When the EarthBox came onto the market several years ago, it was an instant success with home gardeners who loved the promise of easy, small-space container gardening.
Hundreds of thousands of EarthBoxes — originally marketed as "the garden of the future" — have been sold, and the contraption continues to be wildly popular.
After all, what's not to like? The EarthBox promises no digging in the dirt, no weeding and no fertilizing — and the bottom-up, self-watering system forgives many sins.
But it wasn't long before tinkerers and tweakers began fiddling with the EarthBox concept, using everything from washtubs to big buckets to replicate its good features and improve on its perceived shortcomings.
Plans for home-built EarthBox-like gizmos are all over the Internet, and ideas are regularly swapped on garden-related forums online. And there are several knockoffs available in retail stores and on the Web.
Campbell gardener Ray Newstead was fascinated by the closed-system, water-saving aspects of the EarthBox, but decided it was too small to contain the large beefsteak-type tomatoes he has grown for years in the ground and in raised beds.
He also was not impressed with the caging system sold as an accessory to the EarthBox, which he says isn't sturdy enough to support heavily producing tomato vines without danger of falling over from being top-heavy or being blown over in high winds.
He started by looking at some of the designs posted on the Web.
But then his innovation DNA kicked in, and pretty soon — through a process of trial and error that he has shared freely with the online community — he came up with an ingenious design for the growing box and its caging system that uses off-the-shelf components, but incorporates a proprietary accessory of the EarthBox setup he purchases from that company. He calls his version the EarthTainer, and he has applied for a patent.
Newstead's back yard now sports 26 of these big boxes. Two dozen of them hold two tomato plants each; in the other two, he's growing corn.
"My biggest question about the EarthBox was: How can I super-size it?" Newstead says.
At Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers, he prowled the housewares aisles and came upon some taupe-colored 31-gallon Rubbermaid Roughneck lidded storage containers. At 16 inches tall, they are 5 inches taller than the EarthBox (and longer by 3 inches and wider by 6).
When tricked out as an EarthTainer, the Roughnecks hold about 10 gallons of water in a 6-inch self-watering reservoir. The EarthBox has a 2-inch water reservoir.
"It's like a boat anchor," says Newstead, noting that a "fully loaded" EarthTainer — filled with potting mix, plants and water — weighs about 150 pounds. "Just try to pull that over."
Each EarthTainer is made from two Roughnecks. One is cut down, drilled like Swiss cheese with many holes and inserted inside the other to create an "aeration bench" that holds the potting mix and plants over the water reservoir.
In between these two layers is a "wicking basket" made from an ordinary 6-inch-tall pond filtration basket. The wicking basket sits on the floor of the bottom Rubbermaid container; its top helps support the shelf to create an air gap between the potting mix and the water reservoir. A piece of plastic pipe serves as a filler tube for the reservoir.
Plants in the EarthTainer, like in the EarthBox, are supplied with water through bottom-up capillary action.
The wicking basket, which is packed with potting mix, delivers the water up to the bulk of the potting mix, where the plants grow.
"The plant takes up just as much water as it needs as long as you keep the reservoir full," Newstead says. "You can't over- or under-water. It's a closed-loop system."
Cage is key
The sturdy caging system he devised starts with heavy-duty 54-inch tomato cages made by Glamos Manufacturing and available at Wal-Mart.
The cages, which have a diameter of 18 inches, are attached, two to an EarthTainer, using washers, wire rope clips and toggle bolts. The caging system integrates a black plastic moisture barrier, through which the tomato seedlings are planted. The lid of the Rubbermaid container — the center removed — snaps on to hold the moisture barrier and stabilize the cages.
He also offers plans to build a cage extension for those really big indeterminate tomatoes.
And what do the folks who came up with the EarthBox think about knock-offs like Newstead's?
It was inevitable, says Frank DiPaolo, general manager of EarthBox, based in Scranton, Pa.: "When we introduced the EarthBox, we knew we had a revolutionary product and if it hadn't been successful, there wouldn't be competitive products today.
"In the marketplace, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery."
Newstead estimates that his EarthTainer-grown tomatoes will consume 75 percent less water than those cultivated in the ground or in raised beds.
Those savings will be particularly important this year, when the state is facing a drought.
"This closed-loop design concentrates 100 percent of the water in the reservoir to the plants," he says.
"I travel a lot for business, and when I grew my tomatoes in a raised bed with a soaker hose, even with a timer I would inevitably over-water and come back to weeds galore."
Plus, says Newstead, some tomato varieties are bigger drinkers than others.
"I was constantly fiddling with (the watering system)," he says. "My Ed's Millennium was wanting a lot of water, while Carmelo, not so much. One-size-fits-all was not working."
To meet the individual water needs of his plants, Newstead purchased and modified EarthBox's "brilliant" patented automatic watering system, which is based on a pneumatic diaphragm. A sensor assembly in the filler tube detects the water level in each reservoir and automatically replenishes each one on demand.
"Now, I just sit out here in the hot tub and hear the gurgling" of the sensors doing their thing. "It's green and efficient."
Contact Holly Hayes at email@example.com.