Vacation Plant Watering, Basic & Simple – Automated

Relaxation & Rest in Summer

Time for a vacation, a little time away, to rest and recharge.  How about your plants? Your hanging baskets and containers. You don’t want to add stress to your vacation by worrying about if they will be dead when you return.  How do I water my plants when I go on vacation? You can ask a friend or a neighbor kid, but I have found that is not a reliable way to ensure the health of your plants.  All it takes is one day forgotten, and they are ‘pushing up daisies”, ummm, “bought the farm”, “checked out”…lifeless.

When you need a vacation plant watering system, or simply an automated watering system to ease the daily watering chores, there are several options you can use:

  • Self-watering pots
  • In-ground unglazed terra cotta systems- Ollas, Oyas
  • Unglazed terra cotta, above soil water bottle systems
  • Wicking systems
  • Timer based automated irrigation systems

Each of these will work but have differences that make one fit your situation better than another.  Some need to be installed when planting, some can be installed just for vacations, others can be installed for daily watering for the entire season. Some systems need to have access to a water line, others do not.  Let’s take a closer look to decide which will work best for what you want to do.

Refillable Automatic Watering Systems:  

Install Before Planting:

Self-watering pots.  These have the watering system designed and built right in.  No tubes, lines or hoses permanently running to the pots, they just look like regular pots you would use, but have a secret water reservoir!  These are a no brainer favorite of mine if you are needing to buy pots anyway, get these instead.   Here is a link to my resource page for self-watering pots to look at several I have on my own personal wish list!

In the ground, unglazed systems, Ollas & Oyas. If you plan ahead, you can use these watering systems all season to reduce your watering chores as well as rely on them when you are on vacation ( or just out of town). These work best in very large containers, or directly in the ground in your garden.  They are an ancient technology that works like a charm. Unglazed terra cotta pottery that slowly releases water through its pores into the soil surrounding it, only as needed. These are buried in the ground, filled with water, and have a cover to prevent water evaporating from the neck.  Olla and Oyas look a bit like a straight crookneck squash or a squatty lamp base. But you don’t see it because it is all underground.

 The covers are used to prevent evaporation and to stop things from falling inside the water reservoir.  Dirt, bugs, your keys…   They can be basic, to very cool glazed pottery shapes or sculptures.  I have seen them as silicone green caps, small white bunnies, glazed toads, to fancy perfume bottle looking stoppers.  Find your favorite decorative wine bottle stopper and wrap the stopper base to enlarge to fit the neck of your olla! Wrap with large rubber bands, electrician tap, sheet cork, whatever to enlarge neck to the size you need!

 After burying, just almost to the top of the neck, and fill with water, put the top back on, and see how long it takes to empty.  I would check it every day at first to see how long for your plants, in your container, in your heat, humidity, plant vs soil ratio conditions, etc.  I would expect twice a week for shaded pots on your covered porch if the size of the pot in a good balance to your olla.  If you need it to go longer for a vacation, upend a bottle/ jug into the mouth of Oya, or place a drip wick to a larger container of water.  Either way, the key is just knowing how long the water will last in your situation, and either way, it is so much easier than watering every day, for you AND simpler for your helper, if you have the neighbor kid come and refill!

Find Oyas & Ollas here and here.

Unglazed terra cotta, water stored above ground bottle systems:

With all of these unglazed systems, I recommend fertilizing separately.  Yes, even with a liquid fertilizer, over time it clogs the pores of the terra cotta, and if an organic fertilizer, tends to ferment in the storage portion..yuck.  I love a good organic fertilizer but just fertilize separately weekly. Just let these suckers water.

These systems work on the same concept as the olla, except the water is stored above the pot in a glass wine bottle or another container.  Still, plant the base into your soil at the outset, don’t try to push in later when the soil is full of roots. Soak the terra cotta first, and have your container soil deeply and thoroughly watered first.  Then you are set for success for this system. You can easily see when the water reservoir is running out, as you see the water level in the above-ground reservoir. Also, there are some stunning wine bottle designs and colors to work into your container.  If you do ever allow these to dry out completely, resoak the terracotta part, and the soil when restarting. Click here to check them out on Amazon!

Add After Planting Systems:

Terra cotta spikes, add after planting, water reservoir separate.

One system I found and is in my wish list is the Blumat system from Austria, works like the above, add when planting, terra cotta spikes, except the water storage is separate and can be combined for several plants.  The water release rate is dependant on the height the water reservoir is stored in relation to the soil surface. Above them for high water needs, at level for average. This will take a little trial on your part to match with your exact needs, but this is tops in my opinion for reliable, adjustable, portable, and easy.  Adding after the fact to your plants is a bonus, use for a vacation, or the whole season! Want to move your planters a foot to the left, or move a mile down the road? No problem!

