Make Your Own Self Watering Pot

Water is an important natural resource and it gives life to plants, animals and humans. When you are growing your own food at home you should never take water for granted and must do all you can to conserve water. Also when you are away from home you need to make sure that you plants are watered everyday. Self Watering Pots can solve this problem to a great extent while conserving water. After we made a post on Correct way of Watering, one of our readers wanted us to write about Self Watering Containers. And though we are a little delayed, here is the post finally.  Additionally we are also going to talk about what can you do to conserve water.

Simple Ways to Conserve Water

There are very simple ways to conserve water by making some habit changes in our daily lives. Watering your plants in the right way and not over watering is one of the best things you can do as a gardener to conserve water.  Mulching helps in reducing evaporation to a bare minimum and hence it must be done to conserve water.

In the monsoons find easy ways to catch surface water and use it. Even if you do not have a proper rainwater harvesting system you can just place a drum at a places where water is drained out from your terrace. This will catch a lot of water and you can use this water in your garden when its not raining. Other simple change that you can bring into your life is not to throw away the water with which you wash your vegetables, fruits, rice and pulses. Just store this water in a separate container in the kitchen and next morning use it to water your plants in the garden. Small steps can make a big difference.

Olla Watering System

Olla Irrigation
Olla Irrigation System

Olla watering systems fall into the no nonsense class of self watering container. Because it is such a simple thing it is easy to overlook it. But it is a great way to ensure that you are having as close to 100% water utilization as possible. An un-glazed earthen pot with a narrow opening is buried into the ground such that the opening is at the ground level. Water is filled through the opening and it is covered so that evaporation does not take place. The roots of the plants nearby reach the earthen pot looking for water. The roots then suck the water through the micro pores of the earthen pot.

Most of the water in conventional irrigation is lost to evaporation. In Olla watering system there is no loss due to evaporation and plants are able to get water in an hydroponic sort of way so to say. It is a simple and great self watering system for open garden beds. If you have big containers in your terrace garden you can use this system. Bury earthen pots in big size containers or gardens at regular intervals like a matrix. And when plant roots grow big enough to reach the Ollas, you can do watering through olla system only.

DIY Wick Based Self Watering Container

Wick based Self Watering Container cross section
Wick based Self Watering Container cross section

These are the more popular self watering container which come in all sizes. In this method water moves from bottom to up unlike the top down watering that we are used to. There is a water storage space at the bottom of the container. The growing media in the pot above the water is connected to the water through a wick. The water is sucked up by the wick and through capillary action reaches all parts of the growing media.There is a water filling tube which goes all the way upto the top of the container and water is filed through it. A overflow hole just below the top of the wick makes sure that water in the storage space does not touch the growing media directly.

I am going to demonstrate how to make a wick based self watering container using waste materials from home. It is a small self watering container. But as I said it comes in many sizes and you can use this method and concept to build bigger self watering pots.

All I used to make this container are

  1. Old plastic paint bucket
  2. Discarded plastic medicine bottle
  3. A piece of discarded plastic pipe
  4. Small pieces of discarded styrofoam
Barrier Wick and Watering Pipe
Barrier cut from the lid. Small plastic bottle used as wick. Piece of old plastic pipe used as watering Pipe. Cuts made in the barrier to fix the wick and the watering pipe.

I took a small plastic paint bucket and cleaned it thoroughly. I then cut around the lid of the bucket using a pair of scissors. This circular cut out would work as the barrier between my water storage and potting soil space.

For the wick I used another small plastic medicine bottle and made holes all around it. Next I drew a circle near the center of my barrier using the wick and cut it out using a pair of scissors again. For the watering pipe I cut out another hole on the side. The small holes in the barrier in the above image are breathing holes for the potting soil and it is optional.

Overflow Hole
Overflow Hole

Next I marked a point just below the barrier level in the bucket and made an overflow hole using a drill.

Support attached to the barrier
Support attached to the barrier

I cut out two pieces from a styrofoam board and attached it to the bottom of the barrier using glue to support the barrier. The height of the supports is same as the height of the wick. I also attached the wick to the barrier by pushing in the wick into the hole.

