Self-Watering Planters That Use 1 Secret Irrigation Method Rarely Understood

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Eco-Friendly Natural Products | January 11, 2024

Self-watering planter using irrgation method.

Keeping houseplants happy and healthy can be a struggle, but self-watering planters take much of the guesswork out of plant care and can keep plants thriving throughout the year with minimal effort.

However, not all self-watering planters are equal. While many planters utilize top-down watering, some planters use a less commonly understood method: subirrigation.12

And it is subirrigation that may just be the secret that will take your houseplants from surviving to thriving.

But first, let’s look at some of the best self-watering planters that use this method.

Our Top Self-Watering Planter Picks


Best Overall Self-Watering Planter: Vanavazon

Low cost and error free! Perfect for beginners.


Best Budget Self Watering Planter: HB Services

Fade resistant, durable, and plenty of room for all sorts of plants.


Best Self-Watering Planter for Hanging Plants: GARDENIX DÉCOR

Comes with Coco soil pellets to help your plant.


Best Self-Watering Planter for Herbs: Amazing Creation

This brand is able to take your indoor herb garden to new heights.


Best African Violet Planter: The Thrifted Kind

This eco-friendly option can’t be beat!


Best Large Capacity Self-Watering Planter: Keter

Perfect for small outdoor areas… tons of room in a little space.


Best Outdoor Self-Watering Planter: Lechuza Cubico

The special substrata design makes this versatile planter a perfect fit for your covered outdoor areas.

How To Use Self Watering Planters and the Secret Irrigation Technique

Self-watering planters make plant care a breeze. Whether they use a reservoir from which plants can draw water or a more elaborate mechanized watering system, they provide a consistent supply of moisture. This ready source of water allows plants to absorb what they need, removing the risk of over- or underwatering.

When we water our plants with a watering can, we are utilizing overhead, or top-down, watering.  Many self-watering planters use this system as well. In fact, top-down watering is the most common method growers use, and it’s no wonder. When most people think about how plants receive water, they think about rainfall. But what is missing from this equation is what happens to rainfall after it reaches the soil. This is where the secret irrigation technique, sub-irrigation, comes in.

Best Overall: Vanavazon 6” Self-Watering Planter Pots

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$
Self-Watering Planeter Pros: Perfect for beginners and great for herbs
Cons: Plastic Construction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

Vanavazon self-watering pots come in packs of three and, at $16.99 a set, they are easy on your budget. Made of heat and cold resistant material, these durable little pots are the perfect size for many houseplants and herbs. What we love most about these pots is the clear water reservoir, which makes them perfect for beginners. Since the wicks and water level are always visible, you don’t need to worry about missing a watering ever again.

Best Budget: HB Services 8” Self-Watering Deep Reservoir Plant Pot

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$
Self-Watering Planter Pros: Great size for the price and it won’t clog
Cons: The debate about BPA free plastics causes concern for some
Rating: 4 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

Simple and sleek, this self-watering pot gives you a lot of planter for only a little investment. At $14, it is affordable on most budgets and comes in five different colors to match your home.

BPA-free, this planter is fade resistant and durable and, because its large water reservoir can hold over two weeks’ worth of water, it will cut your plant maintenance time significantly. Not only that, but this innovative planter includes large holes in the inner pot that provide excellent aeration for roots and the wick-free design eliminates all worries of clogging. Your plants and you are sure to love this budget-friendly choice.

Best for Hanging Plants: GARDENIX DÉCOR 11” Self-Watering Hanging Planters

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$$
Self-Watering Planter Pros: Durable and strong, comes with coco soil pellets
Cons: Plastic Construction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

GARDENIX DÉCOR includes two hanging planters with every purchase. These planters come in multiple colors and their wicker-like look adds a classic touch. Composed of crack, fade and UV resistant materials, these planters can be used indoors or outdoors. With an easy-to-read water level indicator, you never need to worry about missing a watering. Each purchase also includes coco soil pellets for planting.

The unique structure of coco soil helps to keep roots aerated and moisture levels consistent, giving these planters a competitive edge over other hanging pots.

Best for Herbs: Amazing Creation Windowsill Herb Planter Box

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$$$
Self-Watering Planter Pros: Easy to read water level gauge
Cons: Plastic Construction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

Amazing Creation’s windowsill herb planter includes three self-watering planters, giving the home gardener lots of space and options for their windowsill garden. These affordable planters are made of a durable, fade-resistant, food-safe material. And we absolutely love their fun colors, which are sure to find a place in any décor. Our favorite part, however, is the large water reservoir and easy to read side water level panel that takes all the guess work out of watering your plants. Simply fill up the reservoir and your first herb garden will be thriving in no time.

