Garden Fever Prt.2: Container Gardening

True to Ursula fashion, each year I am all-over-the-place excited to start my garden in spring, then comes vacation time… inevitably, my overly large garden takes a hit that it never fully recovers from. Some plants struggle to stay alive while I am out of town, or those insidious weeds make a power play for my poor little garden (and usually win), or worst Jack Frost comes to town early in the fall to rob me of part of my harvest! *sigh* However it happens, my garden has never quite  made it to my dreamy ideal… This year I’m preparing to go to battle. My garden will be ready to pack a punch to whatever decides to attack this year! I’m going for work-free, self-watering, organic & natural, bug-repelling techniques, and I’m sharing all the how-to’s!
Last week I shared how I started my seedlings here, this week, I’m focusing on the container part of my garden, then  join me as I show you how to build raised beds here!


Container Gardens For Less
A container garden is easy to prepare and care for, but can cost a lot of money when you need to spring for lots of large pots. Save some money by opting for plastic planters and painting it to suit your design. And of course, search thrift and hardware resale stores for pots first! 
I found a ton of small plastic pots at a Habitat for Humanity Restore for pennies! Cha-ching! I also managed to find medium and large plastic pots at Walmart last year for $3 a piece as the  planting season ended, you can usually find their large plastic pots for $5 – $7, so it is still a cheap find compared to ceramic pots. 
Another fantastic idea is to use large buckets (like the ones you purchase in the paint section of the hardware store), or outdoor rubber storage bins. 

Painting Plastic Pots
The terra cotta paint color on these thrifty plastic pots wasn’t doing anything for me. Well I say, when design fails…spray paint! 

IMPORTANT: When you spray paint your pots, please ensure your pots are empty, and please please do not spray paint the inside where your soil will  go. ONLY paint the outside and the inner lip to where the soil will start. It is better to ensure you are not contaminating your soil. A layer of clear protective spray paint will help ensure the paint doesn’t scratch off over time. 




Turning Your Pots Into Sub-Irrigated Planters (SIP’s)

The challenge with container gardening is ensuring your plants stay watered…or maybe that’s just me! Either way, there are many benefits to creating sub-irrigation planters… 
1. Eliminates the need for frequent watering
2. Aerates the soil
3. Waters plants from below, which helps most plants thrive and is especially good for plants such as tomato plants.

How SIP’s Works
1. All SIP’s require a space or container to store water under the soil in the base of your planter. Recycled milk or juice containers are often used, I use soup and butter containers…be sure to only use plastics rated at the safest EPA ratings of #2, #4, & #5.
2. Next it requires a pipe that goes from the surface to the underground container for you to fill your water storage container. 
3. It requires a medium that will wick the water up through the soil to your plant. Although many people use cotton, the soil itself can be that agent and works best!
4. Last it requires a method of drainage to prevent over watering and let you know when your water storage container is full. This can be a drilled hole at a specific height, but for planters (where the holes are at the base), a container or plastic tarp barrier to hold the water until it can reach a certain height before draining is needed. 

How-to Video
Here I will demonstrate how to turn your existing pots into sub-irrigation planters. It is a very easy process, and you can turn several pots into SIP’s in an afternoon!

Tips and Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Drainage Important?
Different plants have different needs, but continuously over saturated soil can cause disease in even some of the most thirsty plants. So good drainage is key!  

Alternative Drainage Materials: Using a plastic bucket just smaller than your planter is the easiest method, however thick vapor barrier plastic used for painters tarp will work as well. An alternative to purchasing plastic is using grocery bags. It has the same EPA rating as the tarp plastic, and best of all, it’s free! Just check for holes, and layer several bags.

How Does the Water Flow from One Storage Container To The Next?
Are you scratching your head wondering why the fill container and the reserve container aren’t connected? The strips you cut in the bottom of those containers is all it needs…the water flows out of the fill container across the floor of the plastic tarp or container into the reserve container, and the rest is leeched through the tightly packed top soil all around it. Don’t worry, trust the science of it…it works. *wink* With a little time, both containers will fill with water, and as the soil above loses moisture the water will continue to be drawn up as needed. 

