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Build your own EarthBox

2011 March 16
by Justine

Tomatoes grown in my DIY EarthBoxI’m an urban dweller with limited gardening space. Since I love growing, canning and eating fresh produce, I strive to cultivate a maximum yield in the least amount of space.

Last year my eyes were on the Earthbox. I really didn’t have the funds to purchase the pretty, brand-name variety though—especially since I needed a few containers. For those of you who haven’t heard of the EarthBox, it’s a self-contained, self-watering growing system. The EarthBox uses wick hydroponics; soil works to stabilize plants and “wick” water to the roots.

Here are the basic elements of the EarthBox:

DIY EarthBox components

A few selling features of the EarthBox:

  • Self-contained, so you can garden even without a plot of land to till.
  • Conserves water (up to 60%) and is low-maintenance (I usually water mine every  2-3 days).
  • Small container for the amount of yield produced.
  • Covered so weeds and pests are deterred and water doesn’t evaporate in the hot sun.

The DIY version we’re going to make has a couple minor negatives:

  • It’s pretty heavy, so make sure the box is essentially in place before you fill with soil and water. You do, however, have the benefit of more growing space as this is larger than the original system. The original Earth Box has castors for easy relocation, but I haven’t adapted that to this version.
  • By some standards, it’s not as pretty as the commercial Earth Box. However, that could be modified using a more fashionable container/cover system (which I might try this year).

However, for the me the positives of the DIY version outweigh the negatives:

  • Much more cost effective, especially when compared to the organic version of the EarthBox.
  • Larger growing space and water reservoir than the original Earth Box.
  • I have the freedom to modify any of the components.
  • The yield compared to space is incredible. Our tomato plants grew to nearly 8 feet while only using a couple square feet of floor space. This makes our boxes fantastic for patio gardening or for those with limited growing space.

Enough of the talk, let’s get to work. There are several other DIY methods out there, but after much consideration, this is the method I decided to take (with the help and consult of my hubby). My supplies consisted of the following:

Tools:

  1. Drill and 1/4-1/2″ bits
  2. A cutting tool to modify your grating system (we used both scissors and a Dremel) to cut down a plastic ceiling grate.

Supplies:

  1. Zip ties
  2. Waterproof covering material (I used garbage bags)

3. A container (I used an 18 gallon Rubbermaid tub)

4. A sheet of rigid grate (I used plastic ceiling grate)

5. About two feet of 1" pipe and 6 pieces (6" long) of 4-6" pipe

6. Loosely woven burlap (The roots need to be able to push through)

7. Fertilizer

Lime

8. Lime

9. Potting soil

10. Compost (optional)

Follow these steps to create your own fabulous EarthBox (click images to enlarge and read descriptions):

1. Cut pipe so it stands six inches tall. Create six identical pieces.2. Using a large drill bit, drill several holes into each piece of pipe. The holes allow water and roots to move through.3. You may want to lightly sand any sharp edges created from sawing/drilling.4. Using your cutting tool of choice, cut a piece of grate to fit into your tub about 6 inches from the bottom of the container.5. Secure 6" pipe pieces to one side of the grate, using zip ties. Space evenly.6. This is how your structure should look so far.7. Cut three holes in grate. The two larger holes will be packed with soil to create "water wicks". The smaller center hole is where the water fill tube will be inserted.  8. Cut your burlap to fit snuggly on top of the grate. It will prevent excess soil from leaking into the water reservoir.9. Drill two drain holes 1 inch below the height of the grate.10. Cut water fill tube to a length allowing it to protrude out the top of the container.11. Place burlap onto grate and cut holes to match holes in grate. Insert fill tube.12. Fill container with potting soil/compost combination until soil reservoir half way full.13. Moisten soil. Then place a thin layer of lime over the top of the soil.14. fill the rest of the container with soil15. Dig a trough near the top of the soil and fill with ferilizer16. Pat down the top layer of soil/fertilizer and moisten.17. Cut center out of lid. This will secure edges of waterproof cover while allowing plants room to grow.18. You may need to cut a notch out of the lid to rest the fill tube.19. Cut openings for plants into waterproof cover. This is how my EarthBox looked after plants were in and lid was on.

