5 Tips How To Improve Drainage In Potted Plants

Empty plastic container pots placed next to the potted flowering plants.

The drainage at the bottom of your container pots plays a significant role in your potted plant’s life. These holes are responsible for water to drain freely and allow air to penetrate deep down into the roots.

The tiny holes at the bottom of your pot will help the roots establish much healthier and stronger roots. They can make a huge difference in potting, plant care and maintenance.

While plants have different needs with drainage, only a few can tolerate sitting in still water. A lack of adequate water outlets is one of the most common reasons for having unhealthy plants, along with their untimely deaths.

Plants need carbon dioxide and need to dispose of oxygen to carry on the process of photosynthesis. But inadequate aeration in the soil because of excessive water hinders this process. Poor drainage can cause waterlogging resulting in plants drowning which leads to root rot.

Root rotting happens when the roots are left sitting in the water for quite some time. It is a condition that can kill your plants quickly if left untreated.

5 Great Tips to Successfully Improve Drainage in Your Potted Plants

The key to keeping your plants healthy, whether you grow them in your raised bed gardens or containers, is good drainage.

Without adequate soil drainage, your plant’s roots may suffocate, burn from salt build-up, or suffer from root rot.

When you spot white salt deposits on the top of your plant’s soil, it is a sign your plant is suffering from too much watering.

Here are the 5 useful tips you can try to improve drainage in your potted plants.

Tip #1 – Get The Right Container

2 growing plants in a colored plastic container along with 8 other colorful empty plastic containers.

Like soil, getting the right container pot is also vital to growing plants successfully. Choosing the right pot is one of the most significant factors you need to consider when you opt to grow plants in containers.

Here are some features you need to consider when choosing a container for your plant:

1) The Shape Matters

The most widely used planters both for outdoors and indoors are round, square or rectangular. But does the shape matter when growing plants in containers?

Yes, of course, shape matters when growing plants in containers.

A shallow pot offers minimal aeration to your soil. Even if you have the best soil mix, if your container is too small or too shallow and doesn’t allow air in or let the water out, then the aeration your plant’s needs will be sacrificed.

On the other hand, a deep container with the same amount of growing mix with shallow pots provides high permeability, which promotes efficient drainage.

Also, shape determines whether your pot is stable enough to keep your plants from tipping when the winds blow.

So yes shape is necessary, especially if you are locating your pots among your terrace garden or on a balcony where winds are prone to blow.

2) Choose the Right Materials

Containers can make plants more attractive, and you can get any of your choices from an almost endless range of different types of flower pots.

Color, size, shape and texture are the few factors you first consider when getting your container pots.

There are simple materials like plastic, terracotta or ceramic, metal, glass and wood you can easily find and choose when growing plants in containers.

  • Plastic

Plastic is light, inexpensive and comes in a large variety of shapes and shades. But this material isn’t breathable, making it hard for excess water to evaporate.

  • Terracotta or ceramic

Terracotta or ceramic are materials that are both breathable and work well in an environment with limited airflow.

  • Metal

Many prefer metal because it is inexpensive and looks attractive, but like plastic, this material is also not breathable.

  • Wood

Wood is the material that can stay cool even under the sun, exceptional in retaining water and breathable too.

  • Glass

Glass adds elegance to your home when used as a container for your plants, especially succulents. Its wide openings allow a smoother airflow, but you need to be careful every time you touch them as this type of material is breakable.

3) Get The Right Size

Container size is significant, particularly to fast-growing plants. Smaller pots can restrict root’s potential growth, causing stunted growth and fewer flowers.

  • The rule of thumb is to choose a planter appropriate to the size of your plant. But sometimes it is hard to tell what size container you might need for a specific plant.
  • Getting too small of a pot for your plants can cause the soil to dry quickly, requiring you to water the plants frequently. Your plant could also become root-bound, resulting in stunted growth.
  • Placing your plants in too large of a pot can make your plant susceptible to root rot as the soil in larger pots dries slowly.
  • To prevent these issues, place your plants that grow fast into a container 2-4 inches larger in diameter based on its outgrown existing pot. And for slow-growing kinds of plants,  placing them in a planter that’s 1-2 inches bigger works well.

