8 ways to keep indoor plants watered while you're on holiday
Going on holiday? You've planned, you've packed, but what about your plants? Like getting a new pet, the first time you go on holiday and leave them behind can be stressful. Who's going to care for them while you're away? Will they be ok without you? Leaving your indoor plants to fend for themselves while you're away can be stressful too. But it doesn't have to be. Here are 8 ways to keep your houseplants happy, healthy and watered while you're away so you can holiday without the worry.
#1 Drench before you go
The right combo of pot size and substrate means a lot of indoor plants can manage at least one to two weeks between watering. If you're going away for a good time, not a long time, the drench method works a treat. Plus it's less risky and easier for most plants to recover from being too dry while you've been away, than too wet.
This method works best on plants like aroids, hoyas and succulents with thicker or waxier leaves or thicker roots that tend to retain a bit of water. Think Monstera, Philodendron, Pothos, ZZ, Hoya Carnosa, Compacta and other waxy-leafed hoyas, Snake Plants, succulents and semi-succulents like String of Pearls, Chain of Hearts and Peperomia.
Just 2 steps for this method. A really thorough water before you go, combined with reducing water loss while you're gone (that's the next tip below).
Firstly, water your plants thoroughly. Whether you normally bottom or top water, the idea here is to make sure you fully saturate the substrate, right to the top. For bottom watering, you'll want to give your plants a good soak until the top is wet to the touch. For plants in a substrate high in bark, you'll normally need to have the water right up to the top lip of the pot to make sure it's thoroughly soaked (this is what I do with my orchids, otherwise the top never gets wet).
If you top water, don't water lightly. Keep going until the substrate is wet right through and water pours out the bottom. If I know I won't be watering again for a while, I normally double-water the plants which get top watered. That means I water thoroughly, wait five minutes, and water thoroughly again. This reduces the chance of dry patches that get missed.
A thorough top water also helps force stale air out, replacing it with fresh, oxygenated water and air. You also get the added benefit of flushing out excess mineral salts in the soil. Win win.
PRO TIP: Fearful of Fungus Gnats? If you tend to under-water your houseplants or keep the surface dry because you're worried about fungus gnats, pop a few sticky traps in your plants before you go. I love the green stealth sticky traps by uBloomd because they don't scream 'I have pests' but the good old yellow ones work a treat too, like these Mini Stickies for indoor plants (both available in New Zealand), or if you're one of my international plant friends, you can get fungus gnat sticky traps on Amazon here too.
#2 Reduce water loss while you're away
To extend how long your plants can go between watering without you home, change their conditions to help reduce water loss. This is extra important when you're going on holiday in summer as a closed-up house can get really hot.
Close curtains and blinds and reduce airflow (within reason). Less light and lower airflow both reduce the rate at which your plant will use up the water in the substrate. Shift plants further away from light sources, and group plants together to increase humidity and reduce water loss. Like outdoor gardeners do, mulching your indoor plants can also significantly reduce water loss while you're away. See tips about mulch for houseplants below.
#3 'Mulch' your indoor plants
You'll likely have heard of this method for reducing water loss in outdoor plants. Gardeners add a layer of material that covers the surface of the soil, such as bark, gravel, pea straw, tree leaves or lawn clippings. Mulch helps create a barrier that reduces water loss and protects roots from temperature extremes. A University of Florida study found adding mulch to plants in containers reduced water loss by a whopping 33%.
The same idea works for indoor plants. Pea gravel or aquarium gravel are two options I've used myself. Other indoor plant mulch options are spagmoss, horticultural or orchid bark, or coco chips. Just keep in mind the mulch layer should be thin. You don't want to limit airflow too much, and certainly don't want to come home to a rotted stem due to piling the mulch on too thick.
#4 Phone a friend
If you have a plant-loving buddy who can pop in while you're away and water those who need it, lucky you! If you have friends - but not plant-savvy ones - and you're worried they might over-water, grab a soil sensor.
The ones that change colour (like Sustee or a Soil Sensor), are my favourites as they are pretty much fool-proof. You can get Sustee here in New Zealand or here on Amazon if you're overseas. I also love the Crew Soil Sensor if you're on a budget as you only need one for all your plants, whereas Sustee work best with one per plant.
#5 Self-watering pots
This option is more of a long-term solution because it requires repotting. Repotting is best done at least a couple of weeks before going on holiday to make sure plants recover fully before leaving them alone. But if you're after a short-term wick watering solution that doesn't require repotting, jump to the next tip. For my smaller house plants that dislike fully drying out, I'm loving the Cup O Flora self-watering pots (that's one of them below).
