Wicking beds and self-watering plant pots can produce veggies, herbs, and flowers with less water, and are simple enough to build yourself. Here's how to create one from a food-grade plastic barrel.
One of the pain points of growing some of your own food is the skill of knowing when and how much to water, so that the plants have access to enough soil moisture for optimal growth, and aren't having to constantly deal with going back and forth from being drowned to being dried out.
Another is the time it takes to check the soil moisture and to water the growing beds, and between the two, it's enough to make some beginning gardeners hang up the hose and shovel.
To make it easier, and less time-consuming, some gardeners choose to use wicking beds and self-watering containers, which not only use less water while still providing the appropriate amount of moisture in the soil, but which can also enable the plants to grow virtually unattended (at least as far as watering is concerned).
Wicking beds and self-watering containers work in the same way, with a built-in reservoir holding the water, and some type of wicking material pulls the water up into the growing medium using capillary action. This creates a water-smart garden bed or pot that can go for up to a week without the reservoir needing to be filled up, while maintaining an optimal soil moisture environment without the growing medium becoming waterlogged.
I've previously covered a method of building a raised wicking garden bed from scavenged materials, and we've published quite a few other self-watering container ideas, both manufactured and DIY, but here's one that uses 55 gallon (200 liter) food-grade plastic barrels, which are widely available and can often be had for a minimal cost.
The same building principles found in this video can be applied to just about any appropriate container, not just barrels, and doesn't require any costly materials. Another method of building wicking beds that I've seen used with great success is with food-grade IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container) totes, which are palletized plastic containers, often with a 275 gallon or more capacity. These containers can cost more than barrels, and they do require a bit more work to cut down to size, but the top can then be hinged to the bottom section to create a covered bed for frost protection.