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How Well Do Self-Watering Planters Work? (+3 Tips)

Self-watering pots, also known as sub-irrigation containers, have seen a boom in recent years as they are very helpful, easy to use, effective, and a must-have if you are a busy or forgetful plant parent.

Self-watering pots are gaining popularity because they work effectively and give plants consistent moisture. You need to fill the reservoir, and the water will get soaked by the soil. The water reservoir is located at the bottom, through which the plant draws water using the capillary action.

In this article, I will discuss the advantages and problems of self-watering pots and explain how they work. I will also talk about certain facts you need to know before using a self-watering planter. So keep reading for all the information.

calathea self watering

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What is a self-watering planter?

Self-watering pots have become a trend lately.

Due to our busy schedules, we often find it difficult to take care of our plants and water them regularly.

If you grow plants that require constant moisture and hate drying out, these pots can be your savior.

Self-watering pots are available in different designs and options.

The components of a self-watering planter

There are self-watering planters of different designs and various types, each having different features.

Here are the common elements:

1. The growing bed

The planter’s upper body holds the plant and the soil.

2. Potting soil

You must use a lightweight soil mix to wick up the water easily, and there is plenty of space in the soil for oxygen flow.

You may amend regular garden soil with organic mixes or use mediums like coco coir, peat moss, or perlite.

3. Water reservoir

The essential part of the self-watering planter is the water reservoir.

Since you can not view the reservoir, there is a method of monitoring the level of the water.

There is also a method of refilling the reservoir.

It can be a fill tube or a pipe to fill the reservoir with water from the above or the container’s side.


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4. Wicking system

It is the part that carries the water to the plant’s soil and roots from the reservoir.

You can use a wicking planter that lets the potting soil directly contact the water reservoir.

Or, you can use wicks like cloth or rope with an end in water and another in soil.

Let us study the two wicking systems closely.

Self-watering pot wicks

This one is simple to devise that uses any wick made of nylon, cotton, wool, microfiber, etc.

If you intend to use it long-term, use a rot-resistant and durable material such as fiberglass wicking used in candles or oil lamps.

While installing the self-watering pot, ensure the wick reaches the pot’s bottom so it can get the water.

On the other end, ensure the wick reaches the soil’s depths and doesn’t sit on the pot.

How many wicks you use depends on the container’s size, plant type, and potting mix.

Wicking pots

Another system is the wicking pot.

It includes the pots that place the soil above that directly contact with the water reservoir at the bottom but are separated by a barrier.

One way to create this pot is by placing a layer of gravel at the container’s bottom without a drainage hole, covering it with a cloth, and then filling up the rest of the container with soil.

How do self-watering planters work?

SELF WATERING pots | Complete Information

Most plants get watered from the top, whereas they absorb water from the bottom.

These pots have reservoirs at the bottom from where they draw the necessary water.

The water is separated from the plant by a barrier that prevents any risk of overwatering or root rot.

There are two ways self-watering planters work, which rely on capillary action.

Self-watering containers work through a phenomenon called capillary action or wicking.

This is similar to how a sponge draws out water or a paintbrush absorbs the paint, or how tall trees draw water from the soil.

If you have dipped one end of the paper towel in water, you will also see the water spread across the rest of the paper towel.

It is caused by intermolecular attraction in liquids and attractive forces between a liquid and a solid with small spaces or narrow tubes.

The two ways it works are the following designs:

  1. A wick is dipped inside the planter with one end in the water reservoir and the other in the potting soil. This sucks the water out of the reservoir and distributes it to the soil when needed.
  2. Certain planters are designed so that a section below sits on a water reservoir. When the soil from the top begins to lose water, it pulls up the water from the reservoir through capillary action. 

As the plant begins to lose water from its leaves in the process called transpiration, more water is pulled up with the help of capillary action from the roots to replace the water loss.

The water the roots lose is returned to the soil.

Benefits of self-watering planters

A few significant benefits of self-watering pots, which are why I use them, are:

1. Constant moisture and less frequent watering

Certain plants need moist soil constantly and cannot tolerate inconsistent watering schedules or dry soil.

Self-watering planters provide the plants with a steady moisture level and prevent fluctuations.

2. More efficient use of water

One significant benefit of utilizing self-watering planters is the efficient use of water.

The system is automated and adds as much water as needed.

The water loss through evaporation is much lesser than what is lost when you top water your plants.

While pouring water on the plants from the top, much of it evaporates from the soil.

With self-watering, the pots draw the water from the bottom to the roots, and there is less water on the surface, reducing the water loss.

Also, the water in the reservoir does not evaporate as it remains enclosed ad is directly taken by the roots. 

3. Prevent diseases and improves plant health

One typical reason that kills our houseplants is overwatering.

It saturates the soil with water, and roots fail to breathe due to a lack of oxygen circulation leading to problems like diseases and fungus in the soil.

Underwatering also leads to dehydration and plants’ inability to photosynthesize efficiently.

Self-watering pots improve health and reduce the chances of diseases by taking in as much water as it requires.

Self-watering pots help the roots stay healthy.

4. Convenience 

The biggest USP why people get these planters is because of the convenience they provide.

All you need to do is ensure enough water in the reservoir.

It saves time because, individually, having to inspect each plant’s soil or remember when to water.

