Essentials for Getting the Job Done
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOVAH MARTIN
WATERING HOUSEPLANTS is a chore. Sometimes, especially when ministering to the needs of several dozen thirsty pots, visions of overhead sprinklers flash through my head. But with hardwood floors underfoot, that isn’t going to happen. And since many of my plants have grown to occupy large, heavy pots, transporting them all to the bathtub for a good soaking isn’t an option, either. Which leaves me devoting several hours a week to hand watering. Needless to say, I’m always looking for the best way to quench a plant’s thirst.
Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer using a watering can. At the moment, my favorite remains the two-gallon metal Haws, made by a company that’s been in business since 1885. Experience has shown (and innumerable spills have reinforced) the truth that a watering can’s spout needs to be slender when tending houseplants. Fortunately, the rose that comes with Haws cans is detachable; when in place, it converts a steady stream into a fountain. As far as aim and balance are concerned, the Haws is ideally suited to watering plants in pots five inches in diameter and larger.
Smaller houseplants, however, are best watered from a spout that delivers a less vigorous stream. For this, I’m partial to a onequart metal watering can. Mine is so old that it has long since lost its label, but it resembles a coffee can with a handle on top and a long, slender spout. The two-liter Swiss Dramm, crafted of heavy plastic and guaranteed to last a lifetime, is equally easy to handle. It delivers the same controlled flow from its contoured body.
Although my affection for watering cans runs deep, I have recently been drawn to recoiling hoses with attached watering wands. The hose is easy to hook up, either to an outdoor faucet or to the sink (with the help of an inexpensive adapter). And it’s a real time saver, eliminating all the trips back and forth to the faucet. The watering wand I like best is the 14-inch Fogg-It Mister/Waterer, a chrome-plated little contrivance with sensitive thumb trigger and sufficient water pressure to quench but not drench. Drips are inevitable when watering, but the Fogg-It keeps mopping up to a minimum.
SOILS, POTS, AND SAUCERS
How often you need to water depends on both the growing medium and the type of pot. The more sand, perlite, or vermiculite a medium contains, the better it will drain. That means more watering, but the drainage is important for geraniums, cacti, and other succulents. A soil with a medium to high peat content, by contrast, will remain soggy for days, especially in cloudy weather. Less work for you, but a potentially suffocating situation for the roots. The trick is to strike a balance between your environment (and heat source) and the needs of the houseplants you’re attempting to entertain.
It’s the gospel truth that plastic containers need to be watered less frequently than their clay counterparts. But not all plants like plastic pots. Growers of begonias, cyclamen, bougainvilleas, and members of the African violet family find their plants do better in clay pots, despite the fact that the pots dry out rapidly.
Saucers are a different issue entirely. Here, porosity isn’t something you want. Clay saucers tend to leave telltale mold stains on floors and furniture over time, so I use plastic saucers exclusively.
If you happen to be a weekend gardener, you’ll need to find a way for your plants to water themselves as much as possible. One of the simplest self-watering systems is the reservoir pot. This is a porous, unglazed container nesting within a larger, non-porous pot. The outer pot holds water, the plant is potted into the inner receptacle, and it constantly remains slightly moist—a situation that is to the liking of some, but not all, plants. Other self-watering systems include the old “wick trick” (burying the yarn in a water reservoir and running the other end into the soil of a plant) that absentee houseplant-lovers have been practicing for decades. More convenient is a water siphon from CobraCo Manufacturing that utilizes porous earthenwaretipped probes at the end of rubber tubes that run to a water reservoir. Initially, you fill the probe-sensor with water, put on its cap, and plunge it into the premoistened soil of your houseplant. The probe-sensor determines if the soil is dry and wicks water from the reservoir, keeping the soil lightly moist. The probes come with one-quart tanks that straddle the side of a pot, touted as being capable of watering (and fertilizing, if you fill them accordingly) your plant for up to three weeks. Or you can use your own reservoir, holding as much water as you desire, and purchase just the economical probes and tubes. However, only the soil immediately around each siphon is moistened, so several siphons are necessary to minister to the needs of larger plants.
Gadget aficionados will want to experiment with the Green Genius Automatic Watering System, a battery-operated device that delivers water to plants by means of tubes from a reservoir on a watering schedule of your choosing. You select the interval of time between waterings and the quantity of water dispatched.
For sources of watering equipment, turn to page 84.
THE SMALLER THE POT, the more often it needs watering. And yet there is also the risk that repeated flooding will wash out soil, if not the plant itself. So consider the merits of a capillary mat. It is especially effective for seedlings that benefit from having their moisture served from below. Capillary mats look like a thick felt carpet; they come by the square foot or yard, and you can order them through mail-order garden supply catalogs (see Sources, page 84). Cut the mat to fit the bottom of a watertight container—a plastic box, a vinyl basin, a copper tray, a roasting pan, or whatever happens to be convenient. Just be sure that the sides of the container aren’t so high that they block the light. Then set the pots (clay pots are ideal) directly onto the carpet, making sure that their drainage holes are in contact with the mat, and water the mat until it’s fully saturated. The soil in the pots will get water from the mat below, and you’ll be watering your little plants without continually drenching them from above.–T.M.
UNFORTUNATELY, YOU CAN’T SEND THEM to a kennel. So what should you do when you have to go out of town for a couple of weeks and the houseplants are home alone? Here are a few options:
Get a plantsitter. Ask neighbor, friend, or fellow gardener to take care of your plants while you’re away. Professional plantsitting services are sometimes available (check local bulletin boards, ask for references). The trick is to enlist someone who knows how to water—how often and how much. It’s an art.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could arrange for a couple of weeks of cloudy weather while you bask elsewhere in the sun? Since that isn’t always possible, an alternative would be to pull your houseplants away from the windows. Draw the blinds. At the same time, lower the thermostat. With lower light levels and chillier temperatures, your plants will need less water.
Raise the humidity. Corral your plants. Put them in the bathtub and cluster them closely together. Close the shower curtain. Assuming that your bathtub isn’t right in front of a sunny window, the increased humidity should mean that your plants will still be in good shape when you get home.–T.M.