs, 5-gallon buckets, small planters or pots, laundry pails, Tupperware, cat litter pails…the list goes on. Use your imagination and recycle what is around the house.

Besides a container, you will also need an aeration screen, some type of support for the screen, such as PVC pipe, a fill tube and a mulch cover.

The container is divided into two sections separated by a screen: the soil chamber and water reservoir. Drill a hole through the container just below the screen to allow excess water to drain and avoid flooding the container. The purpose of the screen is to hold the soil above the water so oxygen is available to the roots. The screen can be made from another tub cut in half, plexiglass, a plastic cutting board, vinyl window screens, again the list goes on. Try to repurpose something lying around the house. After all, this is called an “earth” box.

The screen is drilled through with holes to allow moisture to wick up to the roots. You will also need some type of support for the screen and, again, use your imagination and repurpose household items such as kid’s sand pails, plastic paint tubs, baby wipe containers, etc. The taller the supports, the larger the water reservoir and the longer you can go between watering. Attach the supports to the screen using nylon wire ties.

Additionally, a tube (usually a PVC pipe) wrapped with landscape fabric can be used for aeration instead of the screen. The fabric will keep the potting media from clogging the pipe. Simply wrap it around the pipe and hot glue it on. A screen is still put in place, but its purpose is to keep the soil in place and allow for wicking of moisture by the plants roots.

You will need a fill tube made of 1-inch PVC pipe cut to accommodate the size of container you choose. The bottom of the tube should be cut at an angle.

You will also need a mulch cover, which aids in moisture retention and protects the fertilizer band from getting sodden – which will add too much food to the soil and burn the roots. A mulch cover can be made from heavy plastic bags cut to fit.

How to Plant your Earthbox

Complete instructions for planting and construction, including blue prints, can be found on the internet, but here is the gist:

  • Place the container where it is going to stay in a sunny area of 6-8 hours of sun.
  • Fill the wicking chamber with moistened potting soil and then fill directly into the container.
  • Fill the water reservoir through the fill tube until water comes out of the overflow hole.
  • Continue add soil on top of the screen until half full and pat the moistened mix down.
  • Pour 2 cups of fertilizer in a 2-inch strip atop the potting mix, but don’t stir in.
  • Cut a 3-inch X into the mulch cover where you want to plant the veggies and place atop the soil and secure with a bungee cord.
  • Plant your seeds or plants just as you would in the garden and water, just this once.

© Lechuza

Here are five options for self-watering planters ranging from the upscale to their homemade counterparts you can make yourself. Whether you call them sub-irrigation planters or self-watering planters-the way they function is the same. Water is held in a reservoir and capillary action delivers water into the growing medium keeping your planters consistently moist.

1. Self-Watering Planters by Lechuza

If the reason you haven’t jumped on the self-watering planter craze is because the containers aren’t very attractive the containers by Lechuza just might make you a fan. Yes, the planters aren’t inexpensive, but their aesthetic approach to self-watering containers makes them worth the investment if looks matter to you. The planters are stylish, modern, and come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes.

2. EarthBox

© Deanna P. Denk

The EarthBox is arguably the most popular self-watering planter brand on the market. These containers have been around since 1994 and were developed by commercial farmers. I’ve seen EartBoxes used at school gardens, on rooftop farms, balcony gardens, and at the Smart Home at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Take a look at Deanna’s EarthBox photo journal for an idea of what season of gardening in an EarthBox looks like.

3. GrowBox

© A Garden Patch

The GrowBox by The Garden Patch is very similar to the EarthBox. The biggest difference between the two is that the GrowBox’s water reservoir is filled through an opening in the front of the container. I’ve used a GrowBox in my container garden for the past couple of years and recommend.

4. DIY Self-Watering Bucket

This video shows you how you can make your own self-watering container out of two buckets and a piece of PVC pipe. The larger buckets are ideal for larger crops like tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, peppers and even melons. Smaller buckets would fine for herbs and shallow-rooted vegetables. Make sure you’re using food safe plastic buckets. You can source food safe buckets from neighborhood restaurants and restaurant supply stores.

5. DIY Self-Watering Planter

This DIY self-watering planter style most closely resembles the EarthBox and GrowBox listed above. The planter is made out of two plastic totes and a section of PVC pipe. It’s size and resemblance to a raised bed make it a lot more versatile in terms of what you can grow in it compared to the self-watering bucket planter. One of my favorite uses for this version of the planter is growing corn.

Why Use Self-Watering Planters?

