Make an Automatically Watering Plant Wall With Your Washing Machine

Make an Automatically Watering Plant Wall With Your Washing Machine

Like many people, I used to kill indoor plants. Despite their proximity to me most of the day, I’ve frequently managed to kill them by neglect or smothering. Despite my checkered past, I still keep indoor plants, because they make a much better Zoom background than my couch. But now I keep them alive, thanks to my new system: I turned to automation for watering my new plant babies, and roped my washing machine into it.

Image: Amanda Blum

What is a plant wall?

Plant walls are dense wool felt pockets that hold onto water. You wrap plant roots in this wool, tuck them into the pockets, and then water the pockets. The water drips through the wool, keeping the roots watered, and then drains out. They have a plastic backing so that the water doesn’t touch your wall.

The plants grow air roots and the leaves and stems grow up the felt, attaching themselves, and create a beautiful, woven-together wall of greenery. It’s a living ecosystem, so you occasionally need to change out a plant or get in there to give the plants some food, but otherwise, you kick back and watch your wall grow into this magical green carpet.

How to water your plant wall

Plant walls can be installed inside and outside. Outside, you just hose the wall off; it retains water and then drains off the excess onto the ground. Inside, that’s a lot of water that has to go somewhere, so companies that sell the pockets also tend to sell drainage trays. Even so, the water in that tray can’t just sit there—and you still have to remember to water the thing to begin with. That’s when I realized I was forgetting that there was a water inlet and outlet sitting nearby—my washing machine. As long as the plant wall was 6-10 feet (1.8 – 3 metres) away, I could use the inlet and outlet.

Behind your washing machine is a hose bib or spigot. It’s on all the time, and when your washer needs water, it opens an internal valve and the water whooshes in. Your washer also has a drain pipe, and that goes into a pipe in the wall that takes the dirty water and swishes it away. You can bogart the inlet and outlet for your plant wall—and it’s not hard to do.

How to use your washing machine inlet to automatically drip water to your plant wall

For the spigot:

For the drip line:

For the pond pump:

To start, assemble the splitter. Attach the washing machine hose to the filter, and then the timer. The timer attaches to the reducer, and then you attach your ¼” dripline to it. Now put it aside.

Image: Amanda Blum

Behind your washing machine, turn off the water at the hose bib or spigot. Now disconnect the washing machine hose. Attach the splitter to the spigot. Now you have two hose bibs—you’re going to use one for your washing machine and one for your plant wall. Screw each on tight, using plumbers tape as needed. Most hose connections have a rubber washer inside them, so double check that you haven’t lost any before you make those connections, and if so, replace them— those are what prevent leaks. It’s worth it to have a few extra on hand (which I’ve indicated in the supply list).

Before you turn the faucet back on, make sure the splitter is set to off on both sides. Open the faucet and look for leaks. Now, turn the lever on the side with the washing machine to open, and check for leaks again. Run a quick cycle on the washer to double-check. If all is well, proceed to set up the dripline.

Set up your dripline

At this point, the hose with the filter and timer on it is probably lying on the ground. A simple hook on the wall or some velcro or some way to lift it off the ground and make it easy to access is a good move.

Image: Amanda Blum

The goal is to set up the dripline along the top of the plant wall, with emitters over each pocket. You don’t have to use anything more complicated than safety pins to hold the line in place—you really won’t see them. But first, you need to get it all lined up. Once the line is in place across the top, cut the excess line off and cap it with a ¼” plug, so the end of the line isn’t open.

Now we need to add emitters. Each one has barbs on each side of them, so you just cut the dripline in the middle of each pocket and then wiggle in an emitter to reconnect them. If this proves really tough, heat up the dripline with a hairdryer, but you shouldn’t need it. Just wriggle the emitter in there.

How to drain your plant wall

The water has to drain somewhere, so it’s advisable to get a drain tray from the company you get the plant wall from. You can also build one and line it with rubberized paint. This is just a tray at the bottom of the plant wall that all the water will drain off into. In any case, you need to drain the water out of it, and the way to do so is a small pond drain with a good amount of “rise,” meaning it’s powerful enough to send water up a few feet. That’s why the plant wall needs to be less than ten feet away—so the pump you purchase has enough “rise” to send the water back to the outlet in the wall.

Image: Amanda Blum

You place your plant drain in the drain tray, and the tube that comes off the drain goes up and into the washing machine outlet. Make sure the tube is really well into the outlet, and you won’t even hear it most of the time, and it won’t be able to fall out.

Programming the water and drainage

Image: Amanda Blum

Now we need to tell the timer when to water, how often, and when the drain should take all the water away (which will be about an hour later).

Depending on what hose timer you choose, pick a time of day and set it to water for four minutes. You’ll need to see over time if this is too much or not enough water. It depends on how big your plant wall is, what plants you have, and the environment in the room. Four minutes once a day is a good start. I like to have it go off when I’m likely to hear it, because it’s reassuring to know it’s happening.

Plug your drain into the smart plug, and use the corresponding app to tell the drain to work for double the amount of time of water, about an hour after the watering is done. Again, you’ll need to fine-tune this in the first week or two, because you want to make sure it’s draining enough, but that the drain isn’t running dry.

All in all, the project takes about an hour to set up, and I occasionally have to fidget with it. I have a water sensor on the floor just in case things ever go really sideways, but they haven’t yet. And now, I can leave for extended periods of time, and no one needs to water my plants, and my ADHD can go into overdrive and my plants won’t wither from neglect.

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