Make Planting Easy With Self-Watering Container Gardening

Self-watering container gardening allows you to set and (almost) forget about your plants. The containers feature a water-filled reservoir in the bottom. A screen separates the reservoir from the rest of the planter. As the soil dries out, it pulls water from the reservoir, so that the plant gets consistent moisture. While you can purchase a self-watering container, it's relatively easy to make your own, using everyday materials.

What is a Self Watering Container?

Rule one of growing plants in a container is giving the container some way for excess water to drain out, usually in the form of a hole or series of holes on the bottom of the pot. Once the soil is saturated with water, the extra needs to flow out or else the roots might rot from the excess moisture.

self-watering container gardening

Photo by congerdesign licensed under CC0

Self-watering containers work in a different way. Instead of a hole for drainage, there is a hole or opening to allow the soil in the pot to take up extra water as needed. A reservoir sits underneath the pot or nestles into the soil.

A wick, such as a piece of plastic tubing, connects the soil in the container to the water reservoir. As the soil dries out, water from the reservoir can travel to the soil, keeping the moisture levels consistent. The containers work by capillary action, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Some also have moisture sensors connected to the soil.

The video from Garden Time TV shows you a few self-watering containers in action and helps give you a better idea of how they work.

Benefits of Self Watering Container Gardening

Using a self-watering container has several benefits. The biggest benefit might be that the container allows you to travel for a few days or otherwise leave your garden unattended for a couple of days without returning to find your plants wilted and the soil completely dried out.

For that reason, self-watering containers are best-suited to gardeners who need to travel frequently, but still want to enjoy a garden when they are home. They are also ideal for gardeners who are just getting started and who might worry about neglecting or forgetting to tend to their plants.

Another advantage of using a self-watering container is that you can't overwater your plants. With regular containers, you can add water to saturate the soil and keep adding water, even when the plant has more than enough. Most of the excess water will drain away, but if the soil stays waterlogged for several days, the plant will suffer.

Since the soil in a self-watering container only takes up as much as water as it needs, leaving the rest in the connected reservoir, there's no way to overwater your plants. If you do put too much water into the reservoir, it will simply drain out of the overflow hole.

Self Watering Container Options

You have many options when it comes to choosing a self-watering container for your garden. Some commercially manufactured containers are available. You can also build your own.

Commercially produced self-watering planters include the Earthbox and the GrowBox, both of which are long, rectangular, plastic containers with a reservoir in the bottom. Some self-watering planters are designed to be more stylish and decorative, but still have a reservoir in the base.

DIY Self Watering Container

If you're handy with a drill, you can make your own self-watering container, using common materials. The University of Maryland Extension recommends using 5-gallon plastic buckets to make your container.

To make the container, you drill many holes in the lid of the bucket and cut a length of food grade plastic tubing. Create a reservoir in the bottom of the bucket by putting a few 4-inch wide, 2-inch tall drain pipes on the bottom, then top with the plastic lid.

You'll also want to drill a hole in the side of the bucket so that excess water can flow out of the reservoir. Put the plastic tubing in the hole, so that you can catch the extra water in bowl or milk jug and re-use it.

Once you've put the plastic lid on top of the reservoir, you can fill up the bucket with container mix and add your plants.

If you want a visual demonstration of how to put together a self-watering container, the video from Garden Frugal shows you how to DIY one, using a large plastic bin. The entire project is relatively inexpensive and should cost you less than $10.

Care for a Self Watering Container

Although you can water your plants less often when you use a self-watering container, you still want to keep an eye on the container and the level of water in the reservoir. It's important not to let the reservoir run dry. If it dries up, your plants won't get the moisture they need.

Fertilizing a self-watering container is also slightly different from fertilizing in the ground or a standard container. Commercially available self-watering containers usually include a special strip of fertilizer, which you place over top of the screen, below the container soil. As the soil draws water up from the reservoir, it also pulls up nutrients.

If you're making your own container, one of the best ways to fertilize your plants is to mix compost into the container mix. You can also find specially made self-watering container mix, which has microbes that help the roots draw in moisture more easily.

At the end of the growing season, it's important to clean out the self-watering container and to bring it indoors to protect it from frost. If you leave water in the reservoir and it freezes, it can expand and potentially crack or otherwise damage the pot.

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