 

These videos show Chad and I building the EarthBox:

This is my EarthBox after a week of growth, and the plants seem to be liking their new home.This is a week later, and my plants are settling into their new home.
Mid-summer growth: tomatoes and peppers

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27 Responses leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011

    Great post. I’ve been making my own versions of EarthBoxes for a while since they are so damned expensive. Once you have the tools, you can make one for less than $5. You can even make one out of a soda bottle.

  2. Justine permalink*
    March 17, 2011

    Yes, so many options really. This one is quite durable and will take me through a few years. But now that I know how they work, I’m excited to make some tweaks and get experimental with types of containers, etc. Nice to know about the soda bottle, Mike! If anyone else has any great ideas, please share….

  3. March 19, 2011

    This looks and sounds like an exciting way to grow! Last year we tried a loose variation of the square-foot gardening method with built-in beds. But we need a new method as the beds are not in an optimal sun spot for us. This could be our new method! Thanks so much for such a lovely, detailed post.

    • Justine permalink*
      March 19, 2011

      I really enjoy it! We have the same issue with shade, and that’s one reason we opted or this method. Very flexible. I hope you try it out, and if you do, I’d love to see what you come up with, Kimberly :)

  4. Deborah permalink
    April 1, 2011

    Hi Kim,

    great post.. I got all the specs for the earthboxes from my mother who has several, but I wanted a more economical way of making them since they are a little pricey for me.. and this post is great and I already have most of what I need but..

    I do have one question, where did you get the mesh ceiling tiles? I have looked everywhere and cant find them :(

    Deb

    • Justine permalink*
      April 1, 2011

      Hi Deb,
      I purchased the ceiling grates from Home Depot (a hardware store), and I would think most large hardware stores would carry them. However, you could get creative and use something else, as long as it’s rigid enough to hold the soil/plants up, and has lots of holes in it. If it doesn’t have holes, you can always drill holes.

      Good luck! :)

      • Deborah permalink
        April 1, 2011

        Thanks Justine,

        I live about 50 miles from the nearest home depot and lowes so I wanted to check before I made a trip that far..lol.. hopefully they will have them there, I cant wait to get started!

        thank you so much

        Deb

  5. steve permalink
    April 1, 2011

    If you google “make you own earthbox” you’ll find several sites with variations of things to use for the screen. I use the piece of plastic you cut out from the center of the roughneck top. You cut two holes in it for the wicking chambers that are 4″ pvc pipe with a few holes drilled in the side. I line them with landscape fabric to keep soil out of resevoir. you also drill numerous 1/4 inch holes in the piece cut from the top for air penetration. Attached the two wicking chamber and two more 4″ by 6″ pvc pipe peices for legs. Attach to the screen with plastic wire connectors and cover screen with landscape fabric. There are several sites with photos of this setup.

    I have used this system for 3 years. Put two tomato plants or 5 peppers in each 14 gal roughneck. Only use roughneck containers as others do not work as well. it is work a couple bucks. My only problem has been figuring out how to support tomatos that are 10-12 ft high and peppers 5-6 feet high!

    • Justine permalink*
      April 1, 2011

      Thanks, Steve! Great suggestions. Yes, there are many DIY variations on the EarthBox and much room for creative adaptations,. I love to hear what worked for others. Sounds like yours are a great success if they’re growing that high! Aren’t they fabulous? I’ll be building a few more for this year.

    • Jamie permalink
      October 7, 2012

      cattle fencing is fairly cheap or the wire mesh used in cement pads and wrap it around or you can cut it easily and make cross bars that would fasten to the wrap around and give it enough support

  6. Deborah permalink
    April 4, 2011

    thanks Steve, I made the shelf out of the section I cut out of the lid and it worked out great.. only problem was the first one and that is because I cut it out before I drilled the holes in it.. lol.. the others went alot quicker by drilling all the holes in the lid before I cut it out.. for the legs I used 5 plastic maxwellhouse coffee containers which I drilled holes in too, ( was going to use butter bowls) I made quite a mess in the basement but I cant wait to get them planted… we had snow again today so it may be awhile, but I am ready!

    thanks again to all of you, this was very useful… Deb

  7. Traci permalink
    April 9, 2011

    I am going to have to try this!! Especially once we are back to apartment living!!