Best African Violet Planter: The Thrifted Kind

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$$$
Self-Watering Planter Pros: Classic design and elegant looks combined with sustainability
Cons: Breakable
Rating: 5 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

Thrift shops and websites like eBay offer many adorable and classic African violet pots to choose from. Composed of an inner planting pot that fits snugly in an exterior reservoir bowl, many of these pots are made from ceramic or terracotta and are perfectly suited for your African violets. When you thrift an older piece, like the pot pictured, you direct items away from the waste stream, while simultaneously saving the production costs and energy it takes to create a new item. Eco-friendly and easy on your wallet, these pots are oh so cute and you can find one to match any décor.

This pot gets our highest rating, for being reused and not plastic.

Best Large Capacity: Keter Easy Grow 31.7 Gallon Raised Garden Bed

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$$$$
Self-Watering Planter Pros: Plenty of room for growing veggies at home.
Cons: Plastic Construction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

Ideal for urban gardening or small outdoor spaces, the Keter raised bed planter is made of a durable material that resembles rattan and is chic enough to fit with most decors. Suitable for indoor or outdoor use, its 30+ gallon soil capacity makes this roomy planter large enough to grow many vegetables comfortably. Best yet, its easy read water reservoir allows you to quickly see when it’s time to water while its simple drainage system gives you complete control over moisture levels. The height of this bed also makes it very accessible and eases back strain.

One of the best parts of growing your own veggies at home is the ability to reduce your food emissions. (Don’t know your food emissions, use an ecological footprint calculator to figure your total for the year, or a food carbon calculator for specifics.)

Best Outdoor: Lechuza Cubico Self-Watering Garden Planter

Photo that shows the characteristics of beech tree.
Price: $$$$$
Self-Watering Planter Pros: Perfect for larger indoor and outdoor plants, special substrate
Cons: Plastic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Why We Love This Self Watering Planter

With its classic form and multiple color options, the Lechuza Cubico planter is a great choice for indoor or outdoor spaces. Made of a frost and UV resistant material, this durable piece has a lift out liner that makes planting easy. There’s no need to guess when your plants need water either, just check the easy-to-read water level indicator. A drain at the base makes emptying the water reservoir super simple, especially after a heavy rain. The Lechuza planter also comes with a specially designed substrate that helps ensure plant roots remain aerated while providing for your plant’s nutritional needs and regulating moisture levels.

Bottom-Up Watering: The Science Behind How Self-Watering Planters Work to Keep Plants Healthy

Plants receive very little moisture at the soil’s surface. Instead, when it rains, moisture is absorbed deep into the levels of subsoil where it remains accessible to plants even during times of drought. As the soil surface becomes drier, plant roots dive deeper for moisture and, in the process, grow longer. And as any gardener knows, the longer a plant’s roots, the healthier and stronger that plant grows.

Subirrigation utilizes this natural method by providing a ready source of water directly to a plant’s roots, where it can be absorbed, as needed, via a process known as osmosis. After water enters a plant’s root system, it travels throughout the plant’s cell network in a process known as capillary action.7 Capillary action is what helps a plant remain sturdy and upright, while also providing water and nutrients from plant root to leaf. Because water molecules naturally adhere to each other, they can flow upwards through spaces and against gravity.3

As subirrigation uses a bottom-up watering method, plants remain healthier as moisture never touches their leaves, which can cause issues with mildew or fungus gnats.It’s perfect for plants that can’t use mist for plants. Additionally, as subirrigation encourages root growth, plants grow stronger and are less likely to topple or droop.

Self-Watering Planters Remove Watering Guesswork

As any plant parent knows, the watering needs of a single houseplant can vary dramatically throughout the year. As seasons change, temperatures, light and humidity fluctuate, causing the amount of water a plant requires to rise and fall. Periods of damp, dark days result in plants needing less water, while hot summer months see plants needing extra moisture. But the precise amount of water a houseplant needs in a given week is difficult to determine and the slightest miscalculation can have disastrous results.

Overwatering is the single greatest cause of houseplant death. It may seem counterintuitive, but plant roots need air and when the soil is oversaturated, plant roots can’t breathe and will begin to die.2 The most reliable way to prevent watering issues is to use self-watering planters.

