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Cheap, Easy, Leak-Safe Way to Water Plants While On Vacation

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My husband and I like to take trips to exotic locales, but we also like the jungle-like explosion of houseplants we have in our apartment. This combination poses a problem, because there's only so many times you can impose on a friend to water your apartment-jungle, even when bribing them with lovely souvenirs from exotic locales.

Also, the sheer number of plants we own made commercial solutions too expensive. I considered building a system with tubing, but my husband worried that it might spring a leak while no one was home.

So I came up with the following dirt-cheap, easy, and fairly leak-proof solution: You just need resealable plastic bag full of water with a wick in it to pull the water out at steady rate.

This Instructable will show you how to do that, but all you really need to know is that the size of the needle you use to thread the wick determines how fast the water drains out of the bag.

Caveat: Not all plants will be happy with this method of watering, which keeps the soil continuously damp. Ivy, for example, likes to dry out before being re-watered.

 
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Step 1: What you'll need:

Picture of What you'll need:
You'll need:

1) Thread. Most types will work, but cotton thread is probably best for wicking purposes. If you're going away for a very long time, polyester might be better to ensure the thread doesn't rot.

2) Scissors for snipping thread.

3) Re-sealable plastic bags. The size depends on how large a reservoir of water you need, which will depend on how much water you want to deliver to the plant every day, and for how many days.

4) A very fine needle. The ideal is probably a #10 needle, which is about 0.5mm = 0.02" thick. However, any needle in the #8 - #12 range should work fine.

NOTE: A "regular" needle is usually about a #6 and TOO LARGE. The size of the needle is what determines how fast the water will drain, so you must find a very thin one. It's easy to add more threads to one bag to increase the drainage rate, or to add several small bags to one plant's pot, but you can't throttle the water flow from a hole that is too large.

Step 2: What you'll need to think about in advance:

If you've got a bit of time to plan ahead and experiment, the following are some good things to think about to ensure your plants are going to be happy while you're away.

1) How much water does each of your plants need?

What you want to determine is how much water you want draining into the plant per day. The way to work this out is to think about how much water you normally give that plant and how often.

For example if you usually give your plant two cups of water once a week, then you want your bag to deliver (2 cups / 7 days) ~ 0.29 cups of water to the plant every day.

2) How large a plastic bag are you going to need to hold enough water to last your entire trip?

For example, if your plant needs 0.29 cups of water per day, and you're going to be gone for 20 days, then you want a bag that will hold (0.29 cups per day) x (20 days) = 5.8 cups of water.

On our last trip, I only used "snack" and "medium" sized Ziploc bags, so I can give you the water volume of those:

- "Snack" sized Ziploc bags (4" x 6.5"): 1 cup of water
- "Medium" sized Ziploc bags (7" x 9"): slightly less than 6 cups of water

3) How fast are your bags actually draining?

Obviously you're going to need to actually create a bag to determine this, but you should test how much water drains out of the bag over a given time period. This will depend on the size of needle you use.

To test your drainage rate, create a bag with one wick, then fill it with water and prop it on the top of a measuring cup with the wick pointing downward. Wait an hour, then see how much water has dripped into the cup. Multiply this by 24 hours to find out how much water the bag will deliver in one day.

If it isn't enough, then you can add more wicks to the bag. As long as you use the same needle, you can double, triple, etc., the flow rate in a very consistent manner.

Step 3: Preparing your water-wick

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Cut about a 20 cm (8") length of thread, and thread your needle.

Tie the two ends of the thread together with a fairly large knot (i.e. knot it two or three times in the same location.) The bag's plastic is quite soft, and small knots sometimes slip right through the hole that the needle makes.

Step 4: Adding the wick to the water reservoir

Picture of Adding the wick to the water reservoir
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The thread is going to act as a wick to draw water out of the bag through the hole made by the needle.

Note that the thread is NOT optional; the flow rate of the water becomes very inconsistent if you don't have a wick holding the hole open.

