UPDATED 5/14/07: Scroll down to "Notes" for some additional thoughts.
Here's how I make a homemade "self-contained gardening system" in about 10 minutes, and for about $10 (instead of the $40.00-plus-shipping that the genuine article costs from various sellers).
A GENTLE REQUEST: These instructions have become far more popular than I ever imagined they would. They are turning up referenced on gardening websites, home crafts fora, and other sites too numerous to list. They have appeared in PDFs and have been even been sold on eBay.
I offer them for everyone's use, free of charge. However, I do request that if you find these instructions useful, and you copy the design and/or the text and/or photos from this site, please credit me or the website. If you would include a link to the website, I'd be even more appreciative. Additionally, if you know anyone who's charging money for this information on eBay, I'd love to know about it since it's both a violation of the copyright (the material on this site is copyrighted) and of the spirit in which this information has been posted. Thank you!
MATERIALS (figure 0):
2 18-gallon (or similar)
tote boxes with lids, such as Rubbermaid. Dark colors are preferable.
Also, a box that is somewhat wider is preferable to one that's
deeper. (You can also use larger totes, but note that once you fill
them with soil, they'll be very hard to move.) The more
straight-sided the box, the better.
a pencil or pen
Take one of the totes, the pen/pencil, and the pond basket. Mark the HEIGHT of the basket all around the outside of the tote (see Figure 1).
Cut along this line. When you've cut the entire box, discard the top (open) half; you won't need it. See Figure 2.
Turn the bottom portion upside down. Take the pond basket, put it upside-down on top of the bottom portion of the tote, and trace the circle. Cut the circle out, but you're going to cut about a half-inch or more INSIDE the circle (so that this hole is about an inch smaller in diameter than the top of the pond basket). After you've done this, drill a 1-1/2" hole in the corner of the tote bottom, and a lot of small (1/4" or so) holes all over it. See Figure 3. We'll call this piece the "base."
Take the pond basket and put it right-side up in the bottom of the second tote box (the one that hasn't been used yet). See Figure 4.
Put the base in the tote box (drilled side up), wedging it down as far as it will go, and positioning the pond basket directly under the big hole. See Figure 5. Because the big hole in the base is smaller in diameter than the top of the pond basket, the pond basket will help support the weight of the base once the soil is on top. And because the pond basket will be filled with soil, it will act as a wick for the moisture (much like the square wicks in opposing corners in the authentic "self-contained gardening system" that was my inspiration for this container).
Drill a 1/4" (or slightly larger) hole straight through the outer box AND the base just below the level of the base. This is the drainage hole. See figure 6.
Cut the end of the 2-foot length of 1-1/2" pipe at an angle (if you haven't done so already) and feed this angled end into the 1-1/2" hole in the base. This is the pipe you'll use to fill the box with water. See Figure 7.
You're pretty much done. Drill a matching 1-1/2" hole near the corner of the lid for the pipe to go out, and enough other equally spaced 1-1/2" holes in the lid for however many plants you're going to put into the box (I use the planting guide that came with my commercially-available "self-contained gardening system" to tell me how many plants of any given type I can reasonably fit in the box). SEE NOTE AT BOTTOM OF PAGE REGARDING THE PLANTING GUIDE. Fill the box with soil (the pond basket and the entire remaining box above the base). Pour on the fertilizer stripe as shown in the planting guide that accompanies the commercially-available "self-contained gardening system". (They also recommend adding lime or dolomite to the soil if you're planting tomatoes.) Put on the lid. There you are! See Figure 8 for the box I made for last year's herbs.
UPDATE: May 20th, 2005
Last summer, I tried an improvement on my homemade commercially-available self-contained gardening system. Didn't want to post it 'til I'd tried it. It worked just as I'd intended, so here it is.
The improvement is to the LID ONLY. I'd decided that drilling the holes in the lid to plant the seedlings through was pretty inconvenient if you were planting more than a couple of seedlings -- the dirt balls wouldn't always fit through the holes in the lid, so you had to plant them in the box WITHOUT the lid and then put the lid on and feed the seedlings through the holes...which could hurt the seedlings and was troublesome if the planted seedlings didn't line up perfectly with the holes.
STEP 8 REVISED
Take the lid that fits onto the box. Cut out the center of the lid, leaving just a rim (about 2" worth), enough to snap back onto the box. (You can discard the center piece, we won't be using it.) It should look like this:
(Notice that I've cut a circular area in one corner for the pipe. This is not strictly necessary. I did it so that I could have the pipe all the way in the corner, leaving more room for plants.)
Now cut a piece of plain black tarp (vinyl, etc.) so that it is at least a couple of inches bigger around than the top of your self-contained gardening system. Cut a hole in it for the pipe to fit through. When you're ready to plant, cut "X"s in the tarp where the plants will go. (This is very much like how the real tops work on commercially-available self-contained gardening system.) (In this photo, there's some black tubing instead of the PVC pipe. NOTE: Do not use PVC pipe. See note at bottom of page.)