With self-watering planters, plants have access to a reservoir of water from which they can draw as needed. Water enters the planting substrate only when the substrate begins to dry out and so overwatering, and underwatering, are prevented. Because plants absorb only as much water as they can use, plant parents no longer have to keep as watchful of an eye on plants for signs they need water. Instead, the only maintenance required is to refill the water reservoir as it becomes dry.

How Do Self-Watering Pots Work? Can I Be Sure My Plants Get Enough Water?

Self-watering planters generally use a double-pot design. A smaller pot, containing the plant and substrate is placed into a larger pot with a bottom reservoir for water. A wicking material of some sort is placed between the two pots so that water can be drawn up from the reservoir and into the planting substrate where it will be absorbed by thirsty plant roots. Air holes are added to the inner pot to allow for aeration of the soil. Additionally, overflow holes placed in the exterior pot prevent reservoirs from being overfilled and causing waterlogged soil.3

Once in place, self-watering planters work due to the process of capillary action. As the wicking material begins to dry out, more water is drawn upwards causing a constant supply of water molecules to flow where they are needed. As long as the reservoir remains full and the wick reaches the water level, plant parents can sit back and relax knowing their plants will be well tended.

What Are the Benefits of Self-Watering Planters?

Self-watering planters that utilize subirrigation have many benefits for the home gardener. Not only do they simplify watering routines, but by focusing water where it is needed most, they use less water and fertilizer, thus making them environmentally-friendly choices. Additionally, self-watering planters reduce the risk of creating moist environments where fungus gnats and mildew can thrive and, as water is added at the bottom,11,9 sensitive leaves remain dry. Finally, if you travel frequently, have finicky plants or plants placed in out-of-reach areas, these planters can help.1

How To Make Self Watering Planters: DIY (Do-It-Yourself)

Plant enthusiasts have many excellent self-watering planters to choose from, some of which are listed above. However, for those of us more inclined towards DIY or who are looking for the most budget-friendly option, self-watering planters can be made at home with just a few simple items.4

By understanding the secret irrigation method, subirrigation, self-watering planters can easily be crafted out of a wide range of materials. Best of all, these items are often free and can be found in your own recycling bin. By reusing what we already have, we are being kind to our wallets and the environment too. What could be better than that?

Step 1: Grab Your Materials for Making a Self-Watering Pot

You will need:

  • A plastic water jug or soda bottle with cap
  • Cotton wicking material, which can be a length of cotton cord, a scrap of an old t-shirt or hand towel, etc.
  • Potting soil
  • A pair of scissors or other cutting implement
  • A hammer and nail or a power drill

Step 2: Cut Your Plastic Bottle.

Carefully, cut your bottle in half around the middle.

Step 3: Make a Hole in the Bottle Cap.

Using either the hammer and nail or your drill, carefully bore a hole in the cap of your bottle. This hole should be large enough so that your wick can fit through.

Step 4: Place Your Wick.

Cut your wick to about 10-12” in length. If you’re using a scrap of an old t-shirt or towel, form your wick out of strip of material about 1-2” wide. Thread your wick through the bottle cap and knot it on either side of the cap to prevent slippage.

Step 5: Put Your Self-Watering Planter Together.

Replace the cap on your bottle so that half of the wick is inside the bottle and half is outside.  Place the bottom half of your bottle upright. Invert the top half of the bottle, with the wick, and place it inside the bottom section of the bottle. The wick should gently rest on the bottom of the bottle and extend, through the cap, into the top half of the bottle.4

Step 6: Get Planting.

Fill the top half of your planter with soil and plant your plant.

Step 7: Add Water.

Carefully lift the top half of your planter away and fill the bottom reservoir of your planter with water, allowing approximately 1-2” of air space at the top.  Replace the top half of your planter, ensuring the wick is in the water reservoir.

Step 8: Sit Back and Relax.

That’s it! Now that you’ve made a self-watering planter most of your work is done. Thanks to subirrigation, your plant will remain well-watered and happy. All you need to do now is fill the reservoir as it becomes dry.

