How I made an inexpensive upcycled wicking planter

cheap self watering planter

The first year in our apartment, I enthusiastically planted many, many seeds, with some successes and more failures. We moved in during wintertime and I didn’t realise how far the sun would come around the building to blast our south facing patio space.

Many of my plants died from too much sun and not enough hydration. I’d planted them in pots too small or the wrong material to retain moisture at the roots. I’d come home on a 30 degree day to find my plants shrivelled and parched. A good drenching would bring them back to life (sometimes), but it’s better not to stress plants out like that – even I know that.

Self-watering planters to the rescue?

When I learned about wicking, or self watering planters, I was intrigued. Many people told me it changed their gardens. Wicking beds use a reservoir underneath to hold a tank of water that plants can suck up as needed. This keeps them hydrated on scorcher days and saves water. In spite of Sydney’s past week of heavy rain, Australia is never far from drought.

Self watering planters open up opportunities for growing in places that aren’t easy to water (verge gardens for example) or those that don’t get much rainfall. Wouldn’t it be great to have micro community gardens on the verges and untended patches in our cities?

The only issue I had with the wicking beds was cost. I found many beautiful options to buy or build that ran into the hundreds, which I was not prepared to spend. I searched high and low on the web for inexpensive DIY designs. I talked to people who’d had some experience making them.

I had a breakthrough when I mentioned my struggle to a friend who works at a childcare centre. He showed me how they’d installed beds using simple plastic tubs set into wooden frames. Sidenote: cool childcare centre! This seemed achievable and just the right size for my place. I decided when found the requisite materials secondhand, I would make a go of it. When I came across a 60L lidless plastic storage container at Salvos, I knew it was time.

Materials I used to make my self watering planter

  • 60 L plastic container $5
  • 1/2 bag blue metal gravel $4
  • 1 bag scoria $23
  • 1 bag charcoal $8
  • 1 1/2 bags compost soil $6
  • Coles reusable bag – free
  • Hessian sack – free from any coffee roaster
  • Segment from a broken hose – free
  • 1/2 old cotton sock
  • Rubber band

The materials came to a total cost of $46 + the seedlings. The cost would have been much less if I had bought the $8 scoria instead of the $23 scoria, but live and learn.

How I made my self watering planter

First I prepped the plastic container. I made a thumbnail sized hole ⅓ the way up the side, about 12cm from the base. I don’t have a drill so I spiralled the end of a pair of scissors until it bored through. This worked easily after a minute or two. The hole is to let water flow out when there is enough in the reservoir.

cheap self watering planter


cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

Next I made the reservoir. I made sure to move the box to where it would live before filling it. I used scoria (a type of porous volcanic rock), charcoal and then gravel for drainage, but you could use sand or just one of these fillers instead of three. I think a finer grade fill would be better, which is why I used charcoal to fill in some of the spaces between my coarse fill. I added the materials up to the same height as the hole in the side.

cheap self watering planter
It came with this little piece of garbage!

cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

self watering planter

I should’ve done the next step before I added the rocks, but yeah, we learn as we go around here. I used a bit of a broken hose as the watering pipe and dug it into the rocks . Most tutorials suggest PVC piping. The purpose of the pipe is to deliver water directly into the reservoir, but it’s okay to water from above too, as rain would. A wide PVC pipe also shows you the water level in the bottom so you can see if you need to add more. My hose won’t help with this and truth be told might be difficult to water into. If it really becomes a problem I’ll go get a proper pipe and replace it.

cheap self watering planter

I wrapped the bottom end of the hose with a piece of an old sock to avoid it clogging with particles of charcoal, rocks or soil.

cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

Then I placed a layer of material over the reservoir. The purpose of this is twofold: to keep the soil separate to the reservoir and to help wick the water from below to the soil above. I used an old reusable shopping bag that I cut to open, and then a hessian sack overtop to fill any gaps and help with the wicking action.

upcycle reusable bag

cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

Finally, the fun part – plants! I added the soil and my seedlings. In this case, sugar snap peas, lettuce, lemon thyme and basil. Most tutorials advise to water through the watering pipe until water flows out of the 
outflow, but it’s been so rainy that I didn’t bother and simply gave the transplants a little drink from above. I hope some of these will grow enough that I can bring cuttings to the crop swap I’m organising in November.

cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

cheap self watering planter

It was a fun outdoor project for the brief moments of sun we had this weekend. It’s been a long winter without much garden time and I’m happy to be back picking dirt from under my fingernails. I’m no expert. I don’t know if this will work as hoped. Surely it’ll work better than my dried out beds of the past and help me keep my plants alive when I’m out of town for stretches at a time. I’ll let you know when I’ve had a chance to test it through the hot spells to come.

One final note for us apartment gardeners dependent on bagged soil. Redcycle will accept clean, dry soil bags cut into smaller squares, and seedling containers can be reused or recycled. Check with your local council or nursery about the best drop off point.

