How To Water Plants When Away

Ready for take-off? Or is that just the moment when you realize you planned your vacation meticulously but forgot about what will happen to your green housemates?

Leaving for a week, it might not matter that much. For longer periods, you should make sure your plants are taken care of while you’re away.

When away, it is best to organize a plant sitter to water the plants such as a neighbor or a friend. Alternatively, installing a self-watering system is recommended, the most effective being a string drip system, a bottle watering system, or a water bath.

Even if you don’t have a neighbor that makes for a good plant nanny during your vacation, there are self-watering systems you can install yourself without much effort or cost. In this post, I will go through the most common methods for watering plants when away and how to install them at home.

How to Water Your Plants While Away on Vacation?

Anyone who owns plants has had that problem: How to water plants while on vacation? Especially if you plan to leave for longer periods of several weeks, your plants need water while you are gone.

First, I want to share what options there are and what I’d recommend for different lengths of vacation. After that, I will explain a couple of easy DIY self-watering systems that will keep your plants alive and happy.

Tip: Plants do not just need to be watered regularly but also the right way. Even though watering plants sounds so easy, the most common mistake is overwatering your plants. Read more about how to water plants the right way in my post linked here.

How to Water Plants When Away For 1 Week: Not Much to Do

Generally, if you leave for a vacation of 1 week or less, there is not much to do about your plants.

In winter, most plants are just fine with being watered once a week. Only during very hot summer days, you might want them to be watered every other day.

When away for 1 week, I recommend the following easy tips:

  • Organize a plant nanny (friend or neighbor) to check after your plants once during that week
  • Water them one last time right before you leave
  • Lower the shades halfway or draw the curtains on all windows (this way, your plants will be less active during that week and hence use less water)
  • Lower the temperature in your place (this will also make your plants less active and hence use less water)

How to Water Plants When Away For 2 Weeks: Organize a Plant Nanny or Install a Self-Watering System

When away for 2 weeks of vacation, even in the wintertime at least your water-loving if not all plants will need water in between. In winter, it will be enough if a plant nanny waters your plants once or twice at the max. In summer though, your plants might need to be watered 4-5 times in 2 weeks.

If you have a friend close by or a friendly neighbor, they will certainly agree to water your plants for you. If there is no one to look after your plants, a self-watering system will do it, too.

When away for 2 weeks, I recommend the following easy tips:

  • Organize a plant nanny (friend or neighbor) to check after your plants 4-5 times in 2 weeks
  • Install a self-watering system instead of organizing a plant nanny
  • Lower the shades halfway or draw the curtains on all windows (this way, your plants will be less active during that week and hence use less water)
  • Lower the temperature in your place (this will also make your plants less active and hence use less water)

How to Water Plants When Away For 3 Weeks or Longer Periods: Install a Self-Watering System or Give Your Plants to a Foster Plant Parent

A plant nanny might not be a good option when away for longer periods. Any neighbor’s or friend’s patience will have its limits and you wouldn’t necessarily want to burden someone with coming to your place and watering your plants for a month or longer. Unless you have a plant-lover friend who would happily do this (I have taken care of friends’ plants before for more than 5 weeks!).

When away for 3 weeks or longer periods, I recommend the following tips:

  • For 2-3 weeks: Install a self-watering system
  • When away for several months: Give your plants to a foster plant parent

Important Note: For shorter periods, lowering the shades, drawing the curtains, or lowering the temperature can help your plants use less water during the time you are away. For one or two weeks, this doesn’t harm the plants. Though for longer periods, do not lower the shades or temperature too much, as this will prevent them from getting enough light as well as disturb their natural life cycles.

Easiest Method for Short Vacation: Organize a Plant Nanny

Organizing a plant nanny during your vacation is one of the easiest ways to keep your plants alive when away.

Ask your neighbor or a good (and reliable) friend close by to water your plants while you’re gone. Having another human person look after your plants has many benefits compared to self-watering systems as he/she will:

  • Water your plants only as needed
  • Check your plants for signs of pests and diseases
  • Treat your plants in case of pests and diseases and avoid their spread
  • Help out with other things while you’re gone such as a quick check of your place and emptying the mailbox

Instead, self-watering systems do not do anything else than provide the soil with water, sometimes even too much water which is just as bad for your plants as constant drought.

Good to Know: When a plant is constantly overwatered, its root system sits in water which hinders the roots from taking up oxygen and nutrients. This will cause the roots and hence the plant to die. The best way to avoid this is to create appropriate drainage in the pot. In this post linked here, I explain all about how to create good drainage. Check it out!

