Here’s how we built our own maintenance free, weed-free, self-watering, soil-less garden system for year-round fresh produce. . .
We’ve made a concerted effort to grow more food at home to save money and due to concerns over the lack of nutrients (and quality) due to the rapid increase of GMO (genetically modified organism) produce. Like many families, we have a very limited budget, growing space as well as very little time.
You can add as many buckets to your grow system as you’d like, of course, the addition of each bucket is initially going to cost you about $4-7 depending on where you get your materials.
Oftentimes you can pick up FREE Food grade 5-gallon plastic buckets by simply asking local restaurant managers if they have any that you could have. You’ll want to use food grade buckets to avoid any potential BPA contamination. To be sure the bucket is “food safe” look for the HDPE 2 symbol on the bottom of the bucket.
How to Get Started
Per Grow Bucket, You’ll Need:
5-gallon Plastic Bucket (HDPE 2 Food Grade) ($2.98 at Lowes)
10″ Basic Colander ($1- Dollar Tree, Dollar General, etc)
1/2″ Rubber Grommet ( .50 – Lowes)
Reusable Fabric Shopping Bag ( $1- dollar tree, dollar general, etc)
For the Automatic Watering Part Grow System:
Utility Knife/ Exacto
3/4″ Step Drill Bit
The size of the reservoir bucket that you choose is going to be based on a number of factors such as:
- The number of Plants/Grow Buckets you intend to use
- How often you want to tend to the reservoir to refill it
- the humidity in your area
- the size of the area you have to work with- are you building this indoors, is it on a patio, etc. Keep in mind that a gallon of water weighs 8 lbs- so a 35-gallon reservoir would add 280 pounds of additional weight if this was kept on a deck, balcony or patio
- What you happen to have on hand
When deciding on the number of buckets to add, keep in mind that the plants will need room for adequate air circulation to allow excess humidity to be removed (otherwise, you’ll end up with fungal issues on your plants!), as well as the potential for light blocking.
How Does it Work?
Water is held in a reservoir, which is then connected to a smaller bucket containing a float valve which controls the water flow. The water flows by gravity to each of the grow buckets, filling only to the line which is determined by the placement of the float valve.
In our bucket the float valve allows only 4-5″ of water to flow before automatically shutting off. The aeration holes on the grow buckets begin about 6-7″ from the bottom of the bucket. The plants wick the necessary water and nutrients and grow effortlessly.
What do you need to start?
The grow buckets are initially filled with a special water wicking medium that naturally draws water to the plant. Please be aware that you cannot use regular potting soil or compost in these buckets as it will NOT work.
You must use a soil-less mixture that consists of the following sphagnum peat moss (at least 60%), perlite, vermiculite, dolomitic limestone, wetting agent, and Mycorrhizae. It is possible to use coconut coir or other peat based mixes, but be sure to add both perlite and dolomite lime as well.
Now, if you’re not a fan of mixing your own soil-less mix, you can get this in a commercially prepared product called Pro-Mix BX Mycorrhizae. While it can be ordered online, you’ll likely find a cheaper source by searching for distributors in your area. We used ONE 3.8 Cubic Foot Bag of Mix, which was under $15.
Starting 6″ from the bottom of each of your grow buckets, drill aeration holes. Do not drill below the 6″ line of your bucket, or they will leak, defeating the purpose. (In case you’re wondering how many holes- we made 9 rows of 4 holes in each grow bucket, (kind of like a Connect 4 game!).
Using a 3/4″ step drill bit, drill one 3/4″ hole at the very bottom of each grow bucket. This is where you’ll be connecting your water lines. (Yes, I know the picture shows 9/16- keep going until the hole is 3/4″!!)
Although this next step is completely optional, I highly recommend it. Caulk the edge of the rubber grommet with clear, waterproof, mold proof and weatherproof silicone caulking.
While it’s still wet, immediately slip the rubber grommet into place in the 3/4″ hole that you’ve just drilled. Use a paper towel or soft cloth to wipe away any excess caulking that forms. You may want to wear gloves, caulking is nasty stuff to try to wash off the skin.
Then slip the T-shaped 1/2″ connector barb into the rubber grommet. This will provide a snug, watertight fitting. Half-inch barbed fittings are available at Lowes, Home Depot, local hardware stores, hydroponics supply stores, as well as on Amazon.
Next, place the 10-inch colander into the grow bucket. In the event that you need to trim the handles, use an Exacto knife and score the edge of the handle (cutting away from you). Then simply gently bend the scored handle and they’ll snap right off with almost No effort.
Cut the 1/2″ rubber hose into 18-20″ lengths and attach each of the buckets together. You’ll want to use semi-flexible water pipe for this or you’ll have quite a time getting the pieces connected.
Place the fabric bag into the bucket, folding the edge over the bucket. Now’s the time to trim off those handles, you won’t be needing those. You’re probably wondering why you need the bag at all- well, for starters it’s going to hold your soil-less mixture. The roots of your plants will grow to the porous fabric of the bag.
As the roots become exposed to air, (aka air root pruning), they dry out and die. The bag allows the plant to produce dense, very fine feeder roots, which incidentally also prevents root circling that you see in “potted” plants. These feeder roots allow for better nutrient and water absorption which in turn leads to better growth rates and higher yields.
Fill the bottom of the bucket with water. Add a layer of your soilless growing mixture. Soak it with the hose, add a layer of slow release natural fertilizer. Add more growing mix, water, it’s imperative that the layers are initially wet or it will not activate the wicking ability of the product, causing your plants to dry out and die. Repeat until the bucket is full, add a light layer of fertilizer near the top as well.
Cover the top of the bucket with heavy duty black plastic. Since the inside of the Pro-Mix BX bag is black, we’re simply reusing the bag and cutting it to fit our buckets. Secure the plastic to the bucket with string, rubber band or any method that works best for you. This plastic sheeting will help reduce water loss through evaporation. Cut a small “X” in the top of the bucket and add your young plant.
How to Assemble the Float Valve Bucket and Reservoir
That’s it! Simply connect the water reservoir bucket to the float valve (automatic watering bucket). Make sure the reservoir is filled and check it periodically.
Always keep the reservoir covered, you don’t want bugs breeding in it, or impurities flowing to your plants. It can also be a danger to pets or small children if left open and unattended.
Here is our eggplant after a week:
Here is the same eggplant after 3 Weeks:
I Literally have not had to water them or touch the plants at all. The only thing that I’ve done is sprinkle diatomaceous earth ( a natural pesticide) on our patio to keep ants off my plants. No other insect or pest repellent has been necessary.
Here is an updated view of my lemon tree:
2 weeks later: (I really should have taken photos about 4 days ago, as you can see the blossoms have already dropped and converted into tiny little lemons!
Here is our ever-producing Green Pepper plant (already picked 6 peppers!)