  8. Pamela Wagner permalink
    May 25, 2011

    Hello. I am trying to find instructions on how to cultivate an area of very hard clay soil with newspapers and allow the worms in my yard to do the work. Does anyone know the correct formula to make this happen? Thanks!

  9. Deborah permalink
    June 20, 2011

    Justine,

    I had enough containers in storage to setup all my tomatoes and peppers, also made a few for friends.. everyone loves them.. I used the cutout section for the floor, recycled coffee containers to hold the floor up, recycled tubing from some thrown away kids tables and Sta=green garden soil from Lowes.. I planted the tomatoes on may 27 and it hasnt even been 4 weeks and the plants are HUGE, green top to bottom and LOADED with tomatoes… they are doing so good, I made up some pots with cucumbers just to see h0w they do…

    Thanks again… this is Great!
    Deb

    • Justine permalink*
      June 20, 2011

      This is SUCH great news, Deb! Where are you located? It’s a terrible year for tomatoes in Washington, but I do notice my stunted tomatoes are much happier since I put them in the Earthbox. I LOVE your innovative reuse of materials! Thanks for the update; you totally made my day. :)

  10. Deborah permalink
    July 7, 2011

    Hi Justine,

    we are in west central Maine and we have been giving the link to your site to everyone that asks and some that dont.. :o

    Our tomatoes are doing so good everyone thinks we know a secret.. which of course we do but are willing to share with everyone who asks :)

    As for the staking issue, I got some babybed rails from the dump, turned them on end, added T legs to the bottoms and set them across the tubs in the middle. they are a few inches wider than the tubs are long. I let the tomatoes go up both sides…. no more problem.. although I do see one coming up in the near future.. like how the heck am I gonna keep from falling off the ladder when I pick them? the darn things are already over 5 feet tall and just loaded with fruit and we planted them on may 27th!!! LOL

    Thanks again.. we are having a blast :)

  11. Stephen permalink
    April 6, 2012

    Thanks for the great and very clear plans. Another site mentioned concerns about using PVC piping. Are there legitimate concerns about chemicals leaching from the PVC into the water reservoir or is this much ado about nothing? If so, can you recommend a substitute?

    • Justine permalink*
      April 9, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Stephen. This is a concern I have considered, but have not yet found an alternative. I did see a reader comment from MrJSaul on UrbanGardener.com that says this: “HomeDepot and Lowes sells PEX piping which is non-PVC piping used for running potable water to/from the fridge and other water sources. $5 for 10/ft. It is plastic and I’m researching effects of using plastics (if anyone has good sources for info relating to use of plastics in gardening let me know!)”

      Sorry I don’t have more answers for you!

    • David permalink
      May 29, 2012

      Pvc piping is used standard these days to transport water
      so think about it

  12. Gayle permalink
    July 9, 2012

    My husband and I live on what seems like solid bedrock. We can barely get grass to grow….so this kind do container gardening sounded exciting to me. We live in brutally hot north Texas. We purchased a 100 gallon plastic stock tank from farm supply store for $65. We used sprinkler system “buckes” as our support. We used an old chair mat cut to size with holes drilled in it. Then for the wicking containers, we used 3 sections of black drain tubes with holles drilled into the bottom. Like most others I have seen, we used a 3 inch PVC pipe for watering. Since it is already July, my options for vegetables has diminished, but I am planning on growing zucchini, squash, and cucumbers. Any suggestions are desired. Tried posting photo, but I do not know how.

  13. Laura permalink
    April 20, 2013

    I was wondering about clear tubs. I have a bunch I wanted to use for this. Have you tried clear tubs??

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