How To Help Your Houseplant Water Itself (Yes, Really)

Photo: Jacqui Miller

All plant parents out there know the feeling: You're getting things squared away for an extended vacation and then—suddenly—you remember that fern of yours that needs constant TLC. Well, Rose Ray and Caro Langton, the authors of the new book Root, Nurture, Grow, are here to tell you that it's actually really easy to make your own self-watering pot. Follow their steps and you'll never have to worry about leaving your finicky houseplants alone again.

Most of the prettiest planters on the market have a major disadvantage: They don't come with drainage holes. Unsurprisingly, when we visit our friends' houses and are asked for advice on ailing plants, they are almost always those that are housed within a sealed pot. Without a way for excess water to escape, these plants will inevitably suffer from the growth of bacteria and eventually root damage.

Unfortunately, shop-bought self-watering pots tend to be either very ugly, very expensive, or both.

This self-watering pot design is suitable for any indoor tropical plant that likes its soil to be moist—but not soaking—at all times. If you're not sure, generally these are plants native to more humid climates, such as ferns, palms, Alocasia, and the majestic peace lily. The built-in reservoir is also a brilliant solution if you travel and have to leave your more fussy indoor plants unattended for a while.

How to make your own self-watering pot.

What you'll need:

  • Tropical plant in its original plastic pot (this will be your inner pot)
  • Planter (around 1½ to 2 times the volume of the inner pot)
  • Porous fabric such as cotton or a clean tea towel—anything that will soak up water effectively
  • Scissors
  • A handful of activated charcoal
  • Bag of aqua clay pebbles
  • Cup
  • Fine topdressing stones (optional)

Directions:

1. Give the materials a good cleaning to remove any potentially harmful bacteria. Wash the pots with soap and water; thoroughly rinse the drainage and topdressing stones and—unless it is brand-new—run the fabric through your washing machine. If using, there is no need to clean the activated charcoal.

2. When you're ready, remove the plant from its plastic pot: Support the base of the stems with the palm of your hand and turn the pot upside down. If the plant stays put, you may need to prune off any rogue roots growing through the drainage holes. Once removed, lay the plant gently on its side, ensuring you don't crush any stems. You can use some scrunched-up newspaper to help prop up the stem. 

3. Cut strips of fabric to a length of around three times the height of your larger planter. Make sure to cut each strip to a width that will allow it to be threaded through a drainage hole of your inner pot. You will need half the number of strips to the number of drainage holes. For example, if your inner pot has six holes, you will need three strips of fabric.

 4. Thread each strip of fabric through one drainage hole and then back down another, pulling until it is taut. You should be left with the two halves of the strip hanging down below the pot. Repeat this until all of the strips are threaded.

5. Sprinkle the activated charcoal into the base of the larger planter, and then add the aqua clay pebbles on top. You want to fill the planter so that the inner pot can rest on top of the pebbles with its rim a couple of centimeters (about an inch) below the lip of the planter.

6. This step is a little fiddly: The idea is to get the strips of fabric to nestle in among the stones all the way down to the base of the planter. This is so that water can soak the fabric and travel up the strips all the way to the soil line. 

7. Once the plastic pot and fabric strips are securely embedded, you can replace the plant in its original plastic pot, where it will sit on top of the fabric strips. Using your cup, fill the pebble reservoir with water until it just reaches the top of the clay pebbles. Make a note of how many cups it takes to do this.

8. Fill in the space around the plastic pot with more aqua clay pebbles and then top-dress until the pot is concealed. Over the next few hours, as your pot starts its magic, you should find that the top of the compost becomes damp to the touch.

Later on, you will know when it is time to top up the water reservoir by simply checking the dampness of the compost with your finger. As soon as it feels bone dry, you know it's time to top up the reservoir.

Excerpted with permission from Root, Nurture, Grow by Caro Langton and Rose Ray, published by Quadrille October 2018.

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