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How Do Self Watering Planters Work?

Have you ever thought about using self-watering planters to help you take care of your plants? This could be a good idea if you’re going on vacation and you’ll be away for a bit, or if you have a lot of plants and you can’t keep up with their watering schedule. But perhaps you are wondering, how do self watering planters work?

Self-watering planters can make taking care of any potted plant easier. They can also come in handy when you need to be away and you’re not able to water your plants yourself. However, before you go out and buy a bunch for all your plants, there are some important things to know about them and how they work.

petunia flowers hanging over a window

What are Self Watering Planters?

First, let’s cover the basics. What are self-watering planters anyway? A self-watering pot or planter is one that has a source or a structure that allows it to water the plant that is being held inside it. It can help you conserve water by using exact water amounts, reducing waste.

You can purchase them in many different shapes and sizes, as well as different colors and designs to meet your aesthetic needs. I’ve seen them growing even more in popularity lately with the increase in urban and small-space gardening.

6/4.1/3.2 Inch Self Watering Planter Pots, 5 Pack African Violet Pots for Indoor Outdoor Windowsill Gardens, Self Aerating, High Drainage, Deep Reservoir(Gray)

They’re very convenient to use and they also can help improve the health and life of your plant. Sounds good? Sure, but do they really work?

Do self watering planters really work?

First, let’s understand that they don’t actually water themselves. You will still be required to fill the reservoir with water, and depending on the size of the reservoir, you will need to refill it every few weeks. Some systems have a self-wicking feature to help maintain the moisture levels in the soil, but again, it depends on the type you get.

They work using this reservoir system to release water into the plant’s soil, allowing a steady flow of water, as needed, to reach the plant’s roots. Self-watering planters do work. However, it’s important to understand how they work and what their limitations are.

How Do Self-Watering Planters Work?

CedarCraft Self-Watering Elevated Cedar Planter (22” x 48” x 30" H) - Flexibility of Container Gardening Convenience of Self-Watering. Grow Healthier, More Productive Plants. No Tools Required

So, how do these planters work? They use a system that moves water from a reservoir into the soil as needed. This maintains a consistent moisture level, which is healthier for your plant and also reduces water waste. They can be built differently, but the same process makes them work. 

Usually, the system will have a water reservoir on the bottom (although it can be on the side as well), and it will use a soil foot or fabric wick to take up water into the soil when it is needed. The plant essentially “drinks” water when the soil needs it, rather than having water poured over the top of it and potentially overwatering.

As long as there is water in the reservoir, the plant will always have access to water. These systems are so simple, that you can even make your own self-watering planter if you wanted to. Let’s take a look at their basic structure.

The basic structure of self-watering planters

To understand how these planters work, let’s look at some of the basic parts almost all of them have in common. They work by using a reservoir and wicking system to distribute water from a holding place into the soil.

Here are the four basic components most self-watering planters will have:

  1. Planting container
  2. Potting soil
  3. Water reservoir
  4. Wicking system

Exactly what these look like will vary from container to container, but the basics are nearly always there. Usually, it has an inner pot where your plant and soil sit and an outer pot that houses the reservoir. A self-watering pot will have a drainage hole, or overflow hole, for excess water to leave and the wicking system will use capillary action to pull water from the reservoir into the soil, as needed.

This helps prevent root rot and fungal diseases, however, it is still advised you keep a check on your plants and their soil moisture levels regularly, even when self-watering. Fungal diseases are a common cause of plant death and they most often come from overwatering. Systems like this are actually created to help prevent problems like this, but as can any system, they can fail.

Advantages of a Self-Watering Planter

Now that you know how they work, let’s look at some advantages of the self-watering planter.

  1. Efficient use of water – If you want to cut back your water usage, these planters can be a great option. The water used in these planters is stored in an enclosed container, making it less likely to evaporate, so you use less. It also means you’re less likely to overwater your plants, which is also wasted water.
  2. Convenience – Most plants do well with very consistent watering, but this can be hard to do manually, especially if you have a lot of plants. These self-watering pots allow you to maintain consistent watering and it’s very convenient. They can also be helpful at keeping your plants watered when you need to be away for vacation, although if you are going to be gone for a long time, you will still want someone to check on them.
  3. Plant disease prevention – And finally, they are also great at preventing fungal disease, root rot, and other issues that come from overwatering. When a plant doesn’t have enough water, it gets weak and withered. They won’t be able to conduct photosynthesis and will eventually die. But too much water causes a similar problem. When the soil is soggy and oversaturated, it deprives the plant of oxygen.

It’s also important to note that when the water comes from below, it protects the leaves, which can be damaged by water splashing onto them. As you can see, there are several great reasons to use a self-watering planter. But what about the downsides?

Disadvantages of a Self-Watering Planter

There’s always a downside to everything and self-watering planters are no exception. While we’ve seen the many ways that they are good, let’s look at some of the potential downsides.

  1. Not for all plant types – These planters are not best for all types of plants. Some will do much better with them than others. Plants that prefer dry soil will not do well in these symptoms because it will overwater them.
  2. Fertilizing can be problematic – If you use a liquid fertilizer in a self-watering planter, it can lead to salt buildup which is also not good for your plant or your planter. You will need to flush it regularly to avoid issues. Another solution is to use a slow-release fertilizer (such as pellet-style) instead. Or you can avoid chemicals altogether and use compost. (Check out the best fertilizer for ferns)
  3. Not best for all climates – If you live in a hot climate, you will need to check your self-watering planters to be sure the water in the reservoir has not evaporated. Otherwise, your plants may not get the water they really need.