Tip #2 – Using Containers Without A Hole

A growing green plastic pot placed into a larger white ceramic cachepot.
Image by: laidbackgardener.blog

If you’ve got a pot without a drainage hole, see if you can drill some openings at the bottom and if it is unlikely to do so, use them as a decorative container in a double potting technique.

The double potting technique is where you place the small pot, also known as growing pot, into a larger container as a cachepot without holes. But make sure it is big and deep enough to accommodate the smaller planter.

You can get your plants out from the larger container and water them in the sink when they are dry. After draining, you can place them back into the cachepot, and you can repeat this technique every time you need to.

This technique will also allow you to express your style by showcasing your creativity. You can grab any container material like wicker baskets, cookie jars, hatboxes, vintage enamelware pieces, serving bowls, and some interesting items you can improve to make your decor plants shine.

Tip #3 – Get Soil Appropriate For Your Plants

A gardener repotting seedlings in five black plastic containers.

Get the right soil appropriate to the plants you are growing. If your soil is too clayey, it won’t provide proper water absorption. Instead, it will block any available drainage the roots need, and when this happens, the roots of your container plants will suffocate because of a lack of oxygen.

Here’s how you can address such an issue.

  • Incorporate compost into your soil before planting.
  • Compost can act like a sponge. It can hold water well, making it easy for your plants to reach.
  • And for the clayey soil, compost opens up the compacted structure and allows the water to drain through.

Tip #4 – Add Materials To Improve Soil Texture

A group of materials like perlite, vermiculite, compost, sand and soil for a DIY potting soil recipe.
Image by: savvygardening.com

If your soil is compact, another way to improve its texture is by adding well-draining materials like perlite and aggregates to create the best potting soil.

Aside from incorporating compost into your soil, try adding these materials to provide aeration and allow air to infiltrate deep down the roots of your plants.

As we already know, the soil in your garden needs to be well-draining, loose, and fluffy. If it does not possess these beneficial properties, there can be a lot of negative impacts on the health of your plants.

These problems include:

  • Soil Run-off

Soil runoff happens when the nutrients and topsoil are swept away because the soil is too compressed and clayey.

  • Root Suffocation

Like us, roots need oxygen. When the soil is hardly compressed, it eliminates the potential spaces for smoother airflow. This condition destroys the population of microorganisms resulting in the plant’s roots suffocation.

  • Sunbaked Soil

Baking happens when the soil is too compressed and dries out in the sun. It reaches remarkably hot because there is no air or sufficient moisture to keep the soil in ideal temperatures.

Here are the five well-draining materials you can add to help improve your soil drainage.

1) Perlite
A handful of perlite.
Image by: growerexperts.com

Perlite is a volcanic rock that pops like popcorn when heated. This cheap mineral has a structure softened by the heat, catching the water with its expanded form about 7-16 times its original size and gradually releases for the plants to use.

Adding perlite to your soil will boost its draining capabilities, provide excellent filtering, and provide more oxygen to the plant’s roots.

But there are also a few disadvantages to using perlite in your garden. Check them out to avoid such an issue and enjoy most of its benefits while you garden.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of using perlite.

  • Perlite can retain its shape even when mixed into the soil.
  • This cheap mineral contains a neutral pH level.
  • This natural compound in the soil is non-toxic to your plants and the environment.
  • It is permeable and contains pockets of space to allow air penetration.
  • It can hold an adequate amount of moisture and allows excess water to drain away.
  • Perlite stimulates root growth and using it with rooting compounds is also an excellent idea.
  • It contains no nutrients.
  • Gives off a minimal amount of dust. So it is necessary to wear a mask to protect yourself from inhaling dust when working with perlite.
  • Some perlite particles float when watering your plants. So try not to add an excessive amount into your growing mix.
  • The winds can blow fine particles, which is why it is essential to combine them well into your soil.

Some gardeners, particularly newbies, forget the importance of oxygen supply to the roots of the growing plants.

Perlite is a natural element that helps improve your plant’s growth, particularly to the seedlings. You can use them as your only growth medium or combine them with other additives.

2) Sand
A small amount of coarse sand.
Image by: nparks.gov.sg

Sand is one of the cheapest materials you can use to help break up your compacted soil. Its particles help increase drainage and provide proper aeration to help the plant’s rooting system fully establish.