Another advantage of a plant nanny is that you don’t have to move or rearrange your plants at home to be connected to a self-watering system nor do you have to install and DIY anything before your vacation.

It can be a bit of an effort to install such a system (especially if done for the first time) and there are usually enough other things that need to get done before a vacation as we all know from our own experience.

Here are some tips to make your plant nanny’s life a little easier:

  • Group plants of similar types or with similar requirements in the same spot
  • Leave clear instructions for each group of plants (or even for each plant if you don’t have many)
  • Place the watering can you usually use next to the plants
  • If you use fertilizer, place it next to the can with instructions on how to use
  • Last but not least: Do not forget to thank your plant nanny for the favor of watering your plants and offer to do the same for them when they are on vacation.

Easiest Method for Longer Periods: Give Your Plants to a Foster Plant Parent

If you are gone for a longer period such as several months, you might want to consider giving your plants to a foster plant parent for the time being. That way, you ensure your plants are well looked after in their temporary foster home and the person doesn’t have to travel to your place each time to water them. Also, being gone for several months gives the plants time to adjust to the new location.

This works best if you only have a few plants and ones that can easily be transported.

Another Tip: Depending on where you live, it can be a common practice for people to sublet their flat when away on vacation (as is the case in many European cities). If you live in such a place, consider subletting your flat to someone who is willing to look after your plants. That way, not only your plants are happy but you are as well as you can save on rent for that time.

5 Easy DIY Self-Watering Systems For Your Plants

When you are away for several weeks and foster plant parents or plant nannies are no option, there are several easy ways to install a self-watering system for your plants.

Some of these DIY methods involve almost no costs, while others do. I will share the best and easiest 7 ways to install a self-watering system at home.

All of these DIY self-watering systems work perfectly fine if installed correctly. However, most of them are only meant for shorter periods such as 1-2 weeks, and only a few of them for 2-3 weeks.

The best practice is to combine one or two self-watering systems; if possible, think of using systems adequate for the types of plants you have.

Important Note: For any of the described DIY methods for self-watering systems, always test them for a week or so before you leave. It could easily happen that something goes wrong and it doesn’t work or needs adjustments. By testing it out, you can know for sure it works and your plants will be fine.

1. Water Wicking or String Drip System: My Favorite Allrounder

My favorite method is the string drip system. It is easy to install with materials you probably already have at home and it works equally well for big and small pots. There is no need to push a chunky wine or beer bottle into a tiny pot and risk damaging the plant’s roots.

Another benefit is that you can choose the size of the water containers you use. This makes this self-watering system very adaptable to the length of your time away. Smaller containers will do for shorter periods, bigger containers for longer periods and you can even share a container for several plants.

What you need for a string drip system:

  • Cotton string (about 0.2 inches / 1 cm thick) or alternatively, nylon twine or cotton strips braided together (several meters of it, depending on how many plants you have)
  • Scissors
  • Water containers of an appropriate size such as watering cans, plastic bottles or buckets, glass jugs or pitchers
  • Chairs or upside-down buckets to place the water containers on
  • Small metal or stone weights to attach the string to (or 2-3 metal paperclips)
  • Plastic wrap (optional)

Tip: How to choose the size of the water containers? About 4 liters of water (= 1 gallon) are enough water for 1 week. A jug, pitcher, or watering can works for one week. For less, a small can or a glass jar is fine. For longer, a big watering can or a bucket will do.

How to install a string drip system:

  1. Place the water container next to the plant. Make sure to place the container higher up than the pot of the plant. This way, gravity will pull down the water into the pot through the string. Use an upside-down pot or bucket, chair, or shelf to put the container higher up. You can share one big container for several plants (see the tip above for calculating the amount of water).
  2. Check that the water container as well as the cotton strings won’t be in direct sunlight. Both should be in the shade to avoid evaporation.
  3. Cut the cotton string long enough for it to reach the bottom of the container and about the middle of the pot.
  4. Add 2-3 paper clips or a small-sized rock as weights to one end of the string. This end will go into the water container and prevents it from floating.
  5. Water your plant thoroughly.
  6. Soak the cotton string.
  7. Dig one end into about the middle of the pot. Be gentle to avoid damaging roots. Press the earth back down around where you dug the string into the soil.
  8. Put the other end (with weights on it) into the water container and make sure it stays at the bottom.
  9. Fill the water container all the way up.
  10. Put plastic wrap over the container to avoid excess evaporation. This is optional but can help retain water especially if you are gone for a longer period.