While this article speaks about indoor use only, self-watering pots can be good for outdoor use, too. If you have an especially rainy climate, they may not be a good choice, however, as they can become water-logged.

Great Planters to Consider

If this sounds like something you want to try, here are some great planters for you to consider.

Crescent Garden Rim TruDrop Planter, Self-Watering Plant Pot (26″, Midnight)

Crescent Garden Rim TruDrop Planter, Self-Watering Plant Pot (26", Midnight)

This is a good example of how these self-watering pots can also be larger in size. When I first started looking for these, I found smaller ones all the time but didn’t see larger sizes as much. I love the neutral color on this one, but they are also available in other colors and styles. 

Lechuza 13130 Cubico Color 30-(22 inches Tall) Garden Indoor and Outdoor Use, White Matte Self Watering Planter, 22″

Lechuza 13130 Cubico Color 30-(22 inches Tall) Garden Indoor and Outdoor Use, White Matte Self Watering Planter, 22"

I love the sleek, modern look of this one and it is also a decent size at 22 inches tall. Anything you put in this will look instantly more elegant. 

Yarlung 6 Pack Self Watering Planter with Water Level Indicator, 5 Inch Plastic Plant Flower Pots Yarlung 6 Pack Self Watering Planter with Water Level Indicator, 5 Inch Plastic Plant Flower Pots Nested Container for Indoor Plants, Herbs, Aloe, Outdoor Gardening

You can’t beat a 6-pack! These cute little modern design self-watering planters are great for many types of plants and they will look amazing in any room or space. 

HEMOPLT Self Watering Plant Pots, Pack of 6 Gold/Silver/Rose Gold Flower Pots, 6.8″ / 5.1″ Indoor Outdoor Plastic Planters

HEMOPLT Self Watering Plant Pots, Pack of 6 Gold/Silver/Rose Gold Flower Pots, 6.8" / 5.1" Indoor Outdoor Plastic Planters, Flower Plant Container for Home Office Garden Patio Balcony Décor

When you want a pop of color, this is the way to go. These are nicely sized and they come in beautiful shimmery colors. This 6-pack is a great value. 

6/4.1/3.2 Inch Self Watering Planter Pots, 5 Pack African Violet Pots for Indoor Outdoor Windowsill Gardens

6/4.1/3.2 Inch Self Watering Planter Pots, 5 Pack African Violet Pots for Indoor Outdoor Windowsill Gardens, Self Aerating, High Drainage, Deep Reservoir(Gray)

I actually really like that you can see the water reservoir in this design. If that’s not your thing, then you may prefer one of the others on the list, but I think it looks really cool and it also makes it easy to see how much water is left in the tank. 

4 Inch 6 Inch Self Watering Planter Pots, Terracotta Clay Pots with Glass Reservoir for Indoor Plants, Herbs, Succulents, Flowers

4 Inch 6 Inch Self Watering Planter Pots, Terracotta Clay Pots with Glass Reservoir for Indoor Plants, Herbs, Succulents, Flowers

If terracotta pots are your thing, then this needs to be on your list. You get the best of both – terracotta and self-watering. And they just look really sleek and nice. 

Self Watering Planter FAQ

What are some common questions people have about these self watering planters? These are some of the questions we see the most. If you have other questions you don’t see answered here, be sure to leave them in the comments for us. 

How much watering do self-watering plants need?

If you are using a self-watering pot, how much water does your plant need? Well, the system is designed to give the plant roots just the right amount of water that they need. A very thirsty plant will require you to refill the reservoir a lot more often. In general, you can go for about 2 weeks, depending on the size of the reservoir and the type of plant.

What types of plants do well in a self-watering planter?

While you should always do your individual research, some plants that do well in systems like this include peace lily, ferns, African violet, prayer plant, elephant ear, coleus, umbrella palm, canna, tropical plants, and pothos.

How do I know when I need more water in the planter?

Most self-watering planters come with some type of water level indicator to help you see when it is getting low. You will need to check this regularly to see when it’s time to refill the reservoir. Every self-watering system is different and if you make a homemade one, it may not have an indicator, so you’ll just need to keep an eye on it.

How Do Self Watering Planters Work? Conclusion

There are many reasons you might consider using planters that self-water. A self-watering pot can help you regulate the amount of water you use for your plants. It can also help provide much-needed water to your plants while you are away for a short vacation. They work nicely for container gardens and with almost any kind of potting soil or potting mix.

Depending on the size of the water reservoir, and the type of plant, you may not need to water your plants for weeks. If you or someone you know with a green thumb wants to try out this concept, I recommend any of the pots and planters above as a good starting place. When you experiment with them a bit, you’ll learn more about the types of planters you prefer for self-watering.

Have you used a self-watering planter before? Do you like them or prefer doing it “old school”?

How do self watering planters work?
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Lisa Clark is a freelance writer who grew up on farmland, then moved to the city, and has now retired back to her rural roots. She's having fun teaching her kids about gardening, planting flowers, and collecting houseplants.

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