Self-Watering Pots Or Planters: How Do They Work


As the name suggests, self-watering planters and pots are plant containers with a reservoir system in place to provide the plants with a constant supply of water. The responsibility for making sure the water reserves for the self-watering plants are full still rests with the gardener because the self-watering container cannot just magically draw water from the water supply. Continue reading to learn how self-watering planters function in detail if you want your own.

How Do Self-Watering Pots Work?

Self-watering pots provide convenience, improved water efficiency, and better plant health. These pots and planters use wicking action to distribute water from an integrated reservoir, allowing you to water your plants by simply topping off the reservoir rather than having to monitor the moisture level of the soil and water in accordance with each plant’s individual requirements.

How do self-watering pots operate? Self-watering pots function by capillary action, or wicking, and are composed of a growing bed, potting soil, a water reservoir, and a wicking system that brings the soil into contact with the water. As the plant roots absorb water, the soil wicks up more, maintaining a consistent level of moisture in the soil.

Sometimes referred to as “sub-irrigation containers,” these self-watering pots have become quite popular because they are very effective and easy to maintain. They can be easily built with cheap, readily available materials, or you can choose from a wide range of fashionable commercial options.

Although there are countless design options for these self-watering pots, the four fundamental components mentioned above always work together to create a chic houseplant care solution that’s ideal for today’s busy lifestyles.

It will become clear why the self-watering pot trend has exploded onto the scene in recent years once you comprehend how these planters function. To learn more about how self-watering pots function, continue reading. You’ll be motivated to try out these unique planters.

Capillary Action (wicking) Explained

The mechanism behind how self-watering pots work is a phenomenon called “capillary action,” or “wicking.” This process enables the wick of a candle to draw up wax, the hairs of a paintbrush to draw up paint, and a sponge to pick up liquid from a surface. This is another way that plants, including the tallest trees, are able to defy gravity and lift the water up from the bottom to the very top of the plant.

The attractive forces between a liquid and a solid with tiny tubes or spaces within it, as well as the intermolecular attraction in liquids, are what cause capillary action. The attractive force between like molecules that holds a raindrop together is called “cohesion,” while the attractive force between the unlike molecules of a liquid and a solid material is called “adhesion” (think of dewdrops clinging to a flower petal or a leaf).

When the space between the walls of a solid material is sufficiently small, a liquid will be propelled within these spaces if the adhesive force between the liquid and the solid is greater than the cohesive force within the liquid.

When planting in self-watering pots, the potting soil must be thoroughly moistened from the top. Then, as the plants expel water from their leaves, more is drawn up by capillary action from the plant roots to replace it.

The capillary action of the wicking system at the bottom draws water from the reservoir through capillary action, replacing the water that the roots continuously absorb from the soil. The soil stays consistently moist but not overly wet with the right potting mix and wicking system.

The Four Basic Elements Of A Self-watering Pot

Regardless of whether it’s a single-plant pot or a large container garden, there are always four basic elements to these self-watering pots:

Growing Bed

The growing bed is the upper part of the container that holds the potting soil and the plants.

Potting Soil

Use potting soil that is light and permeable if you want a self-watering pot to work properly. It may consist of soil as well as non-soil growing media such as coco coir, perlite, or growstones.

It’s important to use a material that can continuously wick water up while also giving the plant roots plenty of oxygen.

Water Reservoir

This crucial component of a self-watering pot is situated below the growing area. The need for an overflow outlet for indoor planters will be eliminated if there is a way to check the water level while you can’t see the reservoir, such as a viewing window or a float.

Of course, the reservoir needs to be able to be refilled, which could be done with the help of a vertical pipe that allows water to be poured in from above or a side opening.

A container at the pot’s base, a barrier inside the pot, or an inner pot with an outer pot for the reservoir can all be used to create the two distinct areas for the growing bed and the water reservoir.