Tip: If you don’t want to make your own drip system, you can buy self-watering spikes that have a string already attached to them. With these, you only need to place the spikes in the soil and the string in the water, done! Here’s a link to such a model of water spikes from Blumat available on Amazon. I have made great experiences with these, they work very well.

2. Glass Bottle: The Classic DIY Method

Glass bottle watering is probably the most cited DIY self-watering system for plants. It works for all pots but I think this method is better suited for bigger pots. You can use wine bottles for bigger pots and beer or soda bottles for smaller pots but the smaller bottles will also decrease the amount of days this system waters your plants.

Also, sticking a glass bottle into the soil can damage the root system, especially in smaller pots. Make sure to be gentle when pushing the bottle into the soil.

Nevertheless, it is one of the easiest ways to make your own self-watering system and is a good option for shorter trips of about 1-6 days. I would not recommend using this method for vacations of more than 1 week.

What you need for glass bottle watering:

  • One glass bottle with a thin neck for each pot (wine bottles for big pots, beer or soda bottles for smaller pots)

How to install glass bottle watering:

  1. Water your plant thoroughly.
  2. Fill the glass bottle with water.
  3. Put your thumb over the bottle making sure your finger covers the whole completely and no water drains out when you turn the bottle upside down.
  4. Push the bottle into the moist soil (or 3-4 inches / 8-10 cm) and move your thumb away as you do so.
  5. Make sure the bottle has a secure hold in the pot.
  6. Press the earth down firmly around the bottle.

Generally, a wine bottle will keep your plants watered for about 1-6 days.

You can extend the amount of time up to about 7-10 days if you use large plastic bottles instead of glass bottles. The problem with plastic bottles is their short neck. They can’t be dug into the soil that well and need a support pole to keep them upright. But it is another option for sure.

Tip: Instead of using heavy glass bottles that run the risk of tipping over, there are various types of glass globes available. Such glass globes work the same way but are much lighter and specifically produced for plant watering. You can find them in many stores and in plenty of styles such as those iridescent plant watering globes on Amazon or these bird-shaped watering globe spikes.

3. Plastic Bottle Drip Irrigation System: Best Suited for Big Pots or Plants Outdoors

This method is similar to the glass bottle watering but instead of turning the bottle upside down, the whole bottle is dug into the soil. As you can imagine, this method mainly works for big plant pots or for plants outdoors with a lot of soil around them.

A bottle of 2 liters (= half a gallon) will keep your plants watered for about 1 week or longer. If the plants are outside and get some rain then it can last for longer than that.

What you need for a plastic bottle drip system:

  • One plastic bottle per plant of 1.5-2 liters (= half a gallon)
  • Long nail
  • Hammer

How to install a plastic bottle drip system:

  • Poke 3-5 holes into the bottom of the bottle using a nail and a hammer.
  • Poke another 3-5 holes on one side of the bottle.
  • Dig the bottle into the soil up to its neck. The side with holes in it must face the plant.
  • Press the earth down firmly around the bottle.
  • Water the plant thoroughly.
  • Fill up the bottle with water up to the neck.

You can try using smaller plastic bottles for smaller pots but keep in mind that this also decreases the amount days this system will work for your plants. In my opinion, this method is best used on big pots outside on a terrace or for plants in your garden.

4. Plastic Bag Greenhouse: Pack Them Up!

At first, it seems a bit odd to pack your plants in plastic bags but this actually is one of the watering systems that work well for a longer period of time.

Have you seen these tiny plant terrariums in glass jars in store which are sealed with a lid and the plants inside live and grow even though you never open the lid? That’s exactly what you will be doing with your houseplants with the plastic bag. If done the right way, the plants can last in there for several weeks.

This method is a bit trickier for really big indoor plants as you need to provide a plastic bag or sheet that fits them. Apart from that, it works for all plants and pots and is really easy to do. I recommend using this method for smaller pots.

It is best to use clear plastic bags as these let the sunlight in. If they fit, you can also put several small plants into one plastic bag.

What you need for a plant greenhouse:

  • Clear plastic bags of adequate size for each plant (= whole plant should easily fit the bag)
  • One towel or cloth per plant
  • Rope, string, or rubber bands (to seal the bags)

How to install a plant greenhouse:

  1. Soak the towel with water.
  2. Place the towel in the clear plastic bag.
  3. Place the plant in the bag on the towel.
  4. Water the plant like you normally would.
  5. Close the bag above the plant making sure there is a lot of air in it. If there is not enough air in the bag, blow air into it until it is puffed up.
  6. Seal the bag with a piece of rope or rubber band.
  7. Do not place the plant greenhouse in direct sunlight. Indirect sunlight or shadier spots are better. Otherwise, your plants might burn in the bag.

