Using Water Beads to Maintain Moisture in Your Garden Soil

water-dropIt has been a bad summer for growing edibles where I live – weeks of 100 degree days with no rain. I started watering every 12 hours but I still lost most of my herbs in pots. The lettuce stalks in a raised bed barely made it – the leaves were always drooping when I arrived to water. The plum tree I planted in the ground this spring is still alive, but about half of its leaves are dry and brown.

I was almost ready to abandon my plans for a fall garden. Then a friend suggested that I buy some baby diapers, take them apart to retrieve the little moisture absorbing beads within, hydrate the beads with water, and plant them in my garden along with my fall seeds and transplants. While it sounded like an odd idea, I have always been the sort who will try anything once. And I really was looking forward to that fall garden.

Before heading out to look for a sale on baby diapers, I had the presence of mind to sit down at my computer to see if I could buy the beads without the diapers. She had called them “water beads,” so I typed that into the search engine. Yes indeed, such a commodity was readily available. I ordered a 1 pound bag for less than $10.

When they arrived, I got out my food scale and my measuring cups to determine how many gallons of hydrated beads would result from my supply of tiny dry beads. Static electricity is a bit of a problem with the dry beads, and many of them ended up on the kitchen floor, but I was able to figure out that one ounce (by weight) of my dry beads turns into approximately 3 quarts of plump beads (the size of your typical bath oil bead) when fully hydrated, a process that takes a couple of hours. I used scissors to expand the hole in the top of an empty one gallon water jug to a diameter of 6 inches, and hydrated my beads in this container. The handle made it easy to tote my beads out to the garden.

I marked the corn rows in the raised bed garden that had formerly contained my lettuce, dug a trench 4 inches deep, sprinkled in a cup of water beads for each 18 inches of row, and replaced the soil. I made holes 2 or 3 inches deep every 6 inches, and dropped in my corn seed. When I was finished planting, I watered the entire raised bed. I returned 12 hours later to check the moisture level, but did not need to water again until 24 hours had passed despite the continuing 100 degree heat. Within 6 days, all the corn had germinated and the little plants look happy and healthy.

Meanwhile, I bought new herb plants. This time I added half a cup of water beads to each partially filled terracotta pot before placing my transplants, filling the remainder of the pot with soil and watering. Twelve hours later the moisture level was fine. I watered again at the 24 hour mark and every 24 hours thereafter. The herbs are fuller and healthier than when I first planted them. I expect them to survive this time.

This simple, inexpensive idea saved my fall garden plans. All my future plantings will include water beads.

Thanks to Alice J. Haslam for participating in the [Grow] Network Writing Contest.

We have over $2,097 in prizes lined up for the Fall 2015 Writing Contest, including all of the following:

– A 21.5 quart pressure canner from All American, a $382 value
– A Survival Still emergency water purification still, a $288 value
– 1 free 1 year membership in the [Grow] Network Core Community, a $239 value
– A Worm Factory 360 vermicomposting system from Nature’s Footprint, a $128 value
– 2 large heirloom seed collections from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, valued at $103 each
– A Metro-Grower Elite sub-irrigation growing container from Nature’s Footprint, a $69 value
– 2 copies of the complete Home Grown Food Summit, valued at $67 each
– 3 free 3 month memberships in the [Grow] Network Core Community, valued at $59 each
– 4 copies of the Grow Your Own Groceries DVD video set, valued at $43 each
– A Bug Out Seed Kit from the Sustainable Seed Company, a $46 value
– 4 copies of the Alternatives To Dentists DVD video, valued at $33 each
– 4 copies of the Greenhouse of the Future DVD and eBook, valued at $31 each

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  • Jacob says:

    What happens when the beads break down? What are they made of? Are they suitable for organic gardens?

    1. Alice J Haslam says:

      If you do an internet search for “polymer water beads”, you will find information on the composition of these beads that should enable you to formulate your own conclusions (as I did.)

  • Richard says:

    I searched for water beads and came up with a detractive colored bead. Is this the right thing?

    1. Alice J Haslam says:

      I ordered mine from amazon. They are clear in color and come in a one pound bag for $9.40 if memory serves.

    2. Mandy C. Haslam says:

      While I doubt they’d hurt crops, those are used for making house-scent air freshening things, as they absorb odors (supposedly, I’ve never had much luck with em). The color is basically pointless and just for decorative purposes for people adding scents to them. If they cost the same, I guess it doesn’t matter, but I’d be against adding any red dye #4 (or whatever) to my garden needlessly.

      I’m Alice J. Haslams’ daughter and have seen her success with these beads! I’d stick to the clear ones. I literally saw those colored water beads at the dollar store today, with various scents added. Exact same thing as you have in your buckets, just $3 a pop for a cup of purple ones with lavender or whatever.

  • Phebe says:

    Having worked in a nursery I have had the opportunity to see these work in various applications… You can mix the dry beads with your soil and let them soak up the water as you water… When it rains a soft slow mist for 2 or three days, (the way it can in the spring) these bead get really big and any on a walking surface are very treacherous… It is like walking on oil and jello at the same time. (I have fallen more than once on these.)

    Personally I would prefer a deep saucer under pots with plenty of peat moss or coir. And learn to water thoroughly!!! The only way to learn this is to dig into your soil or pull a plant out of a small pot to inspect where has the water gone. This may mean using a slower application or going over the same spot 2 or 3 times or more… and by all means use a soaker hose in the garden… I just can not get enough water doing it by hand in the garden with out a soaker hose.

    I have gardened in TX, TN, and VA. and consider a soaker hose an important garden tool. In Tn. I don’t need everywhere but occasionally I am babying new plants through a dry spell and use it for a couple weeks.

    The beads are helpful but hazardous and not sustainable; so I consider them a short term solution for beginning gardeners and containers. Oh and in areas where we can (and often do) get plenty of moisture they can keep roots to wet, to long, not allowing enough drainage and causing root diseases… So good organic matter is still our best solution.

  • Dana says:

    Being a friend of Alice and a great fan of her gardening prowess, I saw firsthand how well these water beads work. So simple and perfect for this hot weather! Her plants are growing!

  • Steve says:

    I could see this as a short term solution. Increasing organic matter and building the soil would be more long term. A 1% increase in organic matter would hold an extra 20,000 gallons per acre and sequester carbon. As a vermicomposter I am improving my garden soil water holding capacity and porosity each year by using the vermicompost as a soil amendment and decreasing food waste going to landfills, since that is my primary worm feedstock.

  • KK says:

    What a brilliant idea to use the water beads! I want to try it, too, Alice! Hope you have a bounty of crops this season. Great article. Thanks for the detailed info.

  • Jan Walters says:

    I had heard of this before but had completely forgotten about it. Thanks for jogging my memory as my herbs suffered this last summer even though I had made a raised box garden. Thanks Alice for telling me where to get the beads and for all the calculating.

  • Alice J Haslam says:

    UPDATE: Although it has cooled off at night, our days are still 95 degrees, and still no rain. My corn is several feet high and doing beautifully except for the 3 stalks that I lost to some root eating varmint. My green beans and wax beans are green and lush and have started to flower. My herbs are thriving, quite unlike the ones I lost before I discovered the water beads. The continued heat is making it difficult for the broccoli to develop after germination.

    1. Michael Ford says:

      Very good news, Alice. Thanks for sending us this update.

  • Alice J Haslam says:

    UPDATE: At long last, the weather has cooled a bit and the rains have come. We have been harvesting green beans for about 10 days now, and they are the best green beans I have eaten in a long while. We are eating most of them raw, dipped in home made ranch dressing. The wax beans I planted a bit later are just beginning to reach edible size. There are beautiful tassel-like flowers on the corn stalks, although the root eating varmint has gotten a few more. (I have plans to solve this problem with chicken wire in the bottom of the raised bed before I plant it again.) My herbs continue to thrive. Meanwhile, I am composting to improve my soil.

  • Michael J. Machnica says:

    There is a commercial product called Soil Moist made expressly for that purpose. It is a water holding polymer that is about the size of a dried lentil, then expands to the size of a large marble when fully hydrated. It is available in 3 and 8 lb. quantities from http://www.Gemplers.com – product # RSM003 & RSM008. It lasts several years and is biodegradable. Care must be taken to follow quantity directions in containers, otherwise the expanding beads will blow the planting mix out of the containers. This happened to a commercial greenhouse’s hanging baskets here in West Seneca about 15 years ago!

  • clayton says:

    I am a bit confused… it took a few hours for the beads to absorb water when first tested, but when they are in the ground, they are able to absorb water fast enough before the water drains away?

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