A Cheap Trick To Help Potheads Save On Water Bills

The suspiciously named Mr. Brown Thumb from Chicago Now’s Chicago Garden blog offers a simple but valuable tip for gardeners looking to cut down on their water and soil use: Don’t waste water-sucking dirt to fill your enormous pots.

Instead, opt for a filler concoction. Mr. Brown Thumb suggests water bottles covered with newspaper (I just knew those things must be good for something!):

I filled the bottom half of the pot with empty plastic soda bottles. In total there are six 2 liter bottles acting as a false bottom in each pot. Then I covered the top of the empty soda bottles with newspaper, but you can also use landscaping fabric or something like cheese cloth.

Use the trick and you’re saving the environment in so many ways that you’ll lose count and risk having your head explode. And with any luck you may just grow that plastic tree or newspaper vine of which you’ve always dreamed.

Water and Money- Saving Tip for Large Garden Planters [Chicago Now]
(Photo: KVDP)


Edit Your Comment

  1. MaelstromRider says:

    Why not just use the right size pot for the plant?

    • alexburrito says:

      @MaelstromRider: He’s growing several shallow-rooted plants in a large planter. Gardeners don’t always want individual pots for each plant. Aesthetic issues….

      I did something similar this season, but used packaging peanuts on the bottom instead.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @MaelstromRider: I have large planters that go next to my driveway between the driveway and patio. Little pots look stupid. The big ones hold multiple plants.

      I use old gladware that’s too gnarly for food to fill up the bottoms so I don’t waste dirt & water … and so they’re not so heavy I can’t move them!

  2. Necoras says:

    Doesn’t the soil hold the water so that you have to water less often? Isn’t that kind of the point of having dirt in a pot?

    • sporesdeezeez says:

      @Necoras: I concur. I know it’s the Great Recession and all but do we really need substitutes for dirt?

      I think composting is a better way to cut down your dirt expenses and love mother earth etc. Kill two birds with one stone there; free dirt, and less trash.

      • funnymonkey says:

        @sporesdeezeez: Generally, when planting in pots, you buy the dirt – either you don’t have a yard to get it from or you don’t want to dig holes in your yard to get dirt for your pots. So, you really do save a little money by not filling the whole thing with potting soil.

        Plus, that graphic is a little misleading. If you are using a little pot like that, you’d use potting soil. I have two half-barrels with annuals on either side of my front walk. They are large, and generally little annuals don’t have very deep roots. To keep them light enough to move around, and to save expensive potting soil, I put packing peanuts or cut up old cardboard boxes to fill half the pots.

        Composting is great, but somewhat involved and time-consuming. You can’t just compost into the bottom of a pot. In the meantime, there are other options.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @Necoras: There’s a point past which the dirt is just filler, not useful for the plants. I have big “estate pots” between my driveway and patio in which I plant coreopsis and supertunias … neither are very deep-rooting plants, and they’re there for pretty so the spot doesn’t look naked.

      I actually experimented and filled two with all dirt, two with filler at the bottom (old gladware I was going to throw away as too gnarly for food) and dirt on top. The two with filler actually grew better, I think because they had superior drainage. The filler ones I can also move; the ones that are all-dirt I can’t move without emptying partway.

  3. Adrienne Willis says:

    your headline got me very excited :-(

  4. Aphex242 says:

    Seems like this would make the pot topheavy.

  5. chiieddy says:

    Wouldn’t a rain barrel be more effective?

  6. Ihaveasmartpuppy says:

    There are many things you can use. I’ve used packing peanuts (not the kind that dissolve in water) and the plastic pots plants come in from the green house (overturned, of course). A smaller or taller pot may be top heavy, but not the really big ones you don’t move about. It really does help, and usually we just plant annuals in those pots so the roots never get deep enough to need anything past a few inches. I wouldn’t do this with a potted tree or anything I would want to keep year-round.

  7. Skin Art Squared says:

    How much are you really saving with this? A gallon or two? I think better advice would be telling people to stop wasting water washing their cars. Or at least turn the hose off in between rinses instead of letting it run into the gutter while you scrub. But a plant pot? Really? And wouldn’t this also make it top-heavy and more easily turned over and broken?

    • madog says:

      @BZMedia: A few gallons saved, multiplied by the people like my mom who water 10+ potted plants every day or so = savings.

    • GenXCub says:


      That’s like telling people “don’t bother turning your lights off when you leave the room because the factory down the street is belching more carbon than you’ll emit in a lifetime”

      The big things are the priority, but it’s not like you can’t do both big and small at the same time.

    • ChuckECheese says:


      wouldn’t this also make it top-heavy and more easily turned over and broken?

      Only if you drop it! You might want to keep your miser-pots away from toddlers and drunks.

      Your ideas about saving water are good, but there’s always that next step to be taken. The whole point of conservation is that it can become a fever of endless schemes and micro-mitigations that become a substitute for common sense and a satisfying sex life. Not even shame will stop these people. The only things that stop Gaia obsessions are SSRI antidepressants and occasionally bacon.

  8. robdew2 says:

    “saving the environment in so many ways that you’ll lose count”

    I count zero. If I can’t count any, is that losing count? You consumed the soda and newspaper, or someone else did.