Wicking System

Water from the reservoir is transferred through the wicking system to the soil and then to the roots of the plants. To do this, you can either create a wicking pot that brings the potting mixture into direct contact with the water in the reservoir below, or you can use wicks made of absorbent material, such as strips of cloth or pieces of rope, with one end placed in the water and the other in the soil.

We will examine each of these wicking systems in more detail in the following two sections.

Self-watering Pot Wicks

Using wicks is a quick and easy method of transferring water from the reservoir to the potting soil. For the wicks, any absorbent material is acceptable, including cotton, wool, felt, nylon, polyurethane, and microfiber.

However, it is best to use a material that is resilient and rot-proof for long-term use, like the fiberglass wicking designed for oil lamps and candle making, which you can find sold in bulk at some gardening suppliers.

When installing a self-watering pot, you must make sure that the wicks extend all the way to the bottom of the reservoir so that they will always be in contact with the water, even when the water level is low.

Instead of resting on the bottom of the growing bed at the top end, the wicks should extend into the potting soil. Simply hold the top ends up when you pour the soil into the container to accomplish this.

You’ll need a certain number of wicks depending on the size of the container, the type of potting soil, the wicking material, and the quantity and kind of plants you have.

Generally speaking, you should assume that each plant will require two wicks. However, you should test your wicks with your soil to see how well the system works and be prepared to make adjustments if your plants aren’t getting the water they need.

Wicking Pots

The other wicking system commonly used in self-watering planters is called a “wicking pot.” This term refers to any self-watering pot design that only uses a permeable barrier to keep the potting soil and water in the reservoir apart.

Some self-watering pots are actually wicking pots in and of themselves. This is true of conversion kits, which let you convert a regular flowerpot into a self-watering wicking pot by placing a water container inside the bottom of the pot with the perforated top, which acts as the base of the growing bed.

Another way to make a wicking pot is to position a basket filled with potting soil so that it extends from the growing bed into the reservoir. Use a basket or another container with open sections to ensure that the soil and water can come into contact. The soil will be kept inside by a layer of netting, window screening, or another thin, permeable material.

Adding gravel or sand to the bottom third of a container without drainage holes, covering it with permeable cloth, and then filling the remaining space with potting soil is another way to make a self-watering wicking pot.

Anything can be used as a cloth barrier, including reusable shopping bags, shade cloth, and old sheets or t-shirts. Prior to putting soil in the hole, be sure to insert the PVC pipe that will act as your watering shaft. For this, you’ll need to make a hole in the fabric.


How To Use The Self Watering Pots?

Self-watering planters come in two main varieties: one has a removable water saucer at the bottom of the pot, and the other has a tube that runs alongside it. Self-watering pot inserts are also available, which transform regular pots into self-watering ones. The differences are mostly in how they look; they all perform similarly.

Simply restocking their water chamber when it gets low will keep them operating without a hitch. Depending on the type of plant, the amount of sunlight, and the season, you may need to do this more frequently than once every three weeks.

Bullene advises continuing to lightly water the tops of your plants on occasion in between refills to increase the humidity levels around their leaves. In order to prevent dust from building up on your plant’s leaves and interfering with its ability to photosynthesize, you can mist them and then wipe them down with a microfiber towel as needed. Your self-watering planter should manage all other aspects of watering besides that.

Types Of Self-watering Pots

There are many different kinds of self-watering containers, from decorative to purely functional. The ones that are more practical are made especially for growing vegetables in containers and increasing yields. The generic name often used to describe utilitarian self-watering containers is grow box. Grow boxes come in a variety of brands, and there are numerous online tutorials for making your own.

The 10 Pros And Cons Of Using A Self-watering Pot

Self-watering planters are practical, but they do not remove all the uncertainty associated with growing plants. Let’s examine the benefits and drawbacks of using self-watering pots in more detail.

5 Pros Of Using A Self-watering Planter

1. Increases Plant Health

The self-watering planter’s closed system prevents nutrients from slowly leaking out through the drainage holes and keeps them inside the potted plant. Instead of requiring you to replenish the potting mix every growing season, this growing medium has more time to benefit from your liquid fertilizer or slow-release fertilizer. This increases the nutrients for the plant’s leaves, which is fantastic for growth and health!

