Self-watering plants are making quite a splash in the world of gardening! With no need for meticulous moisture checks and intricate watering regimes, they really take the hassle out of tending to your plant collection. There’s a self-watering system to suit every plant, every gardener, and every budget, from high-tech irrigation systems to DIY setups, to recycled bottles, and everything in between.
If you’d like to have a go at this laid-back approach to gardening, then you need our must-read guide to the best self-watering plant ideas.
What is a self-watering plant?
It may sound like some kind of futuristic plant-android hybrid, but the concept of a self-watering plant is something of a misnomer. ‘Self-watering’ plants don’t literally water themselves. Instead, they rely on simple yet clever integrated systems which provide constant access to water, allowing the roots to take up as much or as little as they want, whenever they want. So technically, any plant can be a self-watering plant, so long as it is growing in a self watering setup. All you need to do is keep the reservoir topped up and let the plant do the rest!
Most self-watering systems work by delivering water from below or within the soil, rather sporadic watering from above, with say, a hose or watering can. The water is contained in a reservoir and transported to the soil via a porous wicking system. The soil should not be in direct contact with the water as it will become oversaturated and damage the plants’ roots. Instead, the wick regulates the transfer of water between the reservoir and the soil. One end of the wick is submerged in the water reservoir, and the other is buried in the soil. Acting similarly to a sponge absorbing water, the wick draws up water from one end and pushes it to the other end, where it is dispersed throughout the soil. This creates an efficient and ergonomic watering system which mimics the way plants absorb water from beneath the surface of the soil in nature.
A self-watering system requires four main elements:
- A container – as with any plant, some form of container or pot is needed to house the plant and its growing medium.
- A substrate – to deliver nutrients to the plant, and to absorb and deliver water to the roots. A self-watering substrate should be absorbent, but also loose and well-aerated. A lightly moist substrate will absorb water much more efficiently than a bone-dry substrate.
- A reservoir – some form of tray, container, or bottle to hold the water separately from the soil.
- A wick – a length of durable, absorbent material which transports water from the reservoir to the substrate. One end of the wick should touch the bottom of the reservoir so it always has access to water. It should also extend some way into the soil at the other end, to ensure that water can be transferred efficiently and evenly through the soil.
What are the benefits of self-watering plants?
Self-watering systems deliver a whole host of benefits, from convenience to sustainability, to improving plant health. Let’s take a closer look at all the reasons to consider using a self-watering setup.
Takes the guesswork out of watering
A plant’s water requirements can change frequently depending on external conditions such as the time of year, the amount of light they receive, the weather, and if they are fruiting or flowering. Self-watering systems enable our plant to modify its water uptake automatically in response to external changes. This means no trying to guess whether your plants’ water requirements are changing, simply keep the reservoir topped up and the plant itself will absorb precisely the right amount of moisture.
Promotes healthy roots
Watering from below rather than above encourages deep, healthy root systems. Stronger roots can absorb more nutrients, so you will find that self-watered plants will grow more vigorously and healthily than top-down watered plants.
Watering from the bottom, rather than the top, means that excess moisture doesn’t linger on foliage and flowers, thus eliminating the conditions in that moulds and fungi thrive.
Easy to see when the reservoir needs refilling
With self-watering plants, there’s no need to poke your finger into your plant’s soil to see if it needs watering. A simple peek inside the reservoir will tell you whether it needs refilling or not. Plus, the reservoir holds more water than a plant pot, so they need refilling far less regularly than a normal watering schedule.
Delivers consistent water
We’ve all been guilty of forgetting to water a plant now and again, and perhaps trying to overcompensate by overwatering. Sporadic watering is a plant’s worst enemy, and they love nothing more than consistency. Self-watering systems deliver a consistent and stable water supply to our plants, and no need to stress if you’re something of a forgetful gardener.
If you have an extensive houseplant collection or a sprawling vegetable garden, it can be very time-consuming to give each plant the attention (and water) they need. A self-watering system pretty much does away with laborious watering routines by providing them with constant access to water. Similarly, they’re great if you spend a lot of time away from home. You won’t have to worry about your plants suffering a drought if you aren’t there to water them since they’ll be able to water themselves!
