How to Use Water Beads for Plants (Plus the Pros and Cons!)
You might have seen children playing with colorful water beads before, but did you know these gel-like balls were originally created for plants? Although it might sound absurd, water beads are commonly used as an alternative growing medium to soil!
To use water beads for plants it is necessary to 1) hydrate the water beads, 2) set the plants in the beads, and 3) hydrate them accordingly. Water beads are aesthetically pleasing, have high water retention, and reduced compaction. However, they can’t be cleaned, have no nutrients, are lightweight, and are temperature sensitive.
Aside from the strange notion of using water beads in general, it might also be puzzling just trying to understand how they work and how to use them. But they’re truly quite easy to use once you’ve gotten a hang of them, so don’t worry! In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about water beads.
1. Hydrate the Water Beads
Hydrate 1 tsp of water beads with 1 tsp of hydroponic fertilizer and cover it with 2 inches of warm water. Let them sit for 4 hours until the beads swell with water.
In their original state, the water beads may not look impressive at all. When dry, they should be no bigger than small pellets. But that quickly changes after they’re hydrated.
Start by placing the dry water beads in a clean container. Then, just follow the measurements they provide for planting, if any. What you don’t want to do is throw an entire package of dry water beads in a pot and fill it with water.
Remember, these beads expand once they’re hydrated and can easily overflow if you’re not careful!
1 tsp of water beads should be enough for 4 and 6–inch deep pots.
Cover the beads with 1 tsp of general hydroponic fertilizer and at least 2 inches (5.08 cm) of warm water. It’s better to have too much water than too little, as this could prevent all the beads from hydrating.
After 4 hours, they should be round and swollen with water and ready to use for your plants. This can look pretty appealing to pets and children, so keep this in a safe space to prevent them from choking on it or ingesting dry beads.
2. Set the Plants in Water Beads
Fill half a clear pot or container with hydrated water beads and set the plant in the middle. Cover the plant roots with more beads until the plant is firmly in place.
For cuttings, you can simply fill the container up with these water beads and nestle the plant cuttings inside.
If you’re using the beads with a fully grown plant cultivated from the soil, however, be certain its roots are completely clean.
Fill the pot halfway with water beads and, after putting the plant in place, gently cover the roots with the hydrogel balls.
These balls are soft and filled with water, so they shouldn’t damage the roots too much.
Consider using a clear vase or glass jar to best monitor and admire these water beads.
3. Hydrate the Water Beads
Water beads can last for 1 year, with weekly rehydration. Keep the water beads away from direct sun and wind to prolong water retention.
After the plant has been potted, you should be able to leave it for at least a week or two before the water gel balls start to dry out completely.
This depends greatly on your environment. But once the water beads are rehydrated, they should last for at least another week.
When the water beads begin to shrink again, you can pour some cool water into the pot until the balls swell up again.
In total—and with proper care, of course—the water bead balls can last for a year. You’ll only need to replace them with a new batch of water beads by then.
Pro Tip: Do not place water beads near fans, vents, or direct sun. This will dry them out faster than usual.
What are Water Beads?
Water beads are made of a superabsorbent polymer called hydrogel that can absorb more than 100 times its weight in water. Although it is now commonly sold as toys to children, hydrogel beads were originally made to provide moisture for plants.
When you think of water beads, you probably think of those colorful and squishy children’s toys. But back in the 1970s, the US Department of Agriculture had created hydrogel to help reduce water usage on farms.
These water beads are also made of hydrogel. Normally, they are tiny—each bead is less than half a centimeter. But because they’re made with a superabsorbent polymer or SAP, they can hold over 100 times their weight in water!
Water beads are coated with a semi-permeable membrane that allows water to pass through until the polymers inside fully absorb the water. Once hydrated, the beads expand and become soft.
Many farmers and gardeners in hot climates often use water beads and hydrogel to help provide more moisture to their plants with less work.
