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Topper (Linda)
aka ThyroGeek
February 4, 2011

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Container gardens and hanging baskets are wonderful. Changeable, portable, functional or colorful, whatever the reason for your starting a container garden they are wonderful - except for the extra work involved in keeping them properly watered.

I'm one that hates to work, I'll find the easiest way to do anything.. 'cause that way I can do more stuff' - and not work at it! So I'm sitting outside admiring my containers and the flower beds and all and I'm thinking that I have to get up and go water the containers - again... I had drip lines rigged up in a lot of the beds so that I didn't have to work so hard with those. I wondered if I could come up with a way to do the containers.

The home made drip line gadgets that I'd rigged up for my flower and vegetable beds wouldn't work for the containers, too many issues with varying heights, water volumes and frequencies, just too many factors. So I started to price out setting up store-bought drip lines for the containers, but that was getting too pricey. Time to sit and think about it for a while.

Then it hit me!

Good ole pop bottles. Cheapest way to get pop, but what a waste to just throw them away when they are empty. The pop bottle pots were working wonderfully so I borrowed the self-watering theory and the concept of recycling the bottles. It's so simple you may just scream!

Choose a bottle size that will fit with the look of the container, smaller bottles for trimmer smaller pots, larger bottles for fuller and bushier plants with larger pots. With a bit of effort you can get pretty good at concealing the bottles. Take the cap off the bottle. Clean thoroughly with dish soap and water. Rinse well. Take a razor blade, xacto knife or something similar, be careful, don't let it slip and cut yourself. Now cut the bottom off the bottle. Or, just part of the bottom, just enough of an opening to easily pour in water from your watering can or hose (I cut away about a quarter of the bottom).

For an existing, established plant. This is really hard, pay close attention. Water the plant thoroughly, as you normally would, enjoy this part, it may be the last time you have to do it. Now, turn the bottle upside down (without the bottle cap) put the neck/opening of the bottle on the surface of the soil and push the bottle into the soil turning the bottle back and forth a bit, twisting, so that you can push the neck of the bottle into the soil. Push it in far enough so that the bottle will stay upright when you fill it with water. Yep. Fill it with water!

The soil will push up part way in the neck of the bottle as you push the bottle into the soil, then stop. You fill the bottle with water and some will soak in right away, then stop. Then as the soil dries and the plant needs moisture water is drawn from the bottle into the soil. Automatically. Amazingly the soil is never over watered. The plant and soil just draw the water as it is needed from the bottle.

So, now what? Easy. Grab your watering can or hose or whatever you use to water, go around just once a day and take a peek at your bottles and see which bottles need to be topped off. Never let the bottles go dry, but you may find that some of the pots may need to be topped off only every other day, or less. As time goes by you will see a pattern as to which plants/pots really need more water. And for all of them, each pot is getting exactly what it needs automatically, as needed. Without you having to run out all the time to water.

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Table of contents

Fertilizing and Water Bottles
Variations to Water Bottles
(and additional uses)
    Bottle Types
    New Plantings
    How to set up a Bottle in a New Container
    Heavy Drinkers
    Hanging Baskets
    Tree Seedlings

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Fertilizing and Water Bottles

If you use a liquid fertilizer, like Miracle Gro or Fish Emulsion, dilute it to about 20 percent of the recommended amount and use it every time you top off your bottle. If you use the stick type fertilizers or mix time release, or similar, dry fertilizers in the soil, use them the same as always.

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Variations to Water Bottles
(and additional uses)

Now for the variations that came from that idea... Remember, I'm the lazy one.

Bottle types:

Use your imagination. But be logical. You can use any bottle as long as it had food-type items in it. Don't use anything that you would not drink water out of yourself. With that thought in mind, think of all the plastic bottles and their sizes and shapes.... A thin/flat vanilla or vinegar bottle, tall and narrow spice bottles.. they may not  hold as much water as a pop bottle, but they can fit nicely against the side of a pot, easier to hide, and still reduces watering frequency. Wander through your kitchen, see what you already have. Ask your neighbors and friends to save different shapes or colors of containers for your new project.  I have been known to use hair conditioner bottles for ornamental plants. I cut the entire bottom off and clean them out really well, then mostly bury them in the soil. See, they come in cool colors, you can actually get them to match your pots! hehehehe

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New plantings

As you are adding soil to the pot, get your bottle in there right away (click here to see how to position and set the bottle up in your new container).. You can bury the bottle until only an inch or so is above the soil line. Much easier to hide, takes up room in the pot... but if you have a good soil (or soil less) mix and steady water supply the plants aren't going to suffer from that little bit of lost space. Remember, many plants do well with no soil at all, just look at all the hydroponic gardens that are grown commercially. Now you can still have the convenience of just topping off your water bottle with a more attractive look. There is a trick to this. You must give the pot a thorough watering after transplanting, just like you normally would. You need to make sure that all the soil is moistened. Then all the soil will continue to wick the water from the bottle. If the soil over dries and your bottle is half buried, it is possible that the soil above the neck of the bottle won't be able to draw water up, much like when any pot that is too dry has trouble drawing from a tray beneath the pot - you need to surface water those again to get them working once more. If your bottle ever does run dry and the soil over dries. Give it a thorough soaking just as you would have before using a water bottle, fill your water bottle and then watch closely for the next several days to make sure the pot starts drawing water from the bottle again and the surface layers of the soil are not drying out.