Tips to Make Sure Your Self Watering Planter Works Without a Hitch

  • Always keep an eye on your water reservoir and refill as needed.
  • If you’re using a wick, always ensure it is touching the water. If your reservoir ever becomes very dry, you may need to “restart” your wick by thoroughly wetting it.
  • Make sure your wick is made of a material that wicks water well. Cotton is an ideal choice.
  • Depending on your water supply, salts and other minerals can build up in your planter,6 causing your plant’s leaves to turn brown and dry. If this happens, flush your soil with clean, fresh water — preferably distilled or rainwater. Finally, clean your reservoir out thoroughly before adding new water.
  • It is best to avoid using fertilizers with self-watering planters as they can build up to levels that are toxic to your plant. If you want to feed your plant, opt for a natural compost instead.
  • Not all plants work well with self-watering planters. Before you start, make sure you know whether a self-watering planter is suitable for your plant.5

How To Use Self-Watering Planters for Any Houseplant

Self-watering planters work for most plants; however, tricky situations and finicky plants can sometimes make it difficult to find the best planter for your situation. Luckily, home gardeners have always been great at solving planting dilemmas, and with the wide range of planters on the market, there is a self-watering solution for just about every planting challenge.

Self-Watering Hanging Planters: No Drips, No Mess

Hanging plants may at first appear less than ideal candidates for self-watering planters. Watering hanging plants tends to be a messy chore at best and, when planted in standard pots, gardeners often deal with water overflow and a mess to clean up after every watering. Hanging self-watering planters, however, make watering less of a chore. Their double pot design includes a small watering hole on the external pot that can be filled as needed. Thanks to the unique system, gardeners say goodbye to overflow and drips.

Make Large Self-Watering Planters to Save Time

Large self-watering systems are ideal for gardeners looking to build outdoor planters for their decks or patios, vegetable gardens or large-scale indoor herb gardens. Large systems are available for purchase online or they can be crafted at home using simple materials, such as plastic totes or buckets. The larger size allows for endless gardening possibilities all while saving time, space and energy. By including self-watering systems in outdoor spaces, home gardeners can spend less time watering individual plants with the hose and more time enjoying their garden. Better yet, these efficient systems use less water and make less impact on the environment.

Self-Watering African Violet Pots

Every gardener knows African violets don’t like wet leaves. Water droplets on the leaves of these delicate plants can cause rings, brown spots and sunburn when exposed to direct sunlight. This simple fact explains why there are more self-watering planters designed for African violets than any other houseplant. African violets’ compact size makes them ideal for self-watering planters and many pretty pot designs can be purchased to match any décor.

Self-Watering for the Water-Loving Ficus

Ficus plants, including the popular Fiddle Leaf Fig tree, love constant moisture. This characteristic can lead to frustration for many gardeners as even a slight moisture fluctuation can result in leaf drop. Self-watering planters are an excellent solution for all Ficus watering woes and can keep your Ficus looking happy and healthy for years to come.

Self-Watering Plant Pots for the “Drama Queens”

Plant boards and discussion groups are full of posts about delicate plants that frequently wilt or drop leaves when moisture levels vary slightly. Plants such as peace lilies, most ferns and Fittonia, or nerve plants,10 are well known for being “dramatic” in this way. Using self-watering planters with these notoriously difficult plants can make them easy to manage and give home gardeners a bit more flexibility with watering schedules.

Never Use Self Watering Planters on These Houseplants

Self-watering planters work on most types of plants including tropical plants, herbs and vegetables. However, a few plants will not thrive in self-watering planters.

Succulents and cacti, including aloe, prefer dry soil and long periods of time between watering. Additionally, due to their shallow root system, their roots will not grow long enough to benefit from self-watering systems.

Self-watering planters provide an excellent source of continuous moisture; however, they do not keep moisture levels high enough for all plants. Aquatic plants, such as papyrus,8 will not thrive in self-watering planters for this reason.

Other plants, like rosemary and some types of orchids, do best when they are allowed to dry out completely between watering. These plants will survive, but never thrive, in self-watering planters.

Growing plants at home can reduce your carbon footprint, but to erase it completely, simply purchase tree planting offsets from one of the top carbon offset providers. These offsets remove your carbon emissions, so any additional eco-friendly things you do will be bonuses for the planet.

While not widely known, subirrigation is a science that works with the way plants naturally absorb and regulate water flow. By learning the basics of subirrigation, plant enthusiasts will find it is incredibly easy to employ in their homes and gardens. With the help of self-watering planters, gardeners can simplify their watering routines, work around travel plans or cater to the most finicky plants.

By providing a constant source of moisture, these planters are certain to keep plants happy, healthy and thriving for years. Not only that, but when utilized in home gardens and outdoor spaces, self-watering planters can greatly reduce watering needs, lessening the strain on our global water supply and helping to keep our planet green.

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8Wikipedia. (2021). Cyperus papyrus. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 7, 2021, from <>

9Wikipedia. (2021). Downy mildew. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 7, 2021, from <>

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12Wikipedia. (2021). Subirrigation. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 7, 2021, from <>