The biggest advantage of container gardening with self-watering planters is the conservation of water. I find I use less water because I’m irrigating just enough to keep the reservoir’s water level consistent. With a traditional container a lot of water is lost through the drainage hole before the soil has been saturated.

The use of capillary action to moisten the soil also cuts back on diseases because you’re adding water directly into the reservoir and not splashing it on the leaves or soil and creating a hospitable environment for powdery mildew.

Provided you keep the reservoir consistently filled, crops like tomatoes may not split and crack nearly as often compared to being planted in a traditional container. Cracked and split tomatoes are just aesthetically unpleasant, but there’s nothing more annoying than when it happens and you can trace it back to the one day during the growing season when you didn’t water enough or watered too much.

Eliminating the guesswork of when to water makes food production easier for new and young vegetable gardeners. Whether they’re homemade or commercial self-watering containers, they’re easily deployed to create food systems and container gardens in areas in need.

Do you use a self-watering planter? What’s your favorite plant to grow in it?

Want more garden goodness? Follow the MrBrownThumb urban gardening blog, also on G+, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter

A great way to grow anything in especially in smaller spaces is to use an earth box . This diy homemade self watering earthbox is not only easy to make, it also makes gardening super easy. It waters itself using the water stored in the second compartment that is located below the soil level which is the upper compartment. I have never used one but, I am going to give it a try.

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Here’s What You’ll Need:

  • 18 gallon tote
  • 14 gallon tote
  • soil
  • 1″ PVC pipe
  • Chinese soup container
  • wire mesh or screen
  • hand drill
  • box cutter or cutting tool
  • black trash bags (optional)

You probably want to build just one of these, but if you are ambitious you can go ahead and build the 3 box version as seen in the video below.

Step By Step Instructions

1. Drill small holes in the bottom of the 14 gallon tote for drainage, and then cut a wider hole in one of the corners, in which you will stick the PVC feeder pipe.

2. Cut a hole the same size in diameter as the Chinese soup container, in the center of the 14 gallon tote.

3. Drill holes in your soup container too, and place it in the 14 gallon center hole.

4. Sit the smaller 14 gallon tote on top of the larger 18 gallon tote. You will also need to drill a small overflow hole on one side of the tote.

5. Cut the bottom end of the PVC pipe at an angle,this will allow the water to flow easier through it.

All that is left for you to do, is fill the larger tote with soil, plant your seeds and water via the PVC feeder pipe. These earthboxes have been used to grow everything from 20 lbs of tomatoes, peas, potatoes, zucchinis and more.

It is recommended that you cover the top with a black plastic trash bag to slow down the evaporation rate. Make a few slashes on the top of the trash bag, to allow the plants to grow through.

Watch the video below on how to build your own earth box…

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Container gardening is a great way to grow your own veggies, even in a limited space. We’ve looked at making an upside down tomato planter. Now let’s make use of that patio or back porch’s floor space with a home made Earth Box! Not only does this contraption let you grow a bunch of veggies and herbs in a small space, it’s self-watering! Once you start to get sprouts, you just have to add a bit of water from time to time to replenish the reservoir if you don’t get any rain!
Over at Craftster, user AeonGoddess has a great tutorial with photos on how to build your very own Earth Box! She’s got hers out on the balcony of her New York apartment, and now she’s rich with home-grown beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and even okra!

Notice that she’s also got potted marigolds to keep pests like bean beetles and tomato horn worms at bay. If you want to learn more about companion planting, check out this post over at Ecolocalizer.

The Craftster tutorial doesn’t mention making a cover for your box, a cover is a great way to keep pests at bay once your plants are past the sprout stage. To make a cover, you can cut holes in the plastic tub’s lid for your plants to come through or use bungee cord to secure a plastic tarp (or spent shower curtain liner?) with holes cut in it.

Do you guys do any container gardening? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

Image Credits:
Earth Box Tomatoes. Creative Commons photo by Sugar Pond
Marigold. Creative Commons photo by kmohman

Instruction Manuals

Looking for an instruction manual so you can start growing your favorite plants or assemble your EarthBox accessory? You’ve come to the right place! See below to find the proper instructions to assemble your EarthBox Gardening Systems & Accessories and get growing!

Important Information about Planting in an EarthBox®

To prepare for the assembly of your EarthBox Gardening System, determine what type and how many plants you plan on growing. In addition to your EarthBox contents and plants, you will need about four gallons of water, a pair of scissors and peat-based potting mix. Next, choose a location for your EarthBox. Select a sunny spot with a minimum of eight hours of daily sun for warm season crops such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Select partial shade for cool season crops such as lettuce or spinach. We recommend setting up your EarthBox close to where it will stay for the season.