Nowadays, these water beads are typically sold as children’s toys due to their bubble-like appearance and “magical” ability to absorb water. But it can still be used for plants, as it was originally created for!
These water beads on Amazon are an affordable option you can use for your plants.
The 3 Pros of Using Water Beads for Houseplants
The benefits of using water beads for growing plants are that they are 1) aesthetically pleasing, 2) have high water retention, 3) and reduced compaction.
These water beads might seem better suited for children at first, but there are some advantages to using them! Here are some of the reasons why water beads are beneficial for plants.
1. Aesthetically Pleasing
Water beads, or hydrogel balls, are more visually appealing than other substrates, like soil. The beads come in different sizes and colors.
To start, these water-filled orbs look much more interesting than the usual pot of soil or moss.
Oftentimes, they’re used for decoration and are great in transparent planters or containers.
Additionally, water beads come in various colors and sizes and give you the option to customize the overall look. Obviously, this is something you can’t do with many other potting mediums.
Because of this, it’s frequently used for cut flowers and is a common growing medium for orchids.
2. High Water Retention
Water beads are extremely absorbent and can retain even more water than sphagnum moss. After sufficient hydration, they can provide moisture to plants for up to 2 weeks before needing more water.
Thanks to their highly absorbent polymers, water beads can hold more than 20 times their weight in water compared to sphagnum.
Simply put, when put against each other, hydrogel beads are even more absorbent sphagnum moss!
Read more about moss in Do Plants Need Moss?
In my experience, I have never heard of plants dying from excess moisture when planted with water beads. The water beads commonly retain water for up to 2 full weeks before the water evaporates and the gel balls start to shrink.
Because of this, watering sessions aren’t as frequent, making water beads a great choice of growing medium for those with busy lifestyles. The plants can last longer without water and are overall easier to care for.
3. Reduced Compaction
Whether they are dry or hydrated, water beads remain lightweight and will never become compact or constrict plant roots. Plant owners can easily move plants in or out of water beads without worry.
Despite their ability to hold incredible amounts of water, water beads rarely ever become heavy. They stay soft and lightweight.
So when used as a substrate, it’s extremely unlikely for water beads to become compact. The gel balls will stay loose, making them easier to handle and move houseplants in or out.
Even if the water beads dry out and return to their original pellet-like state, they will not become sticky. They will still move freely in the planter.
The 4 Cons of Using Water Beads for Houseplants
The 4 major drawbacks to using water beads for growing plants are that they 1) can’t be cleaned, 2) have no nutrients, 3) are overly lightweight, and 4) are temperature sensitive.
As fun as these shiny, and sometimes colorful, water beads are, there are some downsides when it comes to using them. To help you decide whether it’s worth it or not, the following section will explain the main disadvantages of using water beads for plants.
1. Can’t Be Cleaned
Unlike clay balls, water beads cannot be sterilized with hot water. The hot water could damage and melt the beads. Additionally, it is common for the water beads to become slimy after continued use. Hence, they can’t be reused for more than a year.
When you think about it, water beads are very similar to lightweight expanded clay aggregate or LECA. They both come in round orbs and are used for semi-hydroponics and potted plants.
Unlike LECA, however, the water beads can’t be exposed to hot water and can never be fully sterilized.
Hot water could damage the polymers and cause the water beads to melt.
Since they’re constantly moist and filled with water, they’re also known to get slimy and collect algae. Algae generally aren’t harmful. But they can definitely be annoying to remove and aren’t exactly pretty.
As such, you’re probably not going to be able to reuse or keep the water beads for longer than a year at most.
2. Has No Nutrients
Water beads are made of man-made polymers and do not contain any nutrients. Therefore, hydroponic fertilizer must be used to ensure the plants receive adequate nutrients.
Hydrogel beads are usually synthetic and do not contain any nutrients whatsoever.
So if you’ll be using them, you’ll need to buy and use an additional hydroponic fertilizer to grow plants in these water beads.