Here are several ways that sand can help improve the drainage of your soil.

  • Mixing coarse sand into your soil helps establish tiny air pockets in your mixture. These spaces will provide sufficient passageways for your plant’s roots to reach nutrients, oxygen and water.
  • Also, adding some sand to your growing mixture will help to loosen up compact and thick soil, particularly when you’re trying to create a garden where you’ll need some space for the roots to grow.
  • Roots cannot penetrate the soil that is too thick, and will probably end up lacking water and nutrients, resulting in your plant’s stunted growth. While sand is an excellent addition to your soil mix, you need to ensure your garden does not contain more sand than soil.
  • Too much sand in your garden will make the soil unable to hold an adequate amount of water and support your plant’s potential growth.
3) Expanded Clay Aggregates
A heap of expanded clay aggregates.
Image by:medium.com

Expanded clay aggregates is used as an excellent material to increase the permeability of clayey and compacted soils.

Clay aggregate enhances the draining properties of the clayey and compacted soil. It also helps reduce its density, which is beneficial to your plant’s growth, particularly in establishing an excellent rooting system.

4) Compost
Cured compost in a blue plastic rectangular container.
Image by: gardenbetty.com

Compost works to improving drainage in clumpy and clayey soil. It is excellent in water retention, particularly in sandy soils. What it improves is the soil structure.

Good soil structure is the basis for a successful garden. In a good soil structure, various elements and compounds help each other, allying.

This alliance of beneficial elements opens up spaces that allow air to circulate and water to drain, improving drainage in your soil.

Compost usually works like a sponge and is one of the most efficient substances at breaking and preventing soil compaction.

It is also an excellent nitrogen and carbon provider, the nutrients your plant needs to hold water much like perlite, in keeping the soil conditions friendly to life.

5) Vermiculite
A heap of coarse vermiculite.
Image by: airseacontainers.com

Vermiculite is a mineral that is absorptive and spongy. When associated with water, these dried mineral bits expand into a worm-like shape and function as an absorbent sponge.

This mineral is useful for plants that require soil to stay damp but not soaking wet. It is best for plants that love to drink an ample amount of water. Mixing a scoop of vermiculite into your potting soil is a great idea.

Tip #5 – Adding Rocks To Improve Soil Drainage Is Useless

Some container growers go to the extent of using rocks, stones or shards in their pots, using these materials, particularly in a non-draining container.

The concept behind this technique is to utilize the rocks as a reservoir and store excess water. The idea is to make the water readily available until the plant draws it up for the roots to use.

However, these materials at the bottom of your container don’t help as you think, and it is quite useless.

Some pot growers think placing stones or shards under the pots will create a beneficial space, resulting in fast-draining soil.

But that is not the case. The space you’ve provided between pebbles and stones at the bottom of your pot will accommodate that excess water, filling all the space available.

This condition will probably put the bottom soil closer to the roots of your plants, making them seem to sit in soggy soil.

To avoid such conditions, container growers try to use a pot with at least one drainage hole to allow excess water to drain.

However, it will make some roots grow out of the soil surface because of a lack of space at the bottom.

Therefore, placing shards, stones and pebbles at the bottom of your pot is ineffective.

How To Prevent Root Rot In Potted Pots

Plenty of fruits of a red pepper plant potted in a cream colored ceramic container designed with a black heart.

The primary cause of root rot is overwatering, and you need to figure out how to prevent your plants from suffering from such conditions.

Preventing root rot in potted plants is not that hard. It’s all about watering your plants the right way and providing adequate drainage. Here are some easy to follow guides on how to save your plants from root rot.

  • Get a Container with Adequate Drainage

When considering growing vegetables in containers, get the pots with adequate drainage holes. But sometimes you fall in love with a beautiful container pot that has no drainage hole. Please don’t do this.

If you’re considering a decorative pot without water outlets, it is better to leave your plants in its plastic container and place it in a fancy bowl for a beautiful display.

Get your plants out of your fancy container and water them in a sink when you find them dry and need water. After draining for a few minutes, bring it back into your decorative pot, and enjoy its beauty without worries.

  • Maintain a Watering Schedule

Every plant differs in water needs, but most of them love right and regular watering. No watering schedule can also hurt your plants.