Using the Plant & Fertilizer Placement Chart in your instruction manual, pay attention to the recommended plant types and maximum number of plants for your specific EarthBox Garden. We recommend planting seedlings that are at least 5-7” high. If you would like to plant seeds directly into the EarthBox, you can easily grow plant varieties like cucumbers, squash, corn and beans. Remember to not overcrowd your EarthBox® Container Garden. For best results, do not mix different types of plants in the one EarthBox system.

Plant Tomatoes In An Earthbox

Here is the second “Gardening for PhDs” tutorial- how to set up an Earthbox to grow tomatoes. I won’t go into as much detail as I did here, but I will demonstrate the different needs you’ll have for growing tomatoes, in comparison to herbs. And since all my readers are smart, I’m sure you can figure out how to combine techniques to grow peppers, right?

We all know many reasons for growing our own tomatoes, most of which are related to tastiness, and the non-rubbery texture home garden tomatoes have, in comparison to their (dare we call it? ) relatives that one finds in Minnesota supermarkets in February.

An Earthbox is designed to handle two tomato plants, which will grow and prosper. DH and I actually did the experiment of 2 plants in the ground in the yard vs. 2 plants in an Earthbox one summer. Ground: 3 tomatoes, Earthbox: 40+ tomatoes. You now understand why we haven’t bothered with the ground since. If you want to have more tomato plants (more varieties, etc), get more planters, rather than crowd the box (We did this one year, too, and there’s a reason the experts say to do it the way they do. Believe them.).

Think ahead a little about what kind of tomatoes you like, and what kind you think taste best. It is also good to check if the plants are determinate or indeterminate types when you are pairing them in boxes. Determinate plants will stop growing in height after they reach a certain size, while indeterminate plants don’t. This can be important when planning for your staking needs.

I would recommend not having more than one cherry tomato plant unless you have a household of more than two people, unless you have plenty of time for picking, or you just like teeny tomatoes. I think we had six different varieties of plants this year. This summer I finally really understood the appeal of “beefsteak” type tomatoes. I usually just head down to the Farmer’s Market here in town, and start asking questions about varieties from the plant vendors.

Note some of the following pictures show the Earthbox with a staking system, which we use for our tomatoes, though as you’ll see, traditional tomato cages can also be used to good effect.

Initial Planting

Once you have the casters on the box, and you have installed the grate and the watering tube, you’ll add soil to the square holes in two corners, to create the “wick” for the water to reach the soil. Then you’ll fill the reservoir with water through the watering tube, until some water starts coming out the drain hole.

Wicking soil added to corners, after grate and watering tube

Tomatoes need the extra nutrients supplied by lime or dolomite, so if you got the kit, now is the time to mix your dolomite package with the potting soil.

Mix the dolomite with the potting soil

Get your hands right in there and mix it up. Don’t be afraid to get dirty… this is GARDENING!

Again, fill up the box as full as possible, mounding the soil up over the rim, as shown in the profile view below.

Profile View of Soil

Now, add the plant food/fertilizer strip on top of the soil, in the appropriate position for your tomato plants. This time, you want the fertilizer along the opposite long side of the box from where you will be placing your plants. And yes, I do use Organic fertilizer.

Fertilizer Strip for Tomatoes

Then, put on the mulch cover. Now you’re ready to plant. Cut your X shape into the mulch cover in the corners opposite the fertilizer strip and watering tube, dig out a hole for the seedling, and push the seedling through the cover.

Plant Tomato

Here you can see I am planting my tomato seedling. This is a good view of the outriggers for the staking system, which also have places for casters at the bottom. The casters are especially useful in the fall when temperatures dip at night. When there’s danger of frost, we just wheel the tomato plants into the garage overnight.

Water in your seedlings from the top JUST THIS ONCE, and assemble any staking system, or place your tomato cages. Do it now, since it’s hard to do once the tomato plants are bigger.

Tomatoes planted in Earthbox with Staking System

And all you’ll have to do now is keep the water reservoir full for the season, either with a hose, or your trusty bucket and funnel, or, if you are really not into maintenance, the Earthbox people have come up with a perpetual watering system if you have several boxes. Even we haven’t gone this far yet. We still see the fetching and carrying of buckets as a small part of our fitness routine.

In just a matter of weeks, your plants can look like this:

Tomatoes in Cages

And you will be the grinning (urban or suburban) farmer(s), not unlike MIL and FIL, here.

S and J, happy suburban tomato growers

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