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Homemade Sub-Irrigation Planter Like The EarthBox and Grow Box

Last summer, at a farmers market, I met a photographer who was telling me about what it was like to be a professional photographer. As a gardener, his most interesting story was about traveling with a rock band ( I forget which one) that was socially conscious and liked to fund agriculture products in developing countries. They would start gardens in an Earthbox and auction them off at their concert stops. I'd heard about the EarthBox before and even the Grow Box before but the thought of these rockers starting gardens in them made them more appealing.
EarthBox container gardening on organic rooftop farm in Chicago

It just so happened that the farmers market I was located in the parking lot of the organic rooftop farm at Uncommon Ground, here in Chicago. Going upstairs and looking at them was kinda painful. I mean, they're beautiful and useful items but not exactly free. I've seen people make homemade sub-irrigation planters like the EarthBox and Grow Box before out of either plastic storage bins or plastic buckets. You can even find directions of making one out of them in Gayla Trail's new vegetable gardening book Grow Great Grub. The EarthBox and the Grow Box and learning how to make them have gone mainstream.

After this conversation all I could think about was the EarthBox and attempting to make one myself. If you read my review of Troy-Bilt's lithium ion battery powered garden trimmer, you know the conundrum I was faced with. The fear of injuring myself, possibly loosing an finger, emboldened me to go ahead and buy myself an EarthBox or a Grow Box. Then one day I was in the dollar store and saw a lady carrying two Styrofoam coolers with a plastic bag over one of them. The synapses started firing in the brain and the frugal gardening light bulb went off over my head.

Two dollars and change, a plastic garbage bag, a rubber band, a scrap of copper pipe and two 'Better Belle' pepper plants later and I had my homemade sub-irrigation planter like the EarthBox and Grow Box. For the potting medium I used coir made out of coconut husks, the same one I use to start my seedlings. It isn't as sturdy as the homemade sub-irrigation garden planters made out of storage bins and buckets, nor is it as pretty as the EarthBox and the Grow Box but it worked. The best part was that I didn't cut any fingers off trying to create two holes for watering and wicking up water into the soil. I punched out the holes with the copper pipe. If you are an older gardener or have mobility issues or arthritis; simple things like drilling and cutting are difficult so these Styrofoam containers may be ideal.

Homemade EarthBox Grow Box for urban garden

Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures of me putting it together and these pictures are from September/October when the plants didn't look so great anymore. Each of the coolers were only about 12 inches wide by 15 inches deep and were the perfect size for the back porch. I'm planning on growing more things in them this year since each were only $1.00. Why spend money on containers that only I'm going to see when I got onto the back porch?

One or two may be wondering if "Better Belle" peppers are suppose to be green, and yes they are. If you leave them to ripen further they turn red.
Better Belle peppers growing in homemade EarthBox Grow Box container

After I'd harvested the last of the peppers I felt bad about composting the plants because they still had these little peppers forming around Halloween. Made me wish I had a greenhouse where I could take them in and let them develop over the winter.

Better Belle peppers forming in homemade EarthBox Grow Box

The guys over at Green Roof Growers have directions for making your own self-water (or sub-irrigation) planters out of buckets. There is also this cool video on YouTube. This blog shows you how to make them out of the plastic storage containers. The bloody finger at the link is an example of why I don't like making things that require tool, ha!

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Related Post: 
Deluxe Grow Box, Self-Watering Container.
The Garden Patch Grow Box


  1. I cannot handle a drill! This method of using styrofoam box is good for me. Thanks for sharing. Btw, I like that video showing how to make a self-watering container.... good frugal idea.

  2. I made one out of a plastic storage bin, and it works great but was definitely a bit scary to make (I am accident-prone beyond belief...) I see these all the time, especially during the summer, and never thought to make a planter out of them. Definitely going to try it this year!

    Great post MBT.

  3. Very cool MBT - definitely less pricey than the ready-made ones, and safer for klutzes like me than the ones made from plastic bins. (I have 'issues' with tools as well.)

    Those peppers look delicious. Green ones are tasty, but I definitely like most peppers best when they're fully-ripe - so much more flavor, and alot sweeter.

  4. Well, this is certainly spring inspiration. I'm ENERGIZED now. Thank you. Love the pics too, you are an role model in many areas.