5. The Plant Pool: For Water-Loving Plants Only

I really like this method because it feels like you’re creating your own little mangrove forest in your bathtub. It works for all pots that fit your bathtub and you can create several baths using other large plastic containers, or even make a single bath for an individual plant.

The plant bath will keep your plants watered for 1-2 weeks.

This method is suitable only for water-loving plants and all the pots placed in the bath need to have a good drainage system. Otherwise, your plants run the risk of getting root rot.

Tip: Drainage is essential for potted plants. In this post linked here, I explain all about why plants need drainage and how to create adequate drainage in all types of pots!

What you need for a plant bath:

  • One container per plant group that serves as a bath (and the bathtub or sinks)
  • One towel per container to cover its bottom

How to install a plant bath:

  • Group your plants according to water and light requirements.
  • Choose an adequate container for each group (or put them in the bathtub).
  • Cover the bottom of each container with a towel to avoid scratches.
  • Put each group of plants in the respective container that serves as a bath and place them in an appropriate spot in your living space. Try to avoid very sunny spots even for your sun-loving plants as this will cause the water to evaporate too fast.
  • Water all your plants thoroughly.
  • Fill the container with water up to about 3-4 inches (= 8-10 cm). Make sure the towel is completely submerged as well as the bottom of the pots.

Important Note: This method only works for water-loving plants. Do not use this method for arid plants such as succulents or cacti.

6. Bonus Tip: Water Retention Granules, Gel Jelly Beads and Mats

I stumbled upon this option for keeping pots moist only recently and thought it is worth mentioning here in case you prefer something like this for your plants.

There are types of granules, gel jelly beads, or water retention mats made out of materials that can soak up with water completely and then give it back off little by little to the soil. There is a variety of products specifically for houseplants. Not all of them are free of chemicals though and I would highly recommend buying biodegradable products if you opt for such a water retention method.

Here’s a link to a type of water retention mat that is biodegradable and can be placed in the bottom of the pot. These mats seem to be a good option, though I have never tested them myself.

Please Note: The description for most of these products mentions that they reduce plant watering by 50% which means you can add half the amount of time that you are away. I recommend using these products only in combination with another self-watering system if you are gone for longer than one week.

DIY Self-Watering System or Plant Nanny: What’s Better?

DIY Self-watering systems are not always a big effort and work quite well. However, most of them are only meant for shorter periods such as 1-2 weeks, and only a few of them for 2-3 weeks.

Also, I have made the experience that these self-watering systems even work too well and keep the soil almost constantly humid or even soaked. In my opinion, they only work well for tropical or other plants that can deal with a lot of water. Many more arid plants prefer soil that is drier.

During short times of 1-2 weeks, a suboptimal watering of your plants does not damage them drastically. So, even if a plant gets a bit too much water during that time through a self-watering system, it will be fine when you come back.

Rule of Thumb: I recommend using a self-watering system when gone for shorter periods of 1-2 weeks. When away for 3 weeks or longer, I’d definitely prefer to have a plant nanny or a foster plant parent look after them.

This is not just because many of the DIY self-watering systems do not work for such a long time (and installing a proper irrigation system with a timer is more costly) but also because for longer periods, it is important to water each of your plants adequately. Human caretakers can water each plant individually according to their needs which is not possible with a simple DIY watering system.

What to Do About Your Plants When Back?

It is good to keep in mind a couple of tips on what to do about your plants when you come back from your vacation. Here’s what’s most important:

  • If you moved your plants before leaving: Put them back in the spots each plant had before you left on vacation.
  • Resist the temptation to overwater them: Usually, we feel like we need to give our houseplants lots of water when we are back because we haven’t seen them for a while.
  • Check each plant for signs of disease or pests that might have spread while you were gone.
  • Do not forget to thank your plant nanny or foster plant parents with a small gift when back. They will appreciate it and be more willing to do you a favor again next time you are away.

How to Know If My Houseplants Are Healthy?

Whether you just came back from a vacation and want to see how your plants are doing or whether you make it part of your weekly plant care routine, checking on your plants’ health regularly is essential for happy plant life.

If you don’t know what to look out for or what yellowing leaves, brown tips, or moldy smell mean, click through to my step-by-step health check post with included first aid tips!

Best Free Plant Care Apps?

Plant Care cannot only be challenging when away. If you are not born with an innate green thumb, it can also be challenging when you are around! But don’t worry, a green thumb is a skill one can develop and is easiest done through the help of a plant care app.

If you want to find out what plant care app suits you and which ones are for free, check out my post about the 7 best free plant care apps.

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