Now just snap the rim onto the box:
Note that because of the tarp, the lid may NOT snap neatly into place anymore. This may not be an issue for you, but if you're in a windy area, you might find it necessary to tie the rim in place:
There are several advantages to this arrangement. First, planting is significantly easier through the flexible tarp than through the inflexible plastic lid. Second, because the tarp is black, it helps heat the surface of the soil, which is better for the plants. Third, if you want to plant items in a different arrangement from year to year (with, say, fewer holes), all you need to do is cut a new piece of tarp instead of drilling a whole new lid.
NOTES (added 4/25/07)
One of the companies that sells "self-contained gardening systems" have been gracious in putting their planting guide online: Planting Guide - PDF Format. It's a large file; give it time to load. Print it out, and be sure to read the whole document before using your self-contained gardening system (whether it's commercial or homemade).
People have asked me why I haven't put photos of my plants online, so that I can demonstrate the effectiveness of these boxes. Except for a few years ago when I was first introducing my family to commercially-available "self-contained gardening systems," it's never occurred to me to take photos of plants. I will take photos of my plants this season (the 2007 growing season) and put them up.
Many folks have trouble finding "pond baskets." (BTW, the 5" refers to their HEIGHT, not their diameter, but the height is not at all crucial...it will just dictate how tall your insert is.) They're also sometimes called "water baskets." I find mine in the "water feature" area of my local gardening center or Home Depot/Lowe's-type store -- the area where they have fountains, pumps, and hoses. In the event that you can't find a suitable pond basket -- and they CAN be square, circular, tall, short, etc, -- you can improvise this a couple of ways and even perhaps save some more money. You can use a large coffee can, removing the top and bottom and punching lots of holes in the sides. (Just substitute the can for the pond basket in all the steps above...marking the height of the can in Step One, etc.) Or you can use a bunch of smaller cans, as long as they're all the same height, and spacing them out so that they help support the platform -- cutting the platform to the height of the cans in Step One, and cutting smaller holes, properly spaced, in Step Three instead of the one large hole.
A number of people have asked me what I do about staking. The commercially-available self-contained gardening systems have small holes at either end of each box, each of which will accommodate a small stake. These stakes are fine for small plants, but they don't come close to supporting the weight of tomato plants! So I have two methods I utilize. For one, I have my boxes up against a chainlink fence, and I tie the plants to the fence using plant ties. But frequently the plants are too big and lush to all be attached to the fence. So I buy the very sturdy, tall, heavy wooden stakes sold at my local hardware store's gardening department, and pound them into the ground around the boxes.
I no longer use PVC in any of my boxes. PVCs have been demonstrated to leach plasticizers and harmful chemicals, including endocrine disruptors. There are plenty of alternatives, so there's no good reason to use PVC and risk putting these chemicals in your homegrown fruits and vegetables.
MORE NOTES (added 5/14)
I've been asked what to do in place of PVC pipe for the watering tube. I'd recommend copper tubing (although this will a very small bit to the price of your homemade self-contained gardening system), available widely at home supply stores. Aluminum tubing would probably also work fine. Garden hose can be used as long as it's marked as drinking-safe. Other kinds of plastic may be acceptable.
What sort of plastics are to be avoided? Of course, you want to avoid these all throughout the self-contained gardening system, not just with the watering tube. The kinds of plastics we generally regard as safe are those with the numbers 1, 2, 4, or 5 (these numbers are usually found inside the recycling symbol). The ones we seek to avoid are 3 (Polyvinyl Chloride/Vinyl), 6 (Polysterene/Styrofoam), and 7 (Polycarbonate and others).
A terrific idea for using the parts of the second box that aren't used in construction. All credit for this wonderful "less waste" idea goes to one of the people who've written to me about their Adventures in Self-Contained Gardening Systems, Linda Alldredge. She writes:
"The left-over tops of the boxes make instant frost covers for those of us in the north. We already have the lidsjust put the lid on and set the whole thing right over your tender plants in the garden. Take it off in the morning. If you want to get fancier, cut out the center of the lid (like you did to hold the plastic) and drop in a piece of Plexiglas. Voilainstant cold frame.
Here's another idea for using the parts of the second box. This one comes from Denise Slipka: "I also wanted to let you know what we have done with the leftover top. My husband pulls a garbage bag through it, and then uses it when he rakes up grass or leaves or whatever junk he rakes in the yard! That way it stays open for him and he can rake it right in. I must say, he thought he was very clever for thinking it up!"
Another terrific idea just sent a couple of weeks ago (I haven't secured permission yet to use the contributor's name):
"A greener solution for your homemade [self-contained gardening system] water tube would be bamboo. I made a similar box after purchasing an original. A friend of mine in Cincinnati has a neighbor who planted bamboo as an border hedge. My friend constantly complains because he has to remove the bamboo shoots that grow on to his property. Over the years I've harvested poles of bamboo for many uses, one use being the watering tube for my homemade [self-contained gardening system]. Works great. "
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Entire contents copyright (c) 2007 by Josh Mandel. May be used for non-profit purposes with appropriate credits.