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Thread: Tray Method vs Overhead Watering

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    Tray Method vs Overhead Watering

    From what I've heard, the tray method means putting a tray of water underneath a plant and replenishing water through the tray and not by watering the substrate. For a long time, I thought it just meant putting a tray under a pot.

    So my question is, are there any benefits to the tray method versus overhead watering (assuming you don't accidentally water the foliage)? It seems to me like just putting water at the bottom would make the plant need to use energy to pull the water through the roots, and wouldn't the top part of the soil dry up eventually? Are there any plants for which the tray method is actually better than overhead watering?

    I've never used the tray method before, so I don't know much about it. I do put trays under most of my plants to hold excess water, though.

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    The Consuming Flame EdaxFlamma's Avatar
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    Generally this is a grower's preference. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Disclaimer: I am a tray waterer.

    For me, tray watering is easier because I water once and forget it. If I put all my plants in one large tray (or multiple trays) I don't need to water each individual plant or take out an entire tray from underneath my lights. All I have to do is pour water into the corner of a tray and I'm done for the next few days for that tray.

    The reasons I can do this are:
    I have an open airy media that will wick water without getting too waterlogged (see exception below)
    I have fairly high evaporation rates.
    I let my plants dry out in between waterings.
    I only add 1/2" of water to a tray at a time.

    If I did this with an all peat based media and watered every day, I imagine I would have lower success. Another trick that I keep up my sleeve is live sphagnum. I keep one or two pieces of live sphagnum in my pots at all times. This serves as my "canary in the coal mine". Once it starts to lose color, it is generally time to water because the media has dried out sufficiently. This also prevents the sphagnum from taking over whatever it is I am growing due to the alternating dry/wet cycles. I have successfully done this with Sarracenia, Nepenthes, Drosera, and Pinguicula. That being said, I did have different media for each of these to accommodate their water needs for example, my pings had a high concentration of sand in their mix to allow for fast drainage and taller pots so that their roots weren't waterlogged.

    On the other hand, individual pots/trays and top watering definitely have their place. For example I would not tray water a Darlingtonia; I would instead use the nested clay pot method and top water. For more sensitive species like N. villosa I wouldn't do so either. I would want more control.

    With regards to the plants needing more energy to use the water, the media will self regulate its own moisture through capillary action and the plants will make use of that. Think about cleaning up spilled water with a napkin. As soon as you touch the corner of the napkin to the water spill, the water starts moving into the center of the napkin through capillary action. Your media will do the same thing. "But," you ask, "The plant then has to take the water out of the media right? Doesn't that expend a lot of energy?" No more than if you had top watered.

    For this next example, lets say we run a napkin under the faucet. It gets wet. Now if we give it a quick light squeeze, a large amount of water will run out (think drainage). If we touch the napkin, it will still feel wet because there will still be residual moisture there. Now, if we touch the napkin we used to start wicking up the spilled water, it too is wet to the touch. Probably similarly so if you touch the leading edge (away from the original corner). Your media behaves the exact same way. All the plant needs to do is to be able to feel the correct amount of dampness. Feeling any amount of dampness means there is free water in the system. This is as easy for the plant to use as it is to detect dampness on the napkin. There's a bit more to it but that's enough to illustrate the example I think.

    In the end, like I said it is up to the grower. If what you have now works and you are happy with it, by all means keep doing what you're doing. But, if you have a few spare plants try a tray to get a feel for it. You might just come over to the dark side.
    Last edited by EdaxFlamma; 02-14-2014 at 02:45 PM.
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    Properly done, top watering would be better overall for most if not all plants. However, like everything it comes at a cost. The time it takes me to properly top water 20 Cephs, well I don't even want to think about it. The time it takes me to tray water 20 Cephs = 1m.

    If the top of the medium in my Ceph trays is dry I know I need to refill the tray. If you wait too long you can "break" the wick through the medium, a bad thing in watering trays.