2. Good For Plant Roots

The water reservoir maintains a constant moisture level in the potting soil, giving the plant roots direct access to water through the capillary action’s strong adhesive force. Compared to regular pots, the plants have the ideal amount of water, and healthy root growth is simple to achieve.

3. Eco-friendly

The operation of self-watering planters is environmentally friendly and sustainable. In general, self-watering pots assist plants in controlling their water requirements through the capillary action of the potting soil’s attractive force. Overwatering is thus less likely to occur, resulting in a decrease in water consumption.

4. Very Convenient For Busy People

Undoubtedly, one of the most crucial justifications for installing a self-watering planter setup is to achieve a simpler and more efficient method of caring for your favorite plants.

In addition to removing active watering from the daily schedule, it also enables the gardener to take time off for vacations without worrying about the plants.

5. Suitable For Commercial Gardens

self-watering pots are that they can be used beyond residential gardens, and they can be set up for office buildings, campuses, restaurants, and more.

When it comes to taking care of the large gardens, this offers great flexibility and convenience.


5 Cons Of Using A Self-watering Planter

1. Not Great For Thirsty Plants

The fact that some plants cannot be used with self-watering pots is a very important warning. The self-watering planter system works well for the majority of plants, but not all do.

Cacti, succulents, orchids, and other plants that require their potting soil to dry out between waterings should not be grown in self-watering planters. Due to the plants’ ongoing moisture needs, root rot can develop.

Similar to this, thirsty plants that require a very moist potting mix may also have trouble with the self-watering pot setup. It is never able to adequately soak a plant that needs a lot of water, such as the Java Fern, or aquatic plants like the Lotus.

2. Not Suitable For Humid Climates

Self-watering planters might not work as intended in a hot, humid environment, especially when placed outdoors. Due to the high humidity and rain, the self-watering pot will easily become waterlogged. Although an overflow hole can be useful, it cannot stop excess water from getting into the potting soil, which results in the plant sitting in very wet soil as opposed to a damp mix.

3. Can Breed Mosquitos

Self-watering planters might not be the best choice in areas where mosquitoes are a problem. Mosquitoes that prefer still, stagnant water may breed in the water reservoir. The gardener would have to do more checking.

4. Higher Price Point

Self-watering planters are more expensive to buy than regular pots. This is not surprising given that they need a variety of components to function properly.

5. Very Limited Design And Style Selection

While the market for self-watering pots has increased dramatically in recent years, there are still very few options available when compared to the various pots of the regular variety that are available off the shelf.

This is particularly problematic for larger-scale gardens found in places like restaurants, hotels, offices, etc. It is challenging for the landscape architect to design a unified aesthetic for the property due to the lack of design styles, colors, shapes, and even sizes for self-watering pots.

Do-it-yourself Self-watering Pots


The lack of design options is one of the biggest issues when deciding whether to use self-watering planters instead of standard planters for your project. You can have the best of both worlds by turning fiberglass pots from Planters Et Cetera’s beautiful collection into self-watering planters. These pots come in both traditional and contemporary designs. You can accomplish this in one of two ways: using a conversion kit that is easily accessible, or doing it entirely on your own.

Using A Conversion Kit

By using a conversion kit of self-watering inserts, any regular planter can be transformed into a self-watering pot in the simplest way possible. The structure is already constructed for you; all you need to do is place the piece at the bottom of the planter of your choice, which you can choose from a variety of lovely styles, before adding the plant and potting soil.

The conversion kit typically consists of a water reservoir in the form of a disc with a PVC pipe attached and a water level indicator. When necessary, add water and liquid fertilizers using the pipe.

