For the last few years, every spring Jimmy and I have tried to plant a vegetable garden. We have had varying degrees of success with this. Two years ago, knowing very little about gardening but wanting the Earth Mothery feeling of digging around in the dirt with my hands, we bought a bunch of terra cotta pots, filled them with potting soil, and planted some seeds from the hardware store creatively labeled with names like “EGGPLANT” and “ZUCCHINI.” As our stunted, wispy seedlings grew into stunted, wispy plants, I glanced at the potting soil bag and noticed in big letters the words “NOT FOR CONTAINER VEGETABLE GARDENING.” Whoops. Also, we tried to grow them on a screened-in porch, so I’m not sure how we thought they were going to be pollinated.

Not one to half-ass things twice, I did some extensive Googling last spring and learned How To Garden. I found out the best kinds of soil, learned all about the square-foot gardening plan, researched raised beds, hunted down delicious-sounding heirloom varieties, found organic pesticides and plant food, the whole nine yards. I lovingly drew up plans for a garden in our side yard that would consist of three attractive raised beds, surrounded by mulch so the condo maintenance people wouldn’t have to mow or weed. I submitted these plans to the condo board. I was promptly rejected.

“But why?” I asked.

“It would detract from the cohesive look of the units,” I was told. “Also, more mowing.”

I gazed at the side yard, which consisted of alternating patches of two-foot-tall weeds and bare, cracked earth. Obviously, it was important for all the units to look this way. And I’ve never heard of a mulch that needs to be mowed…but whatever. Onward and upward! In the spirit of community, I went out of my way to purchase an absolute rainbow of colored pots and planters. If the nice mulched beds weren’t cohesive enough, I thought, arranging the teal pot next to the orange one, let them try this on for size.

Stymied or no, I lovingly tended my container garden all summer. We don’t have a hose, so in July that amounted to lugging seven or eight watering cans’ worth from my bathroom to my patio, twice a day when it was particularly hot. My radishes grew tall, beautiful leaves, which, when picked, revealed absolutely no radish underneath. I learned that I had planted them too closely. We did receive a few handfuls of bush beans, which we sauteed with garlic butter. Our zucchini ventured too close to the ground and was mowed off by the maintenance people. (Curiously, the weeds remained.) After growing one or two smallish cracked tomatoes and little else, I threw up my hands and left the garden to its own devices. I stopped watering it, and most of the plants withered away. A thunderstorm knocked over the remaining tomato pots, and their contents spilled out into the space between our patio and our neighbor’s.

And then…a funny thing happened. The tomato plants exploded. Literally within a week they had doubled in size, and they just kept growing until they were five feet tall. I did absolutely nothing for them–no water, no pruning–and they produced hundreds of ripe, juicy, dense tomatoes. We had caprese panini and tomato soup and marinara and even green tomato jelly, which was spicy-sweet and delicious. They kept on producing into November. It was mind-boggling.

So this year, I wanted to minimize the amount of work I had to do (and we’re planting our tomatoes in the ground, condo rules be damned). I came across a few tutorials on how to make a self-watering planter from a regular planter, and I adapted them to take advantage of recycled items. With this system, you should only have to water once every few days (currently we’re at about 4, though I think it’ll probably shorten to around 2 when it gets really hot). Each planter cost us less than $5 to put together, and these things retail for around $30-$40. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A planter of some kind. These are about 14 inches in diameter. I think Wal-Mart sells them for around $3.
  • A Tupperware-ish container with a lid that will fit into the bottom of your planter. You want it to fit as snugly as possible. Mine leaves about half an inch of space on all sides. I got it at Dollar Tree for $1. It’s BPA-free.
  • A Sharpie for tracing.
  • A PVC pipe. We used one-foot lengths of 1″ diameter pipe, which ran us $0.48/each. Note: some people are concerned about the health effects of PVC. We thought they were negligible enough to use, but if you’re worried, you could use a copper pipe instead.
  • Some kind of plastic container significantly smaller than your Tupperware. It needs to be tall enough to reach to the bottom of your Tupperware. Yogurt cups, Solo cups, and ricotta/sour cream containers work nicely for this.
  • An X-Acto or utility knife.

First, you need to cut a hole in the edge of your Tupperware lid for the PVC pipe to go through. Just put the pipe on the lid, trace around it, and cut with an X-Acto or utility knife.

Please ignore my horrific chipped nail polish. Gardening is rough on your nails.

Next, poke a bunch of random holes in the lid with your knife. This will help drain and aerate the soil.

Next, trace the bottom of your smaller container onto the Tupperware lid. You’ll want to cut a little outside the line, since your container most likely tapers from top to bottom. This should be roughly in the center of your lid.

When you have your pipe and container in the holes, it should look like this:

Next, we need to cut slits in the smaller container, so that water can get in and moisten the soil. So just cut vertical slits around the perimeter. I cut about 6 into this cup. If your container is a lot taller than your Tupperware (like this cup is), it’s a good idea to cut off the top so it doesn’t stick up too far. It’s easiest to do this with scissors after the slits are cut.

This is what it should look like when it’s all assembled. Easy, right? The only other consideration is drainage–your planter needs to have some holes in the bottom. If it doesn’t, go ahead and drill or poke some. That way, if you overfill the reservoir, it can drain out.

This is where my brain shut down and I forgot to take pictures of filling it up. Basically, I put sand in around the reservoir to hold it in place. You could just as easily use soil, I was just trying to save money. Then you fill the cup with soil. This part is important because this little cup of soil will be what wicks the water up to the plants. Once the cup is full, you can fill the pot normally, scooping soil in around the PVC pipe.

After that, watering is easy! Just pour your water down the pipe. After a while, you’ll get a sense for how much fills up the reservoir; personally, I usually fill until I hear the water starting to fill up the tube. The excess will just drain out the bottom, so you won’t flood them or anything.

After that, just make lots more! What are your gardening plans, kids? Are you bound by the strictures of draconian condo rules? Or do you have a giant expanse of fluffy green lawn just waiting to be torn up and replaced with vegetables? You lucky dog, you.