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How to set up a Bottle in a New Container

You'll want at least two or three inches of soil in the bottom of your container. Firm it a bit.. not a tight pack but so that there are no air pockets and the soil is a bit compacted. You don't want it so tight that it will not drain but it can't have any air pockets that will mess with the absorption of the water from the bottle. Now place your bottle in the location the you would like it to be.

If the bottle is taller than the container you may want to trim it down a bit. I've had containers that I've added trailing type plants to that I've just pulled over to hide the bottle... Plants like ivies and Alyssum, Moss Rose, Baby's Tears.. are easily coaxed over the rim of the bottle to hide it.. I bet you have several favorites of your own that you may want to add to achieve the same effect - a soft over-flowing edge to the container. You'll be pressing the bottle a couple of inches into the soil so keep that in mind when you are deciding where to make your cut.. Ideally, the edge of the bottle should be about an inch above the surface of the soil when the container is full. If the bottle is shorter than the container go ahead and put more soil into the pot until there is enough to allow you to get the bottle to the correct position.

As you press the bottle into the soil some of the soil is going to press up into the neck of the bottle forming what I called a soil plug. It's that hard little stopper of soil in the neck of the bottle that keeps the water from just draining out of the bottle. You want the water to wick out gradually over hours or days, not drain all at once. 

Now that you have the bottle positioned the way that you like it and it's seated in the bottom layer of soil.. go ahead and get the rest of the soil and your plant(s) in place. All that done? Now take a fist full of soil (or soil less mix - whatever growing medium that you are using) and put it into the bottom of the bottle. Use your finger to push soil into the neck of the bottle. You want to pack it kinda tight here. The amount of pressure to use would be (here are one of my infamous analogies) the same amount of pressure that you would use to pull the wedges apart on a peeled orange or grapefruit. Can you picture yourself holding either one? And pushing your finger or thumb into the end to split it in half to pull the wedges apart? That's the amount of pressure to use in packing the soil in the neck of the bottle... You'll want the entire neck of the bottle fill tightly with soil, make sure that there are no air pockets.  If there is more soil than what you can press into the neck go ahead and firm it down into a level surface at the bottom.

Your container is now filled with soil, the plant(s) and bottle are in place. One more trick... lift the container up a couple of inches and let it drop. Do it 4 or 5 times. Just a couple of inches. Don't go dropping it out of second story window with the thought that more is better! ( hehehe ) What this does is help the soil settle in around the roots and fill in any air pockets in the soil.. it only takes a couple of seconds and is will worth the extra effort.

Go ahead and water the container as you normally would after transplanting and get the container moved it's permanent location. Now fill your water bottle. Keep an eye on it for the next several days.. you should see the water level slowly starting to move down. You can let it go to just about empty (an inch or so of water) before you fill it again.. or just keep it topped off as you go around with your watering can or hose. I tended to keep mine all topped off so that if I missed a watering or two most everyone would still be okay (You know how life can sometimes get in the way of your gardening! hehehehe ).

Try not to over-fill the bottle. It won't hurt anything, but if you get carried away and over fill the sloshing and such may float some of the surface soil into the bottle making the water in the bottle start looking not so nice... I kinda liked it when the water looked clear.

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Heavy drinkers

Some plants are really heavy drinkers, or a large bottle just doesn't look good in your location. It's perfectly okay to use more than one bottle. Capillary action is what controls the movement of the water, the pot/soil/plant will only take the water it needs from the bottle. It's important, though, that you use a good, light soil mix (whether you mix your own or buy it) You'll want a high percentage of peat moss and either vermiculite or perlite. 

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Hanging Baskets

This works best when set up before planting the basket but it is possible to add a bottle to an establish basket. Set up a 12 or 20 oz. bottle in the center of the pot, if possible ( buried part way in the soil to make it easier to hide) and then plant around the bottle. You now need only keep that bottle topped off and your hanging basket will have a steady water supply. No more dry periods to stunt growth.

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Tree Seedlings

I was chatting with someone this morning that will be starting a bunch of tree seedlings. Now, I haven't tried this yet, but thinking back to when we had a bunch of our own young trees I'm thinking this would have been a real help. Why not use a water bottle for the young trees? One of the most important things to get young transplants established is deep and thorough watering to encourage deep root systems. That can be hard to do with small plants that are out on the far side of the yard. It was a real pain going out to check them all the time.. You can't just keep shooting them with the hose every day (shallow watering), it encourages shallow rooting. But to stand there with a hose to water that little tree.. well, I bet the water bottles would take care of that.... A half gallon of water.. slowly saturating the soil around that little tree so it can send roots nice and deep.. and all you have to do is scoot around the yard and top off the bottles when you see that they need it... No more trying to give it a good soaking without the water pressure hurting the little tree.... oh oh... what about gallon jugs.. milk bottles or something? That would double the water volume and cut the work in half.....

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Topper (Linda)
aka ThyroGeek

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