Placing the Barrier in the self watering pot
Placing the Barrier in the self watering pot

Now all I had to do is assemble the pieces.

Barrier and wick placed in planter
Barrier and wick placed in planter

This is how the assembled container looks like.

Self watering container assembly completed
Self watering container assembly completed

In the above pic there is gap between the barrier and the wall of the container. That will cause the potting soil to fall into the water storage section of the planter. But this can be easily avoided by placing a garden cloth between the potting soil and the container.

Finally I packed some potting soil firmly in the wick and then filled the container with potting mix. I filled in water using the watering pipe and I was done.

Self watering planter is ready
Self watering planter is ready

Drip Irrigation Systems

In drip irrigation method watering is done at the base of the plant drop by drop so that there is no run off. Hence water is used efficiently and the wastage is reduced. However wastage due to evaporation is still there in this system. Drip irrigation systems can be converted into self watering systems using a little bit of technology.

The water flow in the system can be controlled by a timer attached to the valve at the water source. The controller can be programmed to open the valve at fixed time in a day or it can even be controlled from a remote location using a transmitter and receiver pair.

Self watering container and systems are a good way of saving water and making sure plants get water when you are away. But some of the options can be expensive if purchased from stores. Hopefully this post will help you save a lot of money by making your own self watering containers.

How Not to and How to Water Plants in Pots

Popular clip art of a Happy Gardener
Popular clip art of a Happy Gardener

The happy gardener. You see him/her everywhere; on TV, on bill boards in magazines. And its mostly a very happy and content looking person watering plants with a hose or a watering can. And the water falling on the plants in an almost poetic manner with shower like effect. The image conveys the beauty and happiness involved in gardening (and sometimes it is also to sell some gardening equipment). Most gardeners I have met tend to water their plants in this popular way as it feels and looks really nice as per them. Unfortunately this is exactly how you should NOT water plants in pots or in garden. This post is a guide on How Not to and How to Water Plants in Pots. Though I’ll stick to container gardening, the same is applicable to all gardens.

Where you should Water your Plants

  1. Water plants at roots; Not on leaves
    Water plants at roots; Not on leaves.

    While it is okay to ‘bathe’ your plants once in a while to remove off the dust from leaves, it is not okay to water your plants on the leaves. Plants need water at their roots and not on the leaves. The roots pull moisture from the soil and through capillary action send it to the leaves. So you should help plants by watering at the roots. Moreover moisture on the leaves if left overnight can cause fungal attack. Hence avoid wetting leaves of the plant while watering.

  2. Generally the branch roots of a plant (the ones that suck moisture and nutrients for the leaves) spread out to all directions. Water needs to be given to this system and not at the base of the plant. Watering at the base of the main trunk of the plant will loosen the grip of the plant in the soil. Hence water away from the base of the plant. You can water along the rim of the container for most effective watering. Generally the canopy of the plant gives an idea of its root systems. So while watering plants outside, you can follow the spread of the canopy and water around it’s projection on the ground if you your plant is on the ground.

When to Water your Plants

  1. Water early in the morning or late in the afternoon (if not possible in the morning). Watering in the morning makes sure that the plant has enough moisture to be used throughout the day. If by any chance you are unable to water in the morning, water your plants late in the afternoon. It should not be too hot when you are watering in the afternoon. At the same time there should be enough time for leaves to dry off in case they get wet. Never water your plants when the sun is over your head. Heat leads to excess water evaporation.
  2. Water only when soil dries out. Don’t water for the sake of it. To check if
    Excess watering causes nutrient leaching
    Excess watering causes nutrient leaching

    you need to water your plants you can put a finger inside the soil. If you feel the moisture, then there is no need to water the plants. Excess watering will lead to nutrient loss and also water loss.