For plant owners with many plants or those with an extremely busy schedule watering your plant at the right time and maintaining a schedule is quite difficult.

Many plant owners also find it difficult to understand when to water their plants as watering depends on several factors:

  • Season
  • Temperature
  • The type of the plant
  • The potting mix
  • The size of the plant
  • The pot and many more. 

Also, people who go on tours a lot fear neglecting their plants.

Self-watering planters save you from going wrong with your watering and water your plant as and when needed.

Disadvantages of self-watering planters

Despite all the advantages I mentioned above, there are some drawbacks you must keep in mind before deciding to set up self-watering planters in your home.

1. Not fit for all kinds of plant

|| SELF WATERING POT GOOD OR BAD FOR SUCCULENTS ? || TOP WATERING vs BOTTOM WATERING ||

One major drawback of self-watering planters is that it is not right for all kinds of plants.

Plants that thrive in moist soil do well in these pots, but plants that like soil slightly on the drier side or plants like cacti and succulents do not tolerate them, and if you grow them in these planters, you may end up killing them. 

2. Not suitable for outdoor plants

Self-watering planters are good for indoor plants but are not right for outdoor plants.

High humidity and rainfall overflow the pots and make the soil excessively wet and soggy.

These pots release water regardless of environmental factors.

So if you live in a rainy or humid region, you should keep an eye to ensure your plants neither are waterlogged.

3. Expensive

Standard pots are much more economical than self-watering planters.

You must buy different pot parts, which can be quite expensive for some.

4. Maintenance

You need to clean the pots annually by taking out all the soil and replanting them.

Those with many plants find it difficult to clean all their pots yearly.

5. Not suitable for very thirsty plants

Some aquatic plants or plants with very high watering needs do not do well in this system.

These plants need very moist soil and enjoy a good soak.

The bottom-up watering method does not work sufficiently for them. 



How to set up a self-watering planter?

All about Self Watering Pots | Complete Information & Plants for Self Watering Pots

Let me quickly explain the right way to set up the self-watering pot:

  1. Insert all the parts into the pot as per instruction.
  2. Add a potting mix that is suitable for self-watering planters. They are available in the market, or you can prepare your potting mix by following the instructions I have mentioned below. Moist the soil lightly before putting it in the container. Fill this moist mix in the space at the bottom of the pot.
  3. Place your plant inside the container.
  4. Water from the top thoroughly to settle the roots. This is the only time you will water from the top. 
  5. Wait for the water to seep through the soil, after which you can fill the reservoir.
  6. Refill the reservoir as and when needed. Do not let the reservoir dry out. 

Cleaning the self-watering planter

Empty the potting mix once every year and clean out the water reservoir.

The roots sometimes grow aggressively into the reservoir, looking for water, clogging the tank’s walls.

In cold climates, you need to drain the water, clean the tank, and store it for the winter because if the water freezes inside the tank, it may crack the walls.

3 tips for self-watering planters

Though self-watering planters are easy to take care of, here are some things you must follow to keep your plants healthy and ensure they get the right amount of nutrients. 

1. Fertilize the plants growing in self-watering pots

fertilizer dosage

While using a soilless medium for your plants, you must add some fertilizer to the reservoir so that your plant gets the necessary nutrients.

However, to prevent the buildup of fertilizer salts and minerals, you must flush out the medium with water after a few weeks.

But, many don’t do this because fleshing out the mineral buildup from the pot can be problematic.

Instead, they add compost directly to the medium to make the plant get the necessary nutrients.

The ideal fertilization is by sprinkling the fertilizer on the soil’s surface.  

This helps the fertilizer seep into the growing bed.

2. Avoid letting the reservoir go dry.

No matter how forgetful or busy you stay, do not let the reservoir of your planter dry out.

If the water dries out, the wicking system will no more work, and the plants will not get any water until refilling the reservoir.

If the reservoir dries accidentally, water your plants thoroughly, then refill the reservoir so that the wicking system gets all the water it needs to begin the capillary action again.

Dry soil mix will not be able to wick the water even if the reservoir is full.

3. Best potting mix for self-watering planters

You must use suitable soil for the self-watering planter to act efficiently.

Commercial mixes are available in the market and formulated for self-watering pots.

Or make your potting mix with peat moss, coco coir, compost, and perlite.

Best plants to grow in self-watering planters

As I have mentioned before, not all plants benefit from this system, and for some plants, they can prove to be quite fatal.

Houseplants that enjoy moist soil like coleus, peace lily, baby’s tear, ferns, and palms respond very well to self-watering containers.

Spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, and certain herbs do well too.

My Recommendations

Here are some of my favorite self-watering planters:

  1. Vanavazon 6 Inch Self Watering Planter Pots
  2. 8″ Self Aerating + Self Watering High Drainage Deep Reservoir Round Planter Pot
  3. Unique 10″ Self-Watering, Aerating, High Drainage Plant Pot

Final words

Indoor gardening is becoming a hobby for many plant lovers, and self-watering pots can help and let us pursue our hobby by making it easier to follow in our busy lives.

Several plants can benefit immensely from self-watering pots. You must remember to care for the pots and clean them from time to time so the plants can stay healthy.


Source: NCBIUniversity of FloridaWikipedia,  Growing Indoor Plants with SuccessAgriculture, and Natural Resources, University of CaliforniaMissouri Botanical Garden.