I stopped watering my garden for a week, and my plants survived - here's how

Green fingers, you either have them or you don't.

When the Circuit Breaker commenced last year, I joined the legion of budding horticulturists in a bid to make more meaningful use of my time.

The endeavour started off well enough, but about a month or so later, the dried fallen leaves covering the base of the pot were a clear enough indication that I had trouble committing to just daily watering.

While returning to the office should mean that my plants have all withered into dried leaf nuggets, thanks to some 'divine intervention', they're well, alive and thriving.

In other words, I made a self-watering contraption.

And the best part? It produces its own organic fertilizer too! The plants now float on top of my fish tank, which means that the water gets reused. But if you don't have a fish tank, I've included an alternative method that doesn't require a fish nor a tank further below.

I made these self-watering contraptions by scavenging an unused basket, some extra hooks on suction cups, a random disposable cup, a scrap of cloth, a plastic bottle and a piece of styrofoam the uncle from my neighbourhood fruit stall was going to throw away.

With a little bit of cutting here and there, three different little planters were born.

PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

Self-watering planters — Saves time, saves water, saves plants

Beyond the obvious perk that comes with self-watering planters, namely not having to worry about my plants drying up, it also helps to reduce the amount of water wasted in gardening.

Contrary to what you might think, plants only take in about 50 per cent of the water that's given through traditional watering. The rest gets evaporated from the surface of the soil, or drains through the soil and out of the bottom of the planter.

With a self-watering planter, the water in the planter's reservoir can't evaporate thanks to the layer of soil above, thus a considerably less amount of water is used to upkeep even the thirstiest of plants.

Singapore alone uses about 430 million gallons of water a day, and this amount is estimated to double by 2060. This tiny country lacks natural water resources, and there's only so much land that can be converted into water storage facilities, so every drop counts.

PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

And since we're talking about saving water, why not use greywater — wastewater generated in households — instead?

This could be any 'used' water — such as the water used to wash your rice, or the water you boiled your dinner in — or in my case, water from the fish tank.

While a self-watering planter can be easily purchased off online shopping websites like Shopee or Lazada, it's really not that hard to fashion one out of scraps you probably have lying around the house.

Here are the three different types I have come up with.

1. The basket 

What you'll need:

  • A basket big enough for your plant's roots
  • At least two suction cup hooks
  • Clay pebbles (soil will dirty the tank), for filling in half the basket
  • Sponge, cut to fit the basket
PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

The inspiration came from Yoshizuki Jun, a YouTuber who fashioned a hydroponic system above a kitchen-top fish tank using materials from a dollar store. While the final result of his efforts turned out rather sophisticated, I wanted to see if I could dumb it down to my standards.

It doesn't look that great, but hey, it works! The tank also looks much cuter with a leafy green top.

PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer

Difficulty: 1/10 — Apart from cutting off two strips, there was pretty much no effort to this
Water efficiency: 10/10 — No water wasted!
Aesthetics: 7/10 — Looks like the tank has a leafy Sunday hat

2. The cup

What you'll need:

  • A lightweight cup, plastic or styrofoam is alright
  • A piece of styrofoam, I got mine from the trash and cleaned it up
  • Clay pebbles (soil will dirty the tank), for filling in half the cup
PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

This functions pretty much the same way as the first idea, but instead of fixing it to the side of your tank, this planter floats around the top instead.

The only downside to this idea really is the amount of effort it takes to cut holes in the cup with a pair of scissors, and the planter's tendency to capsize if the foam board isn't thick enough, or if the currents caused by the tank's filter are too strong.

Otherwise, it's an incredibly simple method that gives a second life to what would have otherwise been trash.

The basket and cup method, floating side by side. PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

Difficulty: 3/10 — Cutting holes into a flimsy plastic cup with a pair of scissors isn't easy, would probably be a 1/10 if I used a heated metal chopstick and poked it instead.
Water efficiency: 10/10 — No water wasted!
Aesthetics: 5/10 — Its tendency to capsize meant stray clay beads floating around the surface of the water. There's also a limit to how sophisticated a punctured plastic cup can look. 

3. The standalone

What you'll need:

  • An empty plastic or glass bottle
  • A net, to prevent the soil from falling out
  • A strip of cloth made out of cotton
  • Soil or clay pebbles of choice, enough to fill
PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

This one doesn't require a fish tank, just a good ol' plastic bottle.

It works using osmosis: the water is drawn up to the soil through the cloth strip, ensuring the roots never go dry.

You could, alternatively, use a glass bottle, as many Pinterest boards recommend, but since glass cutters aren't readily available to most, recycling a plastic bottle works just fine.

PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rainer Cheung

Difficulty: 5/10 — Elbow grease required to cut the bottle, net and cloth strip. Also feels a bit like a balancing act trying to safely perch the contraption on itself.
Water efficiency: 10/10 — No water wasted!
Aesthetics: 8/10 — Much more versatile than the previous two ideas in terms on placement within the home, and allows for more variety of plants.

It's worth pointing out that the first two methods only work with plants that can be rooted in water, such as lucky bamboo and the common pothos. Succulents and cacti are strictly no-go.

Otherwise, the third method works for pretty much any other plant, so go forth and flex those green fingers!

rainercheung@asiaone.com