  3. Sometimes in summers you’ll notice drooping leaves during the day time. Don’t rush to water your plant in such a case. Do the moisture test with your finger. Water only if the moisture has dried out. Otherwise just leave the plant. The leaves will spring back to life when the sun goes down. Drooping leaves result due to faster evaporation from leaves than the amount of moisture the roots can pump to it.

How to Water your Plants

  1. Ganga flowing to earth through the matted hair of Lord Shiva
    Ganga flowing to earth through the matted hair of Lord Shiva

    Water your pots to make the soil moist and not dripping wet. Not only its a criminal waste of water, too much water in the pot can lead to root rot if the soil or your potting mix is not a well drained one. On regular observation you’ll be able to figure out the water requirement of each pot. Water accordingly. Over watering also leads to leaching or wastage of nutrients.

  2. Water with as less force as possible. It is best to just take a watering pipe with almost no force in the flow of the water and place it in your pot along the rim. Water jet disturbs the soil.
  3. Lastly on to some mythology. Though I am supposed to write about How to water plants in pots, you must be wondering why I am suddenly diverting to mythology. Well just read on to find out. In Indian mythology there is a story of the great river Ganga coming
    Use thick layer of mulch to arrest speed of water
    Use thick layer of mulch to arrest speed of water

    down from the heavens to the earth. But her force is so much that it would destroy the earth. So the great yogi Shiva uses his matted hair to arrest the force of the river Ganga coming down from the heavens. And that is exactly what you have to do by using a thick layer of mulch. Mulch helps in arresting the speed of the water falling on the base of your plants. Hence mulch your pots well. The other thing about mulch is that it catches the dew at night and when the dew condenses it flows down to the soil. Hence mulching also acts like a automatic watering system.

Water is an important natural resource and hence you should always aim to conserve it. Use as much surface water as possible and conserve ground water. Harvest rainwater, reuse domestic waste water (water in which vegetables have been washed). And most importantly water correctly and water efficiently. You not only conserve water, you also keep your soil and plants healthy and happy.

How to Protect your Plants in Summer – Simple and Effective Tips

I recently attended national seminar on climate change where I got to see a lot of data on the changes in temperature and the effects it is having on our environment. Not that I was not aware of it. We all are aware of the change in climate and its effects. But when something is presented in the form of well researched data it does say a lot and has much more impact. Our planet is indeed getting hotter at an alarming rate. Last year Titlagarh in my home state recorded 47.5 degree Celsius and the predictions are that this year even this record will be broken. Everyone is suffering from this extreme heat. Even the plants in your garden are suffering albeit silently. And then there is also the problem of water shortage in summers which makes the whole scenario even more complicated. But of course you can do a few things to take care of your garden in summer. And this post on How to Protect your Plants in Summer will guide you on that.

Water Management is the Key

Dry leaves are excellent for mulching.
Dry leaves are excellent for mulching.

Water requirement of plants goes up as the heat increases. But the water availability decreases in summer. So managing water is key to a successful garden during harsh summers. Here are some tips for water management to protect your plants in summer.

  1. Mulching – The importance of mulching can never be stressed upon enough. Mulch your pots heavily with organic material to reduce water evaporation from soil. Dry leaves, cleaned and dried sugarcane bagasse, grasp clippings, paddy  straw, wood chips, coconut husks and dried corn peels are some of the things that you can use as mulch. Make sure that the mulch is 2-3 inches thick, so that no part of the soil is directly exposed to sunlight.
  2. Water as much as necessary to moisten the soil in your pot. Keep your soil moist and not drenched. Don’t let water run off from pots. It not only wastes water, nutrients from the soil also get leached due to over watering.
  3. Water only to replenish. Do not water just because it is time to water. You can check the moisture in the soil by poking a finger into it. If you feel its moist, there is no need to water.
  4. If you see drooping leaves don’t water your plants immediately. Check the moisture in the soil and water if needed. Leaves dry out fast in summers. The rate at which the root system pumps water into the leaves can not keep up with the drying rate. But when the sun goes down the leaves come back to shape.
  5. Do not water during the day. It leads to faster evaporation. Water early in the morning and/or in the evening before it gets dark.
  6. Do not waste water in watering the leaves of your plants. In fact watering the leaves is not advisable in any season because it can lead to fungus on leaves.
  7. Water your plants evenly in the container. Watering from one side does not wet the soil from everywhere.
  8. Drip irrigation systems work very well to save water. If budget is not a constraint you can invest in a drip irrigation system for your garden. Saving water is a big step to protect your plants in summer.
  9. If budget is not a concern you can also consider investing in self watering containers. These containers store excess water at the bottom and water is pulled into the soil through capillary action.