I like to put the wick near the bottom of the bag, centred, but also going through one of the flat sides of the bag. That way, I can lie the wick directly against the plant's soil when the bag is full of water.

It's important you don't poke extra holes in the bag by accident as you're moving the needle down to the bottom, so I recommend pressing the tip of the needle flat against your finger (as shown in the first photo) before moving your hand into the bag.

Once you get the needle to the place where you want to place the wick, push the needle through the bag, then snip the thread.

And that's it! You're ready to use the bag.

Step 5: Preparing to use the magical plant-watering Leaky Baggie

Picture of Preparing to use the magical plant-watering Leaky Baggie
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I find it easiest to fill the bag up in a full sink or bucket.

Hold the bag open and dip it into the water, then lift it slightly to let gravity fill it. To get the maximum amount of water into the bag, I find it's easiest to seal it with the bag still mostly underwater.

Step 6:

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As soon as you lift the bag out of the water, water will start wicking out of the needle-hole and dripping down the thread. This is what's going to water your plant!

Because the bag is now actively leaking, transfer it into a pan or bowl so you can take it to your plant without dripping on the floor.

Step 7: Water your plants!

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Place the bag in the plant's pot with the wick touching the soil. The water will drain at a continuous rate into the soil, with the bag deflating slowly in the process.

If you need to deliver more water to a particular plant, you can either add more wicks to one bag, or add more bags to that plant's pot.

Large bags may need to be propped up via kebab skewers or chopsticks to ensure the bag doesn't flop over the edge of the pot as it deflates, isolating some of the water in a pocket that can't drain.

When you get home from your trip, empty the bags, let them dry out, then roll them up and store them for your next vacation. They take up very little space.

Bon Voyage!
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I signed up to instructables just to thank you for this brilliant idea and tutorial. Thank you!

jjdebenedictis (author)  Green Trees3 days ago

:D Thank you so much! I hope it works out well for you.

Catley2 months ago

Oh what a great idea! I have seen upended bottles with special drip point screwed onto them (for a price, of course), but never got them because my pots are too small. The bags will work in almost any pot and cost nothing, to boot! Thanks.

We have more of a problem keeping our two walking shrew-killers out of the plant environments! I was able to trick my biologist husband awhile ago with some very realistic-looking artificial plants. I like this Instructable - good clear explanations, great photos - thanks! Great job. I have several small, artistic gardens all over the house and I'm leaving next week for 5-6 weeks. Guess why I won't need to worry about watering them? I stick to Rock Gardens! (My husband says I can even kill those, but I haven't yet...)

espdp22 months ago

Thank you. This is my FAVORITE type of Instructable! Simply brilliant.

thetreehearts5 months ago

This is brilliant! Will have to pass this onto my friends that have flowers at their homes.

PetrinaC7 months ago

Is it possible to do this without the wick? I ask mainly because I don't want to have to go get a finer needle. If I don't need to get the thread through, I could just prick a small hole in the bag with the tip of the needle? Thanks!

jjdebenedictis (author)  PetrinaC7 months ago

Unfortunately not; the drainage rate becomes really inconsistent without the wick to hold the hole open.

Try testing just one baggie with one hole in it using the needle you've got. and maybe some thicker thread. You might find the flow rate is okay for your purposes. Good luck!

Wragie1 year ago
I like this!

This would be very handy just to turn a daily chore into a once a week chore too.
Most plants only need to be watered once a week anyway unless you are watering them only a tiny bit each day (like this method). We live in a very dry climate and a good watering once a week is what most plants are happy with.
I love having green plants indoors but don't have much luck with them. I have had success with mother-in-laws tongue (not sure that's the right name) and elephant plants (again not sure) and they have thrived from my tender mis-care. Would be nice to figure out what I need to do so I can can start calling them plants instead of compost.