    Do these bottles leach anything into the soil? Is he growing BPA peppers?

    Here’s a better idea: use smaller pots.

  9. Saboth says:

    I don’t grow pot, but I’d sure like to know how to save on water. I feel like my city rips us off on water. Each month, my actual water usage bill is usually $14, however, they tack on about 2-3 fees and services, then “sewer” is more like $30, causing my bill to be more like $45, when I have low flow toilets, showers, and only 2 people living in a small house (no lawn watering, pool, etc) either.

    • Skin Art Squared says:

      @Saboth: I would gladly trade you water bills. Typical water bill at my place on Maui ran $600 month.

    • milsyobtaf says:

      “sewer” is a huge part of what makes the clear stuff that runs out of your tap – it has to go somewhere, after all, unless you spit your toothbrushing rinse-water into an empty backyard pool. we only have so much fresh water on this big salty blue marble of ours, and proper water treatment is necessary to keep us from running through it faster than we already do. the price of water charged by municipalities is a false economy, kept artificially cheap because people “feel” that water should be cheap. one of the single most precious resources on earth should cost more than $45 a month for even the smallest of houses.

    • ChuckECheese says:

      @Saboth: Welcome to the paradox of conservation. Your municipality wants you to save resources, but they never intended to shut the spigot on their cash flow. So they raise rates and invent new ones.

    • amandakerik says:

      @Saboth: Perhaps install a water meter? If you can show you’re not using very much water, you may be able to point out flaws in their system or maybe get a discount for keeping track.
      Sort of like how people with alarms for their houses get discounts on their insurance.

  10. WorldHarmony says:

    This Consumerist entry makes no sense. The guy came up with this idea because of a mistake he made in determining the size pot he needed, not to get people to save money on gardening in general.

  11. WorldHarmony says:

    Oh- and I see the guy is growing peppers. If you plan to eat the food you grow, toxic newspaper ink- which shouldn’t even be composted- should not be part of your food garden.

  12. betatron says:

    It’s not like me (most of us) live in Hong Kong where water really _does_ cost a lot.
    While this idea has a small degree of cleverness in reusing materials, it’s just silly.
    Your pots do not use that much water, full of soda bottles or not. The SAME amount of water is going to evaporate from the top, leak out the bottom and wick/diffuse/evaoprate out the sides.

    Worse yet, your plants are gong to need MORE FREQUENT WATERING because of the reduced soil volume and the plants will be stunted/lest robust due to their smaller roots.

    This idea is not as good as it sounds.

  13. OneTrickPony says:

    This may save on potting soil, but I suspect it’s not going to work well at all to save water–he’ll literally just be pouring water down the drain. (I note that the blogger seems to have just set up this system a few days ago–perhaps Lifehacker editors should wait a few weeks to see if his new brilliant idea actually works?)

    The water is simply going to drain into the bottom of the pot more quickly than it would if it were solid soil. Then the water will either run out the drainage hole (if there is one), or stagnate in the bottom of the pot if there isn’t, completely inaccessible to the plants.

    In general, you want to actually *maximize* the amount of material in the pot that is sucking up water. That water’s not being wasted! It’s being held in storage for the plants to suck right back when they need it.

    A better idea if you’re short on soil would be to make up the volume by mixing in some sort of inert filler (the packing peanuts suggested above are a good idea) Even better, use the extra space to design a true self-watering mechanism so that you use less soil *and* water less often.

    The only real way to reduce the volume of water you use is to minimize the amount that runs out the drain hole and reduce the amount that evaporates out the sides and top of the pot by choice of material (clay pots and wooden planters require more frequent water because they transpire water through their sidewalls) and by mulching the surface like you would with an in-ground plant. Everything else is being held in your planting medium and eventually being used by your plant, which is the whole point.

  14. U-235 says:

    I officially feel like an idiot for using rocks in the bottom of my pots. Next year, its two liters and newspaper for me!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Better idea — take the plastic pots the plants came in from wherever you purchased them (the plastic six packs work just as well), line the bottom of the pot with them to your desired filler depth and then dump in your soil/potting mix. I’ve done this with almost all the planters I have to some degree and it saves soil — and allows for drainage. Plus, as the plants mature and roots go deeper they can, if need be, reach between the filler pots to reach the moisture down there.

    Been doing this for years and never had any problems. Can even reuse the plastic pots year after year (should the nurseries ever wise up and supply all plants in peat pots to help the environment)

  16. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    i’d cut the soda bottles in half, set them upright to collect water that drains back down from the soil and let the newspaper wick it back up to the soil as it evaporates off the top of the soil in the pot.

  17. Bargaineering.com says:

    We sprinkle in some styrofoam peanuts, broken up, to help aerate the soil.

  18. amandakerik says:

    If you’re really worried about water usage, use a wicking container with a moisture barrier on the top. If you’re a DIYer the EarthTainer is great, and if you’re not there are kits out there.
    Hell, just putting some plastic / mylar (shiny side up of a chip bag) on the top around the plant(s) will cut the evaporation.

  19. heathenkitties says:

    I’m a balcony gardener and this tip makes no sense to me. Like others have said, just use the proper size pot; your plants will be happier!