Manage Shade to Protect your Plants in Summer

A shade house is great to have to protect your plants in summer in your garden.
A shade house is great to have to protect your plants in summer in your garden.

Tropical plants do well in hot and humid conditions, but in scorching heat even they can be heat stressed and eventually die. Excess watering does not help in such cases. Shade is what plants need in such cases. Here are some tips to manage shade to protect your plants in summer.

  1. Find the more shaded areas of your organic terrace garden and move your pots to such a place. This can help a lot of your plants survive the summer.
  2. Use shade cloth or shade net to protect your plants from direct sunlight. Greenhouse shade cloth is a net like cloth that lets partial sunlight pass through it. Shade nets are graded according to the amount of sunlight it blocks. You can chose somewhere between 50% to 80% shade cloth depending the temperature in your area. Since the temperature in this part of the world goes beyond 40 degree Celsius in summers we use 80% sun block shade net for our garden.
  3. You can choose build a shade house by putting up a structure of steel or bamboo. This involves some expenditure, but its a good long term solution to have. In case you do not plan to spend a lot of money putting up a shade house here is a simpler solution. Put 4 to 5 stakes in your pots along the rim. The stakes should be a little taller than (2-3 inches works fine) the plant in the container. Now you can place your pots in a row and cover the entire row with shade cloth. The shade cloth will rest on the stakes and protect your plants from heat. You can also cut the shade clothes and put it up individually for each plant.
  4. If you have few plants then you can dry your everyday clothes around it. Just make sure that the clothes are aligned in a north south direction, so that it provides shade to the plants. The shade of the clothes will be a relief for your plants.

Wind Management is Important too

Sugarcane bagasse can also be used a mulch. This is more wind tolerant than dry leaves.
Sugarcane bagasse can also be used a mulch. This is more wind tolerant than dry leaves.

Wind can dry out soil too fast. Heavy warm winds during summer time also can damage  your plants. This is what you can do as a precaution.

  1. Build a simple wind break with a shade cloth screen using either steel rod or bamboo. There is no need to do this on all sides of your terrace garden. Generally in summers there is a particular direction from which the wind blows. For your area identify that direction and put a wind screen on that side.
  2. Bigger and sturdier plants also can act as a wind break. Place the bigger plants on your terrace on the side where you expect to get maximum wind flow.
  3. You can also grow creepers and climber on flat trellises. Such plants also act as a wind break.

Choose your Plants well for Summers

Pointed gourd is a good vegetable that you can grow in summers.
Pointed gourd is a good vegetable that you can grow in summers.

There are some plants that don’t do too well in heat. No matter how well you take care of them, they eventually will succumb to the heat. So it a good idea to plant seasonal and heat tolerant plants in summer. Some examples are,

  1. Banana
  2. Ridge Gourd
  3. Okra
  4. Bitter gourd
  5. Variety of Cucumbers
  6. Pointed gourd
  7. Variety of Eggplant
  8. Chilies
  9. Water melon
  10. Amaranth

A few varieties of beans, peppers and tomatoes can also be grown in shade house in summers. But you have to be very careful with these varieties. They may not have as good yield.

The seminar on climate change that I attended had a very clear and strong message. As the planet is getting hotter and drier it becomes our responsibility to conserve water and resort to natural cooling methods. Hence installing coolers and fans is your garden is not something we are going to encourage you to do. And no amount of importance that you give to reuse and conservation of water can ever be enough. So we urge you to take a conscious steps towards a cooler and greener planet through organic terrace gardening this summer.