Efficient and sustainable use of water
Self-watering systems waste far less water through evaporation or spillages than normal watering cans or hoses do, making it a far more efficient and sustainable way to garden.
Prevents overwatering and underwatering
Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes many gardeners make, and can often cause irreversible damage to the plant and even death. Similarly, underwatering or periods of drought can cause yellowing, drooping foliage, weak stems and roots, and will eventually kill a plant. Self-watering systems eliminate both of these common problems by enabling the plant to access just the right amount of water.
21 of the Best Self-watering Plant ideas
Now we’ve looked at the benefits a self-watering setup has to offer, let’s explore some of the most effective and creative self-watering ideas.
- Self-watering pots – These are the most common kind of self-watering setup, readily available in garden centres, DIY stores, and online in a range of materials, designs, and sizes for both indoor and outdoor plants. They usually feature a built-in, refillable water reservoir which sits just below the plant pot, and wicking material to transfer the water. Some self-watering pots are well disguised to look like just another plant pot, whilst others use the reservoir to create an interesting design feature.
- Self-watering raised bed – These look like a normal raised bed planter, except they have a water reservoir and wicking system hidden within the external frame. These are a great large-scale option for vegetables who tend to be thirsty and need lots of room to spread out.
- Self-watering Hanging Planters – If you’re a fan of trailing and vining plants, why not invest in a self-watering hanging planter? They work in exactly the same way as a standard self-watering pot, except they can be suspended from hooks. These are perfect for delivering the high moisture levels beloved by trailing tropical houseplants like Pothos and Philodendron. Outdoors, can drastically reduce the workload of tending to traditional hanging baskets which dry out incredibly quickly and often need daily watering during summer.
- Watering globes – These are simple but effective watering systems that can be picked up at most nurseries and garden centres, and require very little setup. Watering globes are simply glass or plastic spheres which sit atop a single pointed spout. The globe part can be filled with water and the spike inserted into the soil to deliver a consistent stream of water to your plants. Available in a huge array of colours, designs, and even unusual shapes, watering globes are not only functional but also decorative.
- Transparent wicking pots – These glass or clear plastic versions of traditional wicking pots add an extra dimension of interest to your plant display, since they enable you to see the wicking action in motion, and are also a fascinating way to see the roots of your plant developing.
- Self-watering window box – Window boxes are a great idea for balconies and small patio gardens since they don’t take up any floor space yet still deliver a steady stream of moisture for your plants. They operate in exactly the same way as a self-watering plant pot, only with additional hooks to rest over a windowsill or balcony railing.
- Self-watering seed tray – These clever seed trays are perfect if you want to sow a large volume of seeds but don’t have time to meticulously mist your seedlings. The seed tray pockets sit atop an absorbent capillary mat inside a larger reservoir tray to deliver a steady water supply to your seedlings.
- Self-watering herb garden – There’s really nothing better than cooking with fresh herbs, and a self-watering herb garden is an ideal way to prolong the life of shop-bought live herbs. Using a mason jar or other glass container, simply place the herb pot snuggly in the rim, ensuring it doesn’t touch the bottom of the jar. Pour a couple of inches of water into the jar and run a wick between the pot and the water, to create a long-lasting fresh herb garden perfect for a sunny spot in the kitchen.
- Plastic Bottles – Recycle your plastic bottles to make eco-friendly and budget-friendly self-watering setups. Pierce a small hole in the cap of an old plastic drinks bottle, and make another hole about an inch from the bottom of the bottle. Fill with water and insert neck first into the soil. The hole at the bottom of the bottle will help to regulate the flow of water to the soil.
- Glass Bottles – This is another great way to recycle unwanted bottles. Pierce a hole in the lid of a screw-top wine bottle and fill it with water. Thread a wick through the hole in the lid to transfer the water, and insert the neck of the bottle and some of the wick into the soil. You can even use this method without a wick, simply remove the lid and turn the full glass bottle upside down very quickly and insert it straight into the soil, the water should trickle through slowly due to the weight distribution of the water.
- Upgrade existing pots with a self-watering insert – Pot Liners are fantastic if you have lots of existing pots that you want to utilise in your self-watering setup. Readily available to purchase, these hard plastic inserts with built-in wicks sit inside any pot and have legs to raise them up slightly. Pour a couple of inches of water into the old pot and insert the liner, ensuring the wick is submerged but the legs hold the liner just above the water line.