  5. I was just talking about sub-irrigation with a coworker last night and this is really great!, i've been wanting to make one of these, but to be honest i've been a little intimidated. I'll have to save it for NY but can't wait to try it

  6. Definitely looks like an easy way to grow! We had guy from UTMG come talk to our garden club about making earth boxes last year out of plastic containers. It's definitely worth building yourself if you have the time, you save a lot of money.

  7. I made an earth trainer last year following this very detailed tutorial.
    It is cheaper if you already had rubbermaid containers lying around. It worked great with the tomatoes and it's now being used for peas.

  8. Kerry9:25 PM

    I tried an Earthbox last year was really surprised by how great it was. I also interviewed the GM at the company and loved the story of how the design came about and the fact that they seem to last forever. Expensive, but truly a good design.

    Love your cooler planters too.

  9. Hey, that's the Uncommon Ground right by me! I'm on Devon and Clark. I heard they have their own apiary on the roof as well? Never checked out their farmers market before... usually I opt for Evanston. Now I'll have to go!

  10. Thanks for commenting everyone. Glad to see I'm not the only one who isn't a natural Norm Abram.

    Give it a try.

    I think seeing a pic of yours may have gotten me in the mood to make my own too.

    Garden Girl,
    You're right. I let these stay on and turn read because I got tired of eating so many green pepper last year that I wanted a bit of variety.

    So glad to hear that you're inspired. I recently been feeling inspired to by seeing how enthusiastic some newbie gardeners are. Thank you for the kind words.

    Dude, I hope you make some SIPs in your new digs and that you're able to take some of your seedlings with you.

    Yeah, I saw them in a lot of demo gardens last year and really loved how easy they make gardening for a lot of people. Especially people who don't have much land to garden in.

    Yeah, these storage containers are usually the most expensive parts of these. Sometimes I see them in the alley near trash day and I feel like collecting them for these kinds of projects :0)

    That's awesome that you got to interview the GM and you're right, the story of the EarthBox is a really cool one.

    Nature Assassin,
    They did have a couple of beehives on the roof last year. Not sure if they still do or if they were expanded. Hope they do their farmers market again this year as it was a fun place to visit.

  11. I was surprised to learn a while back that all green peppers turn yellow or red over time... or, maybe more accurately, all yellow or red peppers were once green. That's why red peppers are more expensive in the store because they take longer to grow. My backyard is pretty windy, so I'd probably use a soil mix, not coir which tends to be lighter, but that's just me. I'm not clear on how you used the styrofoam coolers if not as containers with drainage holes. And I'm not sure what makes Earth Boxes Earth boxes, as opposed to containers. ??

  12. Monica,
    There are two holes in the container that the peppers are planted in. In one hole there is a strip of muslin that wicks water up that is being stored in the container on the bottom. The second hole holds a piece of copper pipe. You pour water into the pipe, it goes down into the bottom container and is wicked up into the medium the plant is growing in.

  13. Very nice - keep up the great work!


  14. Just noticed this post. I agree that the cost of these products is sickening; making them from scratch is far more economical and you get the same GREAT results. Here is one I
    made from a bin I found by the side of the road for exactly ZERO dollars:
    And these are my basic planters that cost a few dollars each for the styrofoam - yes, I like styrofoam, too, because it's difficult to kill yourself cutting it.

  15. Dirty Girl,

    It was actually really easy.


    Lol the frugal gardening spirit.

  16. Anonymous2:00 PM

    Ooooh, the squeak! aaargh!

  17. I've been having really good results with fiber bags, made from landscape cloth. I DO use a sewing machine, which might count as a power tool.

    My plants are BIG and healthy, even in May. And portable. Just pick it up and move. My first tomatoes are just forming. The cost is about 40 cents per bag, but they should last for many years.

    The bags need to sit in some water, but the container can be just about anything. Just make sure there is a hole 2" or so above the bottom, so they don't get "rained out". I've used plastic sheeting, old plastic tubs, Rubbermaid totes, or just the usual black nursery trays.

  18. Anonymous3:11 PM

    Hey, maybe I'm super dumb but I don't understand how to actually assemble this?? Are there instructions somewhere?



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