Diy Self-watering Pots

If you would rather build your own self-watering system. Here is the list of items you need:

  • Planter
  • Container that fits into the bottom of the planter
  • Small basket or pot with holes for the soil foot
  • Narrow tubes
  • Coffee filter, landscape fabric, or mesh to cover the pipe
  • Wicking material e.g. string
  • Drill

1. Construct The Water Reservoir

Create the water reservoir first, which is housed in the container. Make sure the small basket or pot will fit into the hole you make at the container’s hold before you cut it. The basket serves as the “soil foot,” that is. the access point where the soil can draw water from the water chamber. Put this at the planter’s base.

2. Insert The Watering Tube

The watering tube should be inserted second, and you should check to see that it extends above the soil from the water chamber. This enables you to fill the chamber with water as needed. To ensure that only water passes through the pipe, wrap mesh around both ends of it.

3. Drill Overflow Holes

Create drainage holes in the planter’s sides. They should be placed at the same height as the watering chamber. This allows the extra water to flow out of the planter instead of soaking up the soil in your self-watering pot

4. Fill The Foot With Damp Soil

Place the wicking material inside the foot, making sure it extends from the water to the soil portion. Then, proceed to fill the remainder of the planter with high-quality potting soil by first adding damp soil to the foot and packing it in firmly. This part shouldn’t be packed too tightly to allow for air pockets.

5. Plant The Plant

Plant the roots in the ground with care. From the top, liberally water the whole planter. While the plant is getting used to the self-watering planter, keep watering it for a week or two. Then, just guarantee that the water reservoir is consistently filled.

5 Plants Best Suited For Self-watering And 5 Great Planters To Match

Here are 5 wonderful plants that are suitable to grow in self-watering planters now that you are aware that any type of planter can be converted into self-watering pots!

1. Cherry Tomato Plant

Growing your own produce, especially if you run a restaurant, is always a lovely idea. Because larger spaces allow for more soil to absorb water, cherry tomatoes are simple to grow and often do well in large pots.

Cherry tomato plants need water to thrive, and not getting enough water can lead to split tomatoes and blossom end rot. Similar effects may also be brought on by overwatering. A moist, self-watering growing bed is therefore ideal for these plants.

2. Venus Flytrap

A Venus flytrap is a fantastic topic of conversation. Why not cultivate these fascinating plants in your house or place of business?

This intriguing addition to your garden will thrive in a self-watering planter and aid in pest management.

3. African Violets

These cheery, vividly colored flowering plants are essentially made for self-watering pots. They should be on the list of plants for self-watering, as they are frequently recommended.

The fuzzy leaves of small houseplants covered in clusters of white, blue, or purple flowers prefer moisture on their tops, but they also require the top of the soil to be dry before additional water is added. Self-watering planters are ideal because the top never gets wet because of this.

4. Peace Lily

Take on the Peace Lily if you want to test your green thumb. It is challenging for many gardeners to get this plant to bloom.

This is where a self-watering planter comes in handy! This prevents overwatering and overly wet potting mix by allowing the soil to control the amount of moisture.

5. Monstera

The Monstera plant is common in both private and public gardens and is a crowd favorite. In a self-watering setup, these lush green plants flourish.

They require slightly moist soil conditions. To ensure that it is not becoming overly damp, check the pot occasionally.



Do Self-watering Planters Have Any Plants That Shouldn’t Be Placed Inside Them?

Because their roots don’t penetrate the soil deeply enough to benefit from capillary action, some plants with shallow roots (think succulents like snake plants and cactuses) won’t benefit from being placed in a self-watering planter. These plants, however, also frequently have a reputation for being quite tolerant and using less water overall. The majority of other plants (Bullene estimates a respectable 89% of them) have strong enough roots to survive in these pots.

What Do I Need To Know About Caring For A Self-watering Pot?

Although self-watering pots are very simple to maintain, there are a few things you should do to make sure your plants are receiving the water and nutrients they require.

Which Self-watering Potting Mix Is Best?

It’s crucial to use the proper potting soil for a self-watering pot in order for it to work properly. Commercial potting soils made especially for self-watering planters are available for purchase. Alternately, you can create your own potting mix by mixing equal parts peat moss, coconut coir, perlite, and high-quality compost.