These were very highly reviewed, but watch for copycat systems, I read about inferior spikes that do not control the water nearly as well as these!  With something as important as water. I just don’t want to risk too much water flooding the area, indoors, damaging the floor, outdoors running dry too soon.  Watering is a balancing act. Click here to look at one of the several systems on Amazon.

Terra cotta spikes (small, refillable, no bottle).

These work by the same concept as the above terracotta systems, but the ‘spike’ is smaller and the water reservoir is built in and smaller.  It can be added later because it is smaller, however, the soil must still be soft! In other words, add soon after planting up the container. Also, this is much better suited for smaller pots for watering or more decorative with a bonus in larger pots.  Too small to rely on for vacation watering for those larger pots. Very cute though. Click here to look at one in the form of a mushroom! On Amazon

Glass Bulbs Systems

The glass bulb systems are very ornamental, and useful for individual smaller pots, 10” or less, but do not have the holding capacity to make the difference for an extended vacation for outdoor planters.  Do remember when using these, water the pot thoroughly, and then use the bulb for back up water, don’t rely on just refilling the bulb alone. I liked this improved type. Click here to see on Amazon.

Wicking Systems

These can be very reliable and inexpensive.  Wicking systems can be set up just before leaving for vacation, however, I prefer to set up when planting.  If set up after planting, you risk the wind, or the cat knocking the wick out of the pot, and then there goes your automatic system.  To set up when potting, I like to put wick (click here to get wicking at Amazon) up through the bottom of the drainage hole and tie a large knot so it doesn’t slip out. The other end of the wick simply goes in the water source.  A bucket, bottle or whatever you like to store that water. /the larger the container, the longer it can go without refilling. If you want slower wicking, have it draw up from a level lower than your pot.  Medium wicking, level with pot. Faster, have above the pot and combine a drip/ wick action. Try out a few arrangements to see what works better for you. This is cheap and low tech, but you will need to fiddle to make it just right before you go off and leave it.

Drip Irrigation – Vacation Use

Drip irrigation simplified and containerized for vacation use.  I am really impressed with the Claber system, made by a company specializing in full-scale irrigation systems.  The design is simple, straightforward, well made and well executed. It can be expanded, as laid out by customers, for longer extended vacations.  This one is very well reviewed, and most issues could have been avoided by testing the system and the settings chosen before leaving. Click here to get a look at it on Amazon!

Drip Irrigation System Permanent Install

Drip irrigation systems are one of the major systems commercial greenhouses use to irrigate hanging baskets and other pots not set up on their bench systems.  They are efficient with the water and reliable. Also not nearly as complicated as you might have feared to set up, but it does take some planning and time to set up.  I would recommend setting up for the whole season, not just on vacation. Here is a great article from Penn State Extension on building and operating a home drip irrigation system.

Related Questions

How long can plants go without water?

In general, outdoor hanging baskets and containers will need to be checked for watering daily.  Indoor plants will need to be checked weekly, and your newly planted landscape plants checked 2-3 times a week.  Notice I said checked, not watered. Your plant, in your location, in your pot size, in your (fill in the blank), will make the ultimate difference on how often.  However, take heart, a pattern will develop for your plant, in your location. 

Read a short bit I wrote on if plant saucers are a good idea or not by clicking here.

How do I keep my plants from drying out?

There are three things to keep in mind.  

1. The soil is what is storing water for your plants. The larger the pot, the more soil, the more water holding capacity.  Crowded and over-abundant planters dry out quickly.

2. Water deeply and thoroughly when you do water.  Water finds the most efficient route through the soil and out the bottom of your pot.  It doesn’t want to hang out and moisten all your soil. For more information, click here for a post I wrote on All You Need To Know About Watering.

3. Some plants store their own water and are naturally more drought-resistant than others.  Some plants are water divas and need seemingly continuous moisture. Side note, not all plants that are drought resistant store their own water, some, for instance, have such a massive and extensive root system they are better at taking up all available water, making them more drought resistant in your garden.  These do not make the best plants for your containers because they bully other plants you put in the same container with them and hog the water. And that same extensive root system that helped them in the ground, works against them by the end of the season in a container. Your container slowly fills with root mass, and soil slowly starts eroding out of your container.  Remember the soil is what is storing the moisture, less soil, less water storage, more often you end up watering. Especially in the heat of August.

If you have trouble with your containers drying out, and your spot has at least 4-6 hours of sun, try more succulent plants.  Portulaca, sedums, and yucca to name a few!

How do I water my houseplants while on vacation?

You don’t, but you can have these clever systems do that for you!  If all you are looking for is vacation watering, and not throughout the season, I like this and this system best for ease of setup and reliability.

Click here to see my favorite containers, and here to see my favorite watering systems on Amazon.

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