TESTED: how to water plants while away (7 methods)

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TESTED: how to water plants while away (7 methods)

One of the hardest parts about being a digital nomad is that my indoor plants don’t fare so well when I’m gallivanting around the world. This means that not only am I constantly ridden with intense guilt over leaving my prized plants but I’m also constantly trying different ways to keep my plants watered.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I always lose at least one plant while away on vacation, even with a plant sitter.

That’s why I look at gardening as a spiritual practice: do the work, but don’t get attached to the outcome.

Anyway, I’ve done this dance enough times now that I can legitimately tell you about my experience with every method below. Some methods are better than others and they really depend on a few factors.

So I’ll share everything I’ve learned as a plant-loving nomad and try to help you water your plants while on vacation too.

jump ahead

    Things to consider when watering plants while on vacation

    I’ve noticed that some methods keep your plants watered better than other methods and it really comes down to just a few things.

    • Climate conditions. Humid climates that keep soil moist can do with less consistent watering. Dry climates, however, need either consistent watering or a mini greenhouse to keep plants hydrated.
    • Trip length. For shorter trips, most of these methods will work fine. The empty wine bottle method, for example, works well for up to a week. Self watering planters and wicking systems work well for up to a few weeks. Anything more than that and drip irrigation systems work best.
    • Plant conditions. Some plants really like moist soil while others can handle a bit of arid conditions. Some plant roots like to be moist and others like to dry out. New plants and established plants can handle different watering schedules. All of this needs to be considered so that you can keep your plants healthy and happy. In some instances, you may need to mix and match your methods for watering plants.

    7 ways to water plants while away

    I’m going to share with you all of the different methods I have tried over the years and especially more recently. These aren’t in any particular order, but I do generally recommend

    • for longer trips (3+ weeks): a drip irrigation system
    • for shorter trips (a few weeks): wicking system + plastic bag over soil
    • for a week trip: bottom watering + plastic bag over soil

    Wicking system

    Key takeaway: These worked well for up to a week and even for a few weeks during the rainy season. They didn’t work well during the dry season when we went away for two weeks. 

    The wicking method is a simple self watering system that relies on capillary action to transfer water from a reservoir to the potting soil. Capillary action is basically the process of a liquid moving through a narrow space without the help of outside support, like gravity or an electrical timer. In fact, it even works against gravity and is why it’s a popular method for watering plants.

    I used these self-watering stakes below and dropped the tubing into wine bottles filled with filtered water. It’s important to fill the ceramic reservoir first before placing into the potting soil so that as the water drains through the ceramic pores, the displaced pressure pulls the water up through the tubing from the reservoir (wine bottle).

    Drip system

    Key takeaway: This is excellent for potted plants with drainage holes and works for longer trips. I recommend testing this out for a couple of weeks before your trip so that you can adjust it and troubleshoot any issues.

    drip system for watering plants while on vacation
    Photo: Marquis Matson

    I’ve used drip irrigation systems twice now and they definitely give me the most peace of mind while I’m away on vacation. They require a little more elbow grease but allows you to water all your plants regularly whether or not you’re on vacation. It’s great for hanging baskets and can work with as many plants as you have, as long as you get enough connectors and drippers.

    drip irrigation system
    Photo: Marquis Matson

    I recently set up this drip irrigation system by Raindrip. We ran this watering system through our potted plants and put the timer on every week. The water will drip for three minutes. 

    I quite like the Raindrip kit because it was quick and easy to set up. The water pressure is also fantastic, so you can water your plants, not flood them.  It has 20 drippers, so can only work with 20 potted plants.

    Plastic bag over soil

    Key takeaway: Put sphagnum moss soaked in filtered water on top of the soil in your potted plant. Put your self-watering stakes in place, then cover the top of the potted plant with a recycled plastic bag to maintain moisture in the soil. This can probably last for 2-3 weeks, depending on your local climate.

    I don’t have any pictures of this because it was so ugly and honestly I just made it up on the go and wasn’t sure if it’d work. But it did!

    Basically, I’ve seen a lot of blogs recommending making a mini greenhouse out of your plants. The problem was that none of my plants fit into a plastic bag and, I don’t know, it just kind of felt depressing to put garbage bags over them. So I put a thick layer of sphagnum moss soaked in filtered water on top of the potting soil (in container plants) and then tucked plastic bags over the top. The moss helps the soil retain moisture and I use the self-watering plant stakes I mentioned earlier to keep the plants topped up while I was away.

    This worked like a charm and I’d recommend it in general with the watering method you choose (except maybe the drip system… if plants aren’t draining properly then this could be a quick path to root rot).

    Bottom watering

    Key takeaway: This method is best for shorter trips, a week or less. Try bottom watering plants for a few weeks leading up to your trip. See how long it takes until the soil dries to get an idea of how long this method really lasts. 

    Photo: Marquis Matson

    My own janky homemade watering systems usually involve some kind of bottom watering. I get all of my baking dishes and old plastic lettuce containers and fill them with filtered water. Then I put all of my plants into a container with water. Watering plants from the bottom can last for up to a week, just like you would normally if this is your regular watering method (I highly recommend).

    Some people recommend doing in a bathtub with a few inches of water with a towel at the bottom, but I don’t have a bath tub and honestly I’m not sure I feel comfortable leaving my plants submerged in water for any longer than a few days.

     image source

    Self-watering pots

    Key takeaway: It is the perfect solution for trips from 1-3 weeks. It’s also a great way to water plants in dry climates.

    Photo: Marquis Matson

    I recently started using a self-watering pot on my very thirsty fern and so far it has been great! I love how easy it is to use and how happy my fern has been. This method didn’t last as long as I had expected (only about two weeks), though, and this is likely because of the dry climate and because ferns are thirsty.

    Wine bottle

    Key takeaway: Good for up to a week and possibly two weeks, but not a long term solution.

    Photo: Marquis Matson

    I like using empty wine bottles to water indoor plants when I’m at home because they really only last up to a week for me (making them perfect for shorter trips). When I stick the wine bottle upside down a few inches deep into the soil, it drains within a few hours usually. I use a smaller bottle, like a beer bottle or other glass bottle, on my smaller plants.

    Photo: Marquis Matson

    You can pair these with the ceramic stakes, which helps slow the water drainage and helps the water last longer. It also makes it easier to re-fill the bottle when you’re ready to water your plants again.

    Closing thoughts

    All of these methods are interesting and good (except for watering globes). It really comes down to how many plants you have, how long you’ll be away for, and the climate where all your plants are living. My biggest recommendation is to choose a combination of the methods above and then test it out for a few weeks before you leave for your trip. This will help you prepare and see how your plants react. Let me know what you try and how it goes in the comments!

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