You either leave them dry for quite some time or water them often without having enough time to dry between waterings.

  • Check the Soil Regularly

Practice a habit of checking the soil of your plants before watering. Always perform the soil finger test to ensure your plants are dry and need some watering.

Some plants look dry on the surface, but their soil is still moist, and you may want to hold off watering until the top few inches are dry.

Here’s how you can do the soil finger test.

  • Insert your finger into the soil.
  • Try to assess if the soil is dry, moist, or wet by feeling it.
  • Sometimes, the soil seems dry at the surface, but when you drive your finger deeper, you will find the roots are still moist.

Note: This method is not working for plants in larger pots or your garden beds because you won’t be able to reach deep enough to make the best assessment.

  • Provide Proper Soil Aeration

Aeration involves pocket spaces allowing oxygen to circulate freely underneath the soil.

Proper aeration helps soil loosen up, allowing the roots to infiltrate beneath the soil surface for better water distribution and efficient flow of oxygen.

Compacted soil loses space to hold oxygen, and plants can’t absorb water without oxygen.

In addition to that, the plant’s vascular systems won’t be able to function correctly, and the microorganisms living under the soil also need this element to survive.

However, using both mulch and compost can provide an enormous positive impact on soil aeration and on your growing plants.

Another benefit of aerated soil is the rich, fertile and well-draining growing media. The poor relationships between water and oxygen to the soil spaces can cause your plant to suffer and die.

Benefits of well-aerated soil:

  • Promotes a healthy relationship between the soil and its surrounding atmosphere
  • Improves water absorption
  • Eliminates the possibility of waterlogging
  • Allows the plant roots to establish
  • Prevents soil compaction
  • Boosts the plant’s resiliency and stress tolerance

Final Thoughts on How To Improve Drainage In Potted Plants

Planting and maintaining a potted garden is both fun and easy. It is an engaging way of growing plants and providing colors to surroundings that are plain and simple.

All you have to do is get some potting soil, pick a plant of your choice, prepare your plant fertilizer, and start planting.

But container gardening differs slightly from in-ground gardening because the plant grows where its roots have limited room to explore.

In the in-ground garden, excess water usually drains into the deeper layers of the soil. But in container gardening, traps excess water.

Trapped water can cause root rot unless the pots have holes or drainage for excess water to go.

When opting to grow plants in containers, make sure it has holes at the bottom sufficient to allow excess water to drain away.

However, not all pots sold in the market provide adequate drainage. Some containers have only one hole, and some don’t even have one. Getting these types of pots requires you to think about how to use them without sacrificing the health of your plants.

You can either add some drainage by drilling holes at the bottom to avoid waterlogging or use the double potting technique.

Another thing that you also need to consider is that some pots have naturally bigger holes when you get them from the market.

Bigger holes can cause the soil to drain along with the excess water, and when this happens, your growing mix may block the outlets resulting in waterlogging.

To address such an issue, you can get a permeable screen filter and place it at the bottom holes of the container before adding your potting mix.

Also, remember not to use gravel or shards at the bottom of your pot. Try to mix perlite or vermiculite instead to help increase the draining ability of your growing mix or also mix with compost, sand and expanded aggregates.

Your gardening can be successful, and that is for sure if you don’t neglect to increase the draining properties of your soil.

I hope you enjoyed our useful tips and recommendations on how to improve drainage in your potted plants. Are there any tips you want to add? Please let me know by writing in the comment section below.


About Benita Abucejo

Hi there! My name is Benita Abucejo. What can I say? I truly love spending my days in the outdoors, specifically in the garden. Gardening has always been a strong passion of mine since I was a little girl. It has brought me so much joy and happiness that it is definitely safe to say that I will be a gardener for life. For a period of time, I was able to work with people who are into home gardening and I found it to be quite beneficial to my physical health, as well as my mental well-being. Here at Seasonal Preferences, I am going to share with you my experience and ideas so that you can fulfill yourself with the same satisfaction and happiness. Of course, if you have ideas, I would love to hear those as well! Being creative in the garden can really be quite fascinating so let's share our experiences and be the best gardeners we can be. With that being said, thank you for dropping by and please leave me a comment on one of my posts if you would like to get in touch!

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