    I'm in the process of testing out a flood/drain system and I believe that would be the best option. A long time ago when I didn't have so many plants I used to manually move them all into a watering bin and submerge the pots underwater, a method I always had good results with but as my collection grew out of control this is no longer practicle.

    As with all watering, medium is a HUGE factor in success. The mix you use with a tray method "should" be different than the mix you use for overhead watering.

    As always if enough people read this you will get a ton of conflicting advice. What works for me under my conditions/medium may not work for you.

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    I usually use 50/50 peat/perlite for Neps. 70/30 for VFT and my serracinia.

    However I have started using grow stone mixed in as well, it's an expanded recycled glass, basically an artificial perlite, in large pieces, a little smaller then sponge rock sized.

    Top water the Neps, which runs down and waters the rest in the tray. The Neps are held out of the water on the white plastic grid stuff.

    Currently I'm growing out some seeds in 100 percent spag crumbs.

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    Thanks everyone for the responses, especially EdaxFlamma for your very thorough explanation. The napkin analogy really helped me understand the logic behind it, and it does seem convenient being able to do it with species requiring different potting mixes. I don't have a very large collection and don't have multiple pots of any species, but as my collection expands I'll probably try the tray method for at least some of them. I'll try to do overhead watering as long as it is feasible, though.

    The southern California sun can really evaporate water quickly, so I'd be kind of concerned about the water drying up before capillary action takes place. I have a few utrics in clear plastic tubs so watering isn't a problem for them. I would try it with more plants but they wouldn't be able to catch anything by themselves.

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    I grow most of my nepenthes in shallow trays and they get daily misting ontop of this, same with most of my utrics, and all of my drosera, but it depends on the species and the climate/conditions.
    many nepenthes will rot if kept in a tray for to long for most people, but in tropical climates you can get away with in, and in some cases the plant can slow growth and sulk if not in a tray (for me ventricosa need a tray, so do distilatoria), but others (like veitchii) suffer in a tray and preffer above watering.
    In general utrics, sarra's and drosera like trays and neps preffer top watering, but most are pretty tolerant of whatever once they are adapted to your conditions.

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    All previous opinions are bogus and you will kill all your plants in seconds following any of the advice given!




    Honestly, you water without drowning the plants for long periods of time or letting them dry out, you will be fine. Depends on your plants and your humidity levels. I agree with everyone here and it just depends on your conditions. Water tray method is easy mode and you should try it on all your plants minus the great ones suggested above that should be avoided like Darlingtonia or Veitchii.

    Let the plants breathe and keep them from drying out and either method will be fantastic.

    @Edax, LOVE your live sphagnum trick! I need to get me some live sphag to start using that. Quick question though: Are those 1-2 pieces of live sphag only resting on TOP of the medium or mixed vertically in to be a wick throughout the substrate?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tanukimo View Post
    would make the plant need to use energy to pull the water through the roots, and wouldn't the top part of the soil dry up eventually?
    No, and No.
    The water "wicks up" into the media naturally, without any help from the plant..
    an empty pot, with media but containing no plant, will still do it..
    plants absorb the water through the roots no matter where the water comes from, top or bottom..
    the plants dont have to work any harder if the water comes from the bottom, because the plant had to do nothing to "pull the water up"..
    the media does that by itself..

    and no, the top of the soil does not dry out, ever, as long as there is water in the tray.

    The "tray method" is great for VFT's and Sarracenia! I have been using it for 20 years..no issues or problems whatsoever.







    the deeper trays, like in the photo above, I usually dont fill to the top..just one or two inches of water is enough..

    If you are using 4", 5" or 6" diameter pots, (the most common size for individual plants) then a 1" deep tray is fine.
    I sometimes use deeper trays, just because they were available. (and for larger pots)
    I fill the trays, let them dry out a bit, (but never *completely* dry) then fill them back up..
    They dont need to be "topped off" every day..as long as there is *some* water in the tray, it's fine.

    Scot

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