The fertilizer will have to be for general hydroponics rather than the typical soil fertilizer, as this contains different nutrients.
A gardener I know claimed the water beads failed to absorb the hydroponic fertilizer they used after so many months. This can be worrying if you plan to use water beads for a long time.
You’ll have to keep an eye on your plants to ensure they’re not showing any signs of deficiencies. Be careful not to accidentally deprive them of nutrients!
3. Overly Lightweight
Due to how overly lightweight water beads are, it is unsuitable to grow large plants in water beads as they cannot support the weight of their root systems. This could lead to the plant falling over and getting damaged.
The lightweight nature of these water beads can really be beneficial—as I’ve already discussed.
However, even if a pot were filled with them, the water beads won’t be able to provide enough support for plant roots.
These water gel beads work best for small cuttings and young plants. For heavy and fruiting plants, aren’t the best growing medium and could even get destroyed. Once hydrated, the beads are soft and easily squashed.
Additionally, because it is much lighter than soil, it is easier for pots filled with water beads to fall over. This is especially dangerous as the plant could be damaged in the fall, especially if it happens often or if it’s a delicate plant.
4. Temperature Sensitive
Due to their high water content, water beads are very sensitive to temperature. The hydrogel can easily become too hot or cold, which could prevent plants from growing optimally. Extreme temperature shocks can kill plants.
Last but not least, water beads are temperature sensitive. This might not be so bad if you live in an area with fairly consistent temperatures. For those of you in hotter or colder climates, however, these water beads might be riskier to use.
Since water beads are essentially gel-like balls filled with water, they can quickly become just as hot or as cold as their environment.
This can be dangerous for plants that need specific soil temperatures. Otherwise, the extreme and sudden temperature changes could shock their roots.
Over time, this could hinder plant growth. Even worse, it could lead to the death of your once lush plants!
Because of this, hydrogel beads are risky to use outdoors where temperatures are much more severe. In the worst-case scenarios, the water beads could freeze during winters lower than 50°F (10°C) and damage the plant roots beyond repair.
Like many things, water beads are not perfect. So before using them with your own plant collection, it’s best to evaluate all of these pros and cons to see if it will work for you!
Can I grow succulents in water beads?
Succulents that have developed roots in the soil cannot be moved over to grow in water beads. Having grown in the soil, the soil roots must be allowed to dry between watering sessions and cannot be left to sit in moist hydrogel balls. It may be possible to propagate succulents in water beads, however, after the cuttings have calloused over.
How do you dispose of water beads?
To properly dispose of water beads, the balls must be allowed to dry out. Wait until the water beads revert to their hard and tiny state. Then, place them in a sealable plastic bag and throw them away. Do not dispose of water beads in a sink or a toilet, as they will swell and clog up the pipes.
Can you mix water beads with soil?
Water beads can be mixed with soil to help reduce compaction and retain extra moisture. However, it is best to use this for plants in clear pots and containers to monitor the water beads. Using them in transparent pots will allow gardeners to know when to water them since signs of dehydration will be easier to see.
Summary of Using Water Beads for Plants
Despite their popularity as children’s toys, water beads were originally created for agricultural use so they can be used to grow plants. First, the water beads must be hydrated with fertilizer and warm water. Once hydrated, the plants can be set in the beads. Afterward, hydrogel beads must be watered whenever the beads shrink.
The advantages to using water beads for growing plants are that they’re aesthetically pleasing, have high water retention, and reduced compaction. Cons, on the other hand, would include that the water beads can’t be cleaned, have no nutrients, are overly lightweight, and are temperature sensitive.
- “Superabsorbent Polymers- Development and Synthesis” by n/a in Manav Rachna University
- “Explainer: What is a hydrogel?” by Katie Grace Carpenter in Science News Explores
- “Water-retaining granules” by n/a in the Royal Horticultural Society