Science

Proper drainage is the key to keeping houseplants alive. These tricks can help.

Growing plants can seem intimidating, but we believe anyone can create a thriving home conservatory of any size. We’re here to help nurture your skills and help make that happen, so please feel free to send any plant-related questions of your own to [email protected] with “Plants” in the subject line.

The surface of the Earth contains layers of different kinds of soil: organic matter with uncounted numbers of microbes carrying out mysterious activities, sand, quartz, and other less-squishy materials, and, at the bottom, bedrock. All of these elements help plants grow and thrive. But life is different in a pot. There, the soil is stagnant, roots have limited space, and water depends on the fickle hands of humans. 

But the biggest challenge indoor life presents to our leafy friends is drainage—if water just sits there with nowhere to go, the roots of most plants will drown and die from lack of oxygen. The resulting decay will spread and kill that Pilea peperomioides you just paid $50 for, an experience that leads many people to believe they are “bad at plants.” (Also don’t pay for pilea—just ask your planty friends for their little pups). 

“Drainage holes are necessary, not sure there would be a way around it,” says Hillary Jufer, horticulture program manager at Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension

Many plant pots come with holes in the bottom and a little plate to catch the water. But if you see potential plant pots everywhere, know that you can easily turn that vintage teapot into an herb garden or that piggy bank into your pothos’ new home.

Get the drill out 

If you have a wooden or plastic pot your job is easy, says Jufer. Just grab a drill with any kind of bit, or even a hammer and nails, and put a hole in the bottom of the container. 

“The drain hole needs to be large enough to allow water through but keep container contents from running out,” says Katie Wagner, extension associate professor at Utah State University’s Salt Lake County Extension. If you need a guide, compare the holes to those for pots sold in stores, which, depending on the size, are usually half an inch to an inch in diameter. 

[Related: 7 key plant care tips we learned this year]

If you want to drill a hole through glass or porcelain, you’ll need to be more delicate—unless you want to end up with mosaic pieces on your hands. When dealing with this kind of material, Jufer suggests bringing the pot to your local hardware store and asking for advice on the best next steps. 

Wagner suggests buying a diamond drill bit, which comes with tiny pieces of diamond powder embedded in it, allowing it to cut through pretty much anything. Just go slow and consider putting water or lubricant in the hollow center of the bit to protect it and your pot from overheating.

Create a Russian doll situation

Instead of drilling holes, you can put one pot with drainage inside a larger one without, and then use rocks or another material to prop up the smaller pot. 

Berni Kurz, extension educator for consumer horticulture at the University of Arkansas, says the plastic pieces that keep pizza boxes from collapsing are a great solution. He also recommends leaving half to three-quarters of an inch of space underneath the propper to prevent any roots that might escape the smaller pot from sitting directly in the water. 

[Related: Pest-fighting plants that could save your garden]

“If one is very diligent about checking the moisture level within the container using their index finger or a moisture meter, then they should not have an issue with overwatering a houseplant inside,” he explains. 

Imitating the complexities of the natural world can be a real challenge for houseplant owners, but it’s nothing that a little knowledge and creativity cannot solve. So after you enjoy a delicious pizza, make sure to save the propper for the next time you feel you’re bad at plants. 



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