- Self-watering terrarium – If you fancy having a go at something a little more scientific, why not create a self-watering terrarium? Fertile substrate and moisture-loving plants can be arranged inside a glass tank or bottle. Once the initial moisture content requirements have been established with regular misting, the container can be sealed and the terrarium should become self-sufficient, and self-watering! These setups require almost no maintenance once the precise moisture conditions have been established.
- Plastic spikes – These clever contraptions are simply pointy plastic attachments that can be screwed onto the lid part of an empty bottle. The bottle is then upturned and the spike is inserted into the soil, which slowly drip-feeds water in a controlled way. There’s no need for a wick with this type of setup since the spike regulates the flow of water.
- Terracotta spikes – These spikes work in a similar way to plastic ones, except they are made out of a porous material like clay or terracotta that allows water to seep through into the soil at a slow and steady rate. Simply fix your terracotta spikes to the spout of an old bottle and insert them into the soil.
- Stackable boxes and buckets – This is a great DIY version using cheap materials. All you need is two stackable containers and a wick. Using a drill, make several holes in the base of one container. Insert a piece of string or rope through each hole and secure it with a knot, allowing the other end of the string to trail down. Fill the other container with an inch or two of water, and stack the other container on top of it. Ensure the loose ends of the strings make contact with the water. Fill the top container with substrate and pull the knotted end of the ropes upwards through the soil a little.
- Use multiple wicks – A great way to turn your self-watering system into an interesting design feature is to use a single water container with several lengths of wick extending from it, each feeding into a different plant. The multiple wicks create a spider web effect. This works really well with houseplants that are displayed close together on a shelf or windowsill and can help to create a humid microclimate which is perfect for tropical plants.
- Recycled drinks bottle – If you’re a keen recycler and hate single-use plastic, this one is for you. Cut a used two litre plastic drinks bottle in half and fill the bottom half with a few inches of water. Place the top half upside down inside the bottom half, so the spout rests just above the water. Run a wick from the water up through the spout and fill it with substrate and plant out!
- Upcycle your reservoirs – Just because self-watering set-ups are practical, that doesn’t mean they can’t be pretty! Water reservoirs can be painted or decorated in any way you wish, especially if you love to upcycle old materials such as old paint cans, buckets, or boxes. Decorations make the reservoir as much of a decorative feature as the plants themselves
- Vertical self-watering system – If you’re short on space in your home or garden, consider an upright self-watering system that allows gravity to do the work. Arrange your plants on shelves, or affix them to a wall or fence. Then simply place a water reservoir above the plants, and run individual wicks down to each plant.
- Wacky wicks – Your wick needn’t be an uninspiring plain white length of rope, it can become a design feature in and of itself. You can use any absorbent material, from cotton to nylon, to polyester, to wool; shoelaces, strips of old clothes, ropes, or string. You can use colourful fabrics too, just avoid anything which has been heavily chemically dyed as this may harm your plants.
- Give your plants a bath – Whilst this may not be a great idea for a permanent self-watering system, it certainly solves the problem of keeping your plants well-watered if you need to leave home at the last minute. Simply run a few inches of cold water into your bathtub, and lay towels in the bath. Once the towels have absorbed most of the water, place your plants on top of the wet towels in the bath. The towels will act as a wicking system to transport water through the drainage holes of the pots until you return, or until you can find a more permanent solution!
Are there any plants which don’t do well in self-watering setups?
As a general rule, the majority of plants thrive with consistent watering. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Arid plants like cacti and other succulents tend to do better in drier conditions, so they are not recommended for a self-watering setup.
How can I fertilise a plant in a self-watering pot?
For the most part, granular or slow-release fertiliser added to the soil will work fine in a self-watering setup. Liquid plant fertiliser can be added in small amounts to the water reservoir, but be careful not to overfeed your plants this way.
Whether you’re looking to improve the health of your plants, trying to garden more sustainably, chronically forgetful, or simply short on time, self-watering plants might just be the answer to your plant-based prayers. And with so many different setup ideas to try out, your self-watering possibilities really are endless!