However some of the hardier varieties of green plastic ones seem to be non killable....so far. ;-]
zdarovia1 year ago
Brilliant idea! I'm sometimes away for 12 weeks and don't want to bother my neighbor. But if I ask them to pop in once a week and top up the bag when she sorts out my mail, it wont be too much to ask. Especially if I bring her some goodies back.
openroad1 year ago
Thanks for a solution that seems so simple but yet I have not seen. Great job on a project that is both efficient and cost very little. So much better than plastic bottles.
We used to have a ficus tree--7 foot tall or so. When we went on vacation we would fill one of those bladders which come in the box-o-wine. Some have a "faucet" type spigots- those are the ones I prefer. I just turn the spigot on very slowly. We are usually gone 3 weeks at a time. No problem with mold. Also use these water-ers in the early planting season to water each individual plant. Hope this helps someone.
jjdebenedictis (author)  retirednurse1 year ago
Good suggestion! Before coming up with this idea, I had been thinking about IV drip bags, but couldn't find anywhere to buy them cheaply. The box-o-wine bladder would work very nicely.
So, what is the longest you were away for this to do it's job? (days? a week?)

cheers,
jjdebenedictis (author)  jakerobinson1 year ago
About ten days, but there was still water in most of the bags when we got back. I'm convinced this could work for three weeks easily, and possibly longer if you used large bags and calibrated their drainage rate carefully.
Thanks for that... that is impressive. good 'ible... cheers,
a h mehta1 year ago
Its a very good idea. In case the hole has become bigger or accidentally the needle pierces at wrong place on the bag, may be you can seal it with a cello tape and then pierce the hole to the size required.
kdomjan1 year ago
Simplicity = beauty
a.steidl1 year ago
Neat idea. As a suggestion, though, I'd recommend dark bags, to avoid algea growth in the light.
jjdebenedictis (author)  a.steidl1 year ago
Good suggestion! We didn't have any trouble with algae in the bags, but the threads did turn black and slimy (after 10 days), so I suspect we eventually would have.
I do the same thing outside using 10 gallon trash bags for my fruit trees. I just tie them to a rebar to hold them up and fill them with water. The hole I have on the bottom leaks out and keeps the soil moist. I didn't want to spend money buying the green bag watering systems for trees you might see around parks.
jjdebenedictis (author)  Money_Illusion1 year ago
Great way to scale the idea up! Thanks for mentioning this!
jgeidl1 year ago
How large are the plants you are watering? Size would control how many/how big a bag you use, I would think.
jjdebenedictis (author)  jgeidl1 year ago
The orchid in the first shot is the largest plant we watered this way, although it's not our thirstiest. I'm not sure this would work for, for example, an indoor tree. However, Money_Illusion's comment down-thread is a great way to scale the idea up.
rfhewitt1 year ago
Great! Thanks!
Absolutely genius. I just wish you had shard this a month ago. Could have used it then :)
tdc22021 year ago
What a great idea! I love your clear instructions, too.
wtrattles1 year ago
Great idea!
if you were to turn the bag over so the wick hole was not in the water you could freeze the bag and as the ice melted it would water the soil over a longer period of time depending on how hot the house is inside ...
keep in mind ICE is cold and some plants don't like cold ;)
Hey! Cool! I need this for everyday. (I keep forgetting to water.)
jjdebenedictis (author)  Tracy_Marie1 year ago
:D I have considered using it for everyday too!
dkistner1 year ago
This is a majorly awesome instructable! What a nice job you did. People and plants everywhere love you!
MaryBens1 year ago
This is so clever! Some years ago, I tried several experiments to attempt to use wicking to water outdoor plants, but they all failed (the rope wouldn't wick). I had given up on the idea, but now you have inspired me to try again. Thanks for posting this. Good photos, clear instructions, excellent hints to avoid failure.
EET19821 year ago
That's awesome! Great job!
You just invented a DIY drip irrigation system :). Thank you so much for sharing.
Cool!
So smart! Next time I go somewhere I won't accidentally kill a plant. :D
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