Self-watering pots aren't for every plant, or every substrate. So don't just jump in before you head away unless you've either got a suitable substrate (like leca or lechuza pon), or a plant in potting mix that prefers it on the moist side, like an African Violet, Spider Plant or Peace Lily.
In normal conditions most self-watering pots will keep your plant watered for a good 2 to 3 weeks, but if you also reduce the light, warmth and airflow while you're away, you'll get even longer from a refill.
#6 DIY wick watering
This method is also called 'outside' wick watering. The outside method makes a better short-term solution when you go on holiday and doesn't require repotting. Use this method for plants that need to stay moist, aren't prone to over-watering, and can't handle a week or so between watering. Plants like ferns or a Peace Lily that you might usually water from once to multiple times a week. Also a good option for African Violets, seedlings, baby plants and cuttings rooting in soil or substrates like fern fibre and sphagnum moss. You can make outside wick-watering work for one plant or many. Here's how...
How much water do you need?
Firstly get yourself a container that will hold enough water to match the number of plants you want to wick water while you're away. I allow at least one glass of water per week for each smaller plant, and at least two glasses per week each for bigger pots. For a single plant, a drinking glass or mug could do the job nicely depending on the size of the pot. Allow extra for evaporation in warmer weather, and in higher airflow areas. A large vase, salad bowl or mixing bowl might be plenty, otherwise a bucket or even the bathtub or a kiddie paddling pool. So that's the water sorted. Now how to get it to your plants...
What can you use for the wick?
Now you need a wick. Pick yourself up some cotton rope. Except it often won't be called that. Try Spotlight, Mitre 10, Bunnings or your local sewing supplies store. Ask for cotton clothesline rope, braided cotton piping or cotton macrame cord. Even cotton shoelaces will do the job (you want the plain cotton type, not waxed cotton).
For my teeny weeny pots, like cuttings rooting in fern fibre and sphagnum moss, I'll often use the same cotton twine I use to tie my plants up with. Keep in mind the thicker the cord the more water it will wick up.
For my New Zealand plant friends, here are a couple of cotton wick rope options:
Semco Cotton Piping Cord from Spotlight
Jobmate Rope Cotton from Mitre10
Or for those overseas, Amazon has lots of options for 100% Cotton Macrame Cord
How to set up your plants for wick watering
Place your plants around the container of water. Using a chopstick or similar, create a small hole in the top of the soil for each pot. Put one end of the wick in the soil. Pat it in or pin it down (these soil pins are great), to make sure it won't fall out while you're away, and to keep it in contact with the substrate. Go down at least 5cm into the soil. Place your wick end about halfway between the plant in the middle, and the edge of the pot.
Place the other end of the wick in the container of water, with the end right at the bottom in case the water runs low while you're away. If you're worried it might fall out, tie the wick to something heavy, like the nut from a bolt, to act as a weight to keep it at the bottom of the water container.
Like water traveling from the roots up to your plants stems and leaves, capillary action means the container can be the same level or below your plants, but not above your plants. Putting the container above your plants will mean all the water will find its way to the lower container (ie: your plant) and will likely over-water as well as fully drain out too quickly.
#7 Towel in a Tub
If you have a bathtub and are not like me (as I have too many plants to fit in my bathtub), the towel and tub method works a treat when you're away on holiday. Put the plug in. Line the bottom of your tub with a large towel or two. Thoroughly wet the towels. Not so much that there's a pool of water though, just to the limit of what the towels can absorb before water pools. Place your plants in the tub on top of the towels and enjoy your holiday.
Even if you are like me and have too many plants to fit in one tub, just pick your plants that need watering weekly or more often, and only pop them in the tub. If the others need watering less often, but won't fit, then use one of the other methods for them instead.
#8 Capillary mat watering
Image from RhodoDirect on Facebook
This next method is similar to wick watering but uses a capillary mat. Put one end of the mat in a bucket or your sink, like the photo above. You want the water source lower than the plants. Then put your plant pots on the capillary mat above the water source. Job done.
Hydroponics stores are the best place to find capillary mats for those in New Zealand, otherwise Amazon has a big range of capillary mats in different colours and sizes. I prefer the green or grey ones that change colour when wet, but black works fine too of course.
Another way to make this work for you if you have too many plants to fit on your sink, is to cut a strip of capillary mat which goes from the main mat down into a bucket or tub of water to act as the wick.
Now you've planned and packed, and with these 8 solutions your plants can be ticked off your list too before you go away. Happy holidays!