Avocado dreams do come true

You can’t grow money, but you can grow avocados. And that’s pretty close.

I’ve developed a peculiar, but useful talent

It started in December, after a trip to Hawaii for my brother’s wedding. Just in front of the balcony of our rental was a 40 foot mature avocado tree, heavy with thousands of thin-skinned fruits. When avocados are $3-$5 a pop at the green grocer, foraging for them is like finding money.

Even our full house couldn’t use the ten or more that were falling each day. What we didn’t eat was enjoyed by the feral chickens. Or taken with me as a pre-flight snack.

The neighbour wasn’t even interested. He had his own productive looking suburban orchard. I offered him some and he just shook his head and chuckled at my haul of green money fruit, ‘Oh, that tree‘. Imagine a life where you have all the avocados you could eat.

How to spot an avocado tree

Back in Sydney, I can’t stop spotting avocados trees. It helps to know what they look like. Look for large trees with straight, light coloured trunks, long green leaves, and dense, haphazard canopy. Often spotted near fence lines or on verges. Taking slower forms of transport means you’ll have time to size up each potential specimen. The most telltale sign is shiny green fruit up in the canopy, or on the ground.

The best time to plant an avocado tree is seven years ago

Planting the seed of an avocado is either an act of good planning for the future or a bit of a novelty, depending on your climate. An avocado tree in Vancouver has about zero chance of producing avocado toast, but people still get a kick out watching them sprout and will keep them as houseplants. Odds are better here in Sydney. In fact, there are more than five mature trees within two blocks of my address.

I’ve planted a few seeds myself. Good things take time, and avocados are no exception. I’ve been asked why I would plant something that might take seven years to bear fruit. An understandable question, programmed as we are to instant gratification, short lifecycles and let’s be honest, frequent house moves. And the answer I give is that I might just be here in seven years. But even if I’m not, someone else will be.

After all, building community is about doing something to benefit someone you may never meet. What helps you, helps me too. Also, this tree is a year and a half old now, so seven years is now only five and a half years from now.

Small potatoes, perfectly formed

balcony garden potatoes

I live in a small apartment with a small balcony.

Maybe it’s only fitting that I can now claim to have grown some of the smallest potatoes I’ve ever seen. So small, in fact, I almost didn’t find them at all.

I didn’t set out to plant potatoes.

Last spring was my first spring (in the southern hemisphere) living in a new apartment with a south-facing balcony. Not ideal for an aspiring urban food grower.

When you pick what to grow in your garden you might start thinking about the types of foods you’d most like to eat, or that are delicate to ship, or expensive to buy. In many ways, it ultimately comes down to what will thrive in your particular micro environment. I had experimented with lots – kale, arugula, spinach, chillies, strawberries, coriander, beets and more.

Potatoes weren’t on my list.

But when I noticed some of my potatoes in the cupboard growing sprouts, I thought to myself, well, why not? I cut them into chits and let them callous over. I planted them in a large pot outside and covered them with a thin layer of soil. I mounded rich soil around the green shoots as they grew. And grew and grew.


The potato plants grew until they became huge and unruly and took over one part of my small balcony. Hopes were high.

In spite of the leafy growth though, there came no signs of tubers.

I spoke to someone who told me it was the wrong season- too hot- and that the sprawling stalks were a signal that nothing was growing underground. It was the last straw.

I could be using that space for cooperative plants, like arugula, chili peppers or basil, instead of wild, leggy, potato plants with no signs of potatoes, I thought.

So I ripped them out, and started using the soil from the bucket for other crops in other pots. This was months ago.

Tonight, a surprise.

I needed extra soil for a sage plant I was repotting. With my spoon (who needs a spade with a garden this small), I dug into the last of the leftover soil from the former potato pot.

I unearthed one, then two small potatoes.

Gifts from my garden, undiscovered until now.

My balcony harvest can’t sustain a family, let alone one person. Nevertheless, it’s the small joys from moments like this that I never want to overlook.

Water you waiting for?

Icebergs bondi

Southern summer is over.

If you believe the calendar, it was over more than a month ago. But, as summer heat reaches ever further into fall, the season’s change is marked more so by daylight savings than a particular date. By two measures then, summer is over.

Although I’ll miss the longer days and the after work ocean dips that come with them, I won’t miss the record-breaking stretches of stiflingly hot weather we’ve had this year, and neither will my balcony garden.

Too much time without precipitation can be hard on a Pacific Northwest girl, used to blink and you’ll miss ’em summers.

Like me, my plants tend to wilt when temperatures soar and no rain comes along to wash the spider out. When this happens, there are more effective ways to water than doing a rain dance.

After I wash my salad leaves for dinner, I’ll pull out the inner basket and use the water left below for my plants.

When my crops grows lush and green, I’ll harvest the leaves, put them into my spinner. Like a gift, or a thank you for quenching their thirst.

There are always plenty of places to find water, if you know where to look.