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Smart pots that water themselves.

They can go a week or longer between refills

A potted plant's worst enemy is usually the hand that holds the watering can. When a plant gets too much to drink, it drowns; when it doesn't get enough, it dies of thirst. So how can you avoid the wet-dry cycles caused by hand-watering? Consider using a self-watering container. It supplies constant moisture to plants for an extended period. Self-watering containers also save time; all you do is fill their built-in reservoirs at weekly (or longer) intervals. This undemanding schedule may even relieve you of the need to find a plant sitter when you go on vacation.


Most self-watering containers draw water up into the soil from the reservoir through inlets at the bottom. Capillary action pulls the water into drier soil in much the same way that a kerosene lantern draws fuel up a wick.

Some containers, in fact, use wicks to draw water from the reservoir. Others draw water directly from the reservoir. These versions keep the soil moist all the way to the surface.

More complex containers, like the ones shown on these pages, use a moisture sensor to regulate the water content in the soil (see drawing). The sensor is buried in the soil about a third of the way down the pot; when sufficient moisture reaches the sensor, it stops the flow of water up into the pot until the moisture level drops. The surface of the soil remains dry (that's a plus, since it discourages the gnats that breed in moist potting soil).

To refill a reservoir, you pour water through a hole in the side or top rim of the pot.

Once, most self-watering containers were 8-inch units sold mainly for small indoor plants. But interior plant designers and landscape architects have spurred demand for larger planters - ones that can hold palms and other trees, indoors or out. To accommodate these big plants, manufacturers have come up with big, sturdy plastic containers that are strong yet light: a self-watering planter typically weighs only half what a terra-cotta planter weighs, and one-tenth that of concrete, so it's easy to move. And advances in plastic-molding technology have expanded the colors and textures available. Now choices include a variety of shades and textured finishes ranging from glossy black to faux stone and earthenware.


Self-watering containers are sold in most major home improvement centers and some nurseries. The models shown on these pages are the Natural Springs brand by Planter Technology (999 Independence Ave., Suite E, Mountain View, CA 94043; call 800/5422282 for a catalog and price list). Hanging baskets and pots are also sold under the Gardenware brand by Bemis Manufacturing Co.; call (800) 558-7651 for local dealers.

The containers come in a range of sizes and prices, from 8-inch models ($9 to $15) to 20-inch patio pots ($23 to $159) to 24-inch planters (about $280). You'll also find 9- to 12-inch hanging baskets in the $6 to $11 range.


Many house plants (especially fuzzy-leafed kinds like African violets) and indoor trees do well in self-watering pots. Plants that need dry spells between waterings, such as cyclamen, cactus, succulents, and Sansevieria, do not do well in these containers. Plants with aggressive roots, including trees like Ficus benjamina, can be grown successfully in self-watering pots, but they may need more frequent repotting and root pruning to keep the water inlets open.

RELATED ARTICLE: Caring for self-watered plants

Soil mix. Serf-watering containers work best when filled with professional potting mixes (never plain garden soil) that contain about one-third peat; one-third sand, perlite, or vermiculite; and one-third other organic matter such as leaf mold or redwood compost. Buy the best potting mix you can (ask your nursery staff what they use): it will have to support the plant between repottings.

Feeding, You must always use liquid fertilizer, putting it into the reservoir at one-fourth the recommended strength (never apply it directly to the soil).

Most fertilizer is salt, and excess salt is lethal to most plants. In open garden soil, fertilizer salts are flushed out of the root zone by rain and periodic deep watering. Since self-watering containers draw water from bottom to top, the salts end up in the top inch of soil. That makes it easy to get rid of them: once a year, scrape the top inch of soil off the plant and replace it with fresh mix.

Repotting. Every two to three years, repot the container plant. Gently rake away most of the soil from around the rootball and replace it with the same kind of fresh potting mix you started with. For potted trees, you may also need to prune the roots or replant them in a larger container.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:potted plants
Author:McCausland, Jim
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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