Where Did you Get Your Water Storage Containers & Drainage Container?
The containers I’m using for water storage are recycled butter containers, sour cream containers, and soup containers you get from ordering take out! Look for safer plastics encircled by a #2, #4, and #5, which your thicker butter containers usually are.
The drainage container (also a safer plastic choice) was an old paint mixing bucket that had never been used…you can find buy them new in the paint section for about $2. 

How Do I know When My SIP is Full or Requires Refill?
The water will begin to drain out of the base of your planter. Then you will know that the fill container, the reserve container, and the drainage container is full. For the first few weeks check deep in the soil for moisture so you will know when your SIP’s are empty in need of a refill. In the future you will begin to get a feel for how much water it can take, and how much time passes before needing to refill. 

Cap Your PVC Fill Tube:
Purchase caps to fit your PVC pipe. It will ensure that bugs and dirt can’t get into your fill container. It will also prevent evaporation.

Container Gardening Details
Success in container gardening is in the littlest details… so here are a few things I recommend you do:

Choose The Best Soil
The benefit of container gardening is getting the soil right at the outset. Take that extra time to choose the best! In my family buying organic isn’t usually a great financial option, so this is my chance to have organic fruits and vegetables!

Prevent Weeds
A couple minutes to add a bit of weed barrier will make life so much easier in the long-run, in addition it will help prevent moisture in the soil from evaporating as quickly increasing the effectiveness of your SIP’s. 
You can use weed barrier/garden cloth, some leftover plastic from your SIP project, or even a black garbage bag. 
Place over top of your soil and your fill pipe, cut a hole to accommodate the fill pipe, then tuck the edges into the soil. Cut an X where you will plant. 

For plants that require less moisture to maintain health, try different types of “weed barriers”. Mulch, *gravel, or even *river rocks make a pretty barrier. These do require some maintenance, as weeds can still sprout, but it makes a difference as opposed to not using any barrier at all. 
*Gravel or rocks can be used for plants that love heat only…the rocks will reflect sunlight onto your plants and absorb heat into your soil. Be careful to keep vegetables that “hang” off the rocks or they will burn. 

Make Plants Movable
There are benefits of being able to move your plants as needed, and once you add water to your SIP it will be quite heavy, so adding a castors is beneficial! 

  • In the case of an unexpected frost, I like to move my plants into the garage. 
  • Newly planted seedlings can’t take direct sunlight, so I may keep them in the shaded part of my deck until they are ready for full sun. 
  • To extend my gardening season I can start them early indoors (garage or sun porch), move them outdoors during the summer, then back indoors again during the winter months. 

I love the idea of placing all your small potted plants together in a garden wagon. Since I have a variety of pots too small to turn into SIP’s, it is beneficial to have them all grouped together so they can be spray watered all at once. A wagon would make it easy to contain them, and to pull in and out of a garage or sun porch if needed! I’m keeping my eye open for wagon sales. 

What great tips do you have for creating the ultimate container garden? I’d love to know! Next week, I’m adding raised beds to expand my container garden into my dream deck garden!

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4 Comments on Garden Fever Prt.2: Container Gardening

  1. Ceci Liz
    July 11, 2014 at 5:34 pm (7 years ago)

    I love this idea! I have a questions about how you created this SIP. You said that” for planters (where the holes are at the base), a container or plastic tarp barrier to hold the water until it can reach a certain height before draining is needed”…. my question is, can this step be modified… in the (case of a container with no holes in the bottom). Instead, could I just drill a whole on the container holding the water and put a vinyl tubing that comes out straight out of the pot?… similar to what you did on the Raised Sub-Irrigation Beds tutorial? Would that still work? Any other tips? TIA

    • Ursula Carmona
      July 12, 2014 at 9:24 pm (7 years ago)

      Thank you!
      You are absolutely on the money with that one! That is just how it should be modified… I have nothing to teach you grasshopper. Lol!
      Good luck with your SIP’s!

  2. Sean Carter
    May 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm (9 years ago)

    these are some really help tips, i really just love getting out there with my garden wagon and going to work. However sometimes space can be an issue. These are some wonderful ideas that can help me still be able to garden whenever I want. Thanks!


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