It’s always fun to talk with friends and family about gardening ideas. My nephew told me about a high altitude tomato self-watering system he and a friend each constructed and tried last summer. He lives at 6500’ and we live at 8700’ so it peaked my curiosity. The main components are reused pieces most gardeners have on hand or can get from another local gardener. You’ll need one five gallon bucket (outer/reservoir bucket), another five gallon bucket or a black plant pot with drain holes in the bottom (inner/planting bucket), a 4” diameter pot like a yogurt container, deli container or a net pot (wicking basket), potting soil, a PVC pipe longer than the height of the outer/reservoir bucket, and a drill.
- Cut a large hole in the bottom, center of the interior/planting bucket that is slightly smaller than the wicking basket. Then cut a hole in the bottom, outside edge of the interior bucket that is slightly larger than your PVC pipe. Using a ¼ inch drill bit, drill extra drain holes into the bottom of the interior bucket.
- For the wicking basket, put lots of small holes in the yogurt or deli container, or just use a net pot as is.
- Place the wicking basket into the outer/reservoir bucket. Then nest the interior/planting bucket into the outer one, sitting on top of the wicking basket. Align the large hole of the inner bucket with the wicking basket.
- Put the PVC pipe in the similar sized hole so that it almost touches the bottom of the outer/reservoir bucket. (This allows you to water into the pipe so that the water goes into the reservoir. The PVC pipe also helps stake the plant.)
- Drill a ¼” hole into the side of the outer/reservoir bucket about 1/4” below the bottom of the inner/planting bucket. (You know you have put enough water in when it reaches this hole.)
- Put potting soil into the wicking basket and inner/planting bucket, then plant the tomato deeply into the inner bucket. (When the wicking basket is surrounded by water, the water will soak the soil that’s in the wicking basket and be pulled up into the planter as needed. The ¼” holes in the bottom of the bucket allow excess water to drain out. You could also try other plants covering the root ball.)
My nephew said that his version did better and produced much more fruit than other methods he’d tried and bested his friend’s tomato plant. Apparently, because the potting soil absorbed the water for even moisture but didn’t get wet feet, the tomato rooted well. They had used the same tomatoes which led to the conclusion that that the PVC pipe and net pot allowed more aeration and leaned toward a hydroponic method. He sent me a link to a DIY tutorial on www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com. Thanks to author Mike Lieberman. Given growing tomatoes at altitude is always a challenge and not always very productive, this new method is sure worth a try this season.
Here is a photo of one version: