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It’s incredible that one tiny plant can be such a massive diva. If you’re but a MINUTE late with the watering can, they will shrivel up so completely that they literally look dead. Honestly, it’s practically a skill.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could, uh, not have to deal with that?
By, for example, transferring them from a soil substrate to living 100% hydroponically?
Can Fittonia live in water?
Yes! Most plants can tbh.
But it’s not as easy as taking the plant out of the soil and dumping it straight into the water. If you don’t follow the right steps, you’ll just end up with rotting roots and a dying plant.
Plants are, er, born soil roots, but they can grow water roots if they’re given the right conditions.
Soil roots absorb oxygen from the air, water roots absorb oxygen from the roots (all roots can get a BIT of oxygen from both medium, but water roots do best in water and vice versa).
Not only does the plant need time to grow the ‘right’ roots, but it also needs to be put in a well-oxygenated medium, whether that’s water or soil.
What are the benefits of growing Fittonia in water?
- It won’t have a hissy fit two seconds after it dries out
- Growing a plant in water means the ambient humidity is slightly higher in the immediate vicinity than if it were in soil
- You can see any root issues immediately
- It…looks cool
- It can be left for longer on its own – great if you’re away a lot
What are the problems with growing Fittonia in water?
- You need to keep the water well-oxygenated, otherwise the Fittonia will get root rot
- Fittonia don’t typically like change, so you might have a little struggle with the transfer
- They’re small plants, and it can be pain to find small enough glass jars for them. Bud vases are a good shout
How to transfer a Fittonia from soil to water
Step 1: Clean off the roots
It seems so easy, when it’s written down like this, but this is pretty much the key factor on whether this will be successful or not.
There’s a balance to strike here. You need the roots as clean and undamaged as possible, and where that line is drawn depends on how clumsy you are.
I’m…pretty clumsy, so I blast off the roots with the cold tap/faucet (a hose is too strong for fittonia roots), do a bit of work with a soft toothbrush, and call it a day.
You can also soak the roots for a while, and keep changing the water as more dirt falls off.
Ideally, we want totally clean roots, but as soon as you’re starting to do significant damage, stop.
Step 2: Decide how to oxygenate the water
Oxygenation is key.
If you love to water your plants, then you can just commit to frequently changing the water. Every three days is perfect but weekly is probably fine.
I don’t like this method, because it’s a bit labour intensive for me, but it’s probably the best option for a plant as small as a Fittonia. You could also add an air stone or oxygenating aquatic plants (my preferred method) if you don’t want to change the water often.
Step 3: Transfer the plant
This is just…putting the plant in the water. You want as many roots in the water as possible, but the leaves need to stay dry. If they’re submerged, they’ll rot. If you want to create a little terrarium in a fish bowl or something you could float a few Fittonia (pretty sure that’s an aquarium, Caroline…) in slices of pool noodle (or suspend them if you have a shelf or something above that you could add hooks too)
That’d look pretty cool actually. A bit of java moss at the bottom of a fish bowl for oxygenation, half fill the bowl with water, and float three or four fittonia in it. Hmm, might give that a go. Perhaps have a small peace lily in the centre, and maybe a Pothos trailing over the edge.
Step 4: Cut off any dead roots
Some soil roots will shed naturally, and you’re best of removing them as you go. Any plant matter that falls in the water will decompose, and that decomposition will result in anaerobic bacteria thriving. It’s these bacteria that lead to root rot, so we need to keep the water clean and oxygenated.
Sometimes a plant will shed most of its soil roots, and sometimes those soil root can adapt to the water. It varies a lot from plant to plant.
Step 5: Keep a look out for new roots/growth
As soon as you can see new growth, you can be pretty sure the plant is happy. If you’re not seeing any new roots, change the water more often and keep an eye out for signs of severe deterioration.
The plant will go downhill a bit naturally (it’s going through a significant life change!) but if it’s looking really bad you’ll need to help it out. Usually increasing the humidity helps, and sometimes covering the vase (or whatever it’s in) so the roots can grow better will help.
Step 6: Fertilise
Don’t fertilise your plants until they start growing. Plants can get most of the energy they need for growth from light and water – nutrients are necessary but not AS necessary. So humans need food, right? But food is no good unless we’ve also got water and internal organs.
Fertilising a plant that has no roots isn’t going to do anything, other than further stress the soil roots.
How to transfer a Fittonia from water to soil
This step is much easier in some ways, but also, er, not. You don’t need to clean the roots but you need to make sure the plant can still get oxygen.
You can 100% shove the plant in soil and keep it damp for a couple of weeks whilst it adapts. It’ll be fine.
Buuuut that’s risky. I mean, all of this is risky, but that seems unnecessarily risky.
I prefer to put the plant in damp sphagnum moss first. Preferably in a terrarium or ziploc bag so it retains the humdity. The sphagnum will encourage it to grow soil roots, but its water roots should be able to absorb the water it needs pretty easily. Once it’s started growing in the Sphagnum, plant the whole thing, moss and all, in some soil
How to take care of a Fittonia in water
The water needs to be kept well oxygenated. Whether you change it every few days, add an airstone, or some oxygenating aquatic plants like java moss is entirely up to you.
Fittonia can be quite picky with their water quality, so I’d recommend either using filtered water or adding some dechlorinator.
Rain water is also fine, but stay away from distilled water – the minerals in water can be beneficial to the plant, and pure water can be pretty detrimental, and lead to deficiencies in things like calcium
Fittonia aren’t too fussy about light, but ideally they’ll love either a little grow light or a suny spot on an east-facing window.
THE HIGHER THE BETTER
Investing in a cloche will make your Fittonia so much happier, and make it so so much easier to care for. A humidifier or terrarium is a pricier option BUT the benefit of Fittonia being so small is that you can easily get a large mason jar and put the whole plant in it, vase and all. Voila: ample humidity.
If you’re keeping your Fittonia in water, you’ll need a hydroponic fertiliser. Soil fertilisers are often not uptaken (??) in the same way as hydroponic ones, and nutrients aren’t always available if you use the wring fertiliser. I use the General Hydroponics Flora series, but you can use a one-stop one like Dynagrow if you’d prefer.
I would recommend doing a 100% water change before fertilising because you don’t want to keep adding more and more each time.
Hope that was helpful! Leave me a comment if you have any questions!