With that in mind – and in an effort to help you stress less about the plants in your home – we talked to two plant experts about how to improve drainage for pots. Good news: it’s easier than you might think.
Why is drainage important for potted plants?
It’s simple: Plants need water to survive, but according to plant expert Kaylyn Hewitt, the flower designer at The Bouqs Co., most plants cannot tolerate moist soil for extended periods of time. That’s why many (but not all) pots have drainage holes.
“Drain holes ensure that your plant gets the water it needs, while the excess water doesn’t sit in the pot and rot your roots,” she explains. “They also help curb any overwatering.” While drainage holes won’t completely reduce the effects of too much water, Hweitt says they do dampen the amount of water your plant actually absorbs.
Speaking of water, Bloomscape garden expert Lindsay Pangborn would like to reiterate that deep, thorough watering is a good habit for happy plants, as it encourages growth throughout the pot. “But without a drainage hole, it’s impossible to water deeply without drowning your plant,” she explains. “Pots with a drainage hole make it easy to water your plant thoroughly every time without fear of root rot.”
Another advantage of drainage holes in pots
In addition to acting as a drain for excess water, Pangborn says drainage holes also make it easy to monitor your plant’s root conditions. “If roots begin to grow through the hole at the bottom of the pot, this may indicate that a larger pot is needed as the plant continues to grow,” she explains. “If the water flows quickly through the pot, that could be an indication that the soil-to-root ratio is too low (meaning there isn’t enough potting soil to properly support the roots) and the plant could benefit from repotting. “
How to drill a drainage hole in ceramic and terracotta pots:
What to do if your pot doesn’t have a hole – or if you don’t want to drill one?
Point blank: Drainage holes are essential. If your pot doesn’t have one, there are plenty of videos on YouTube showing you how to safely and effectively drill one into the bottom of your pot. But if you’re drilling into a delicate object (such as terracotta or ceramic), you’ll need to be extra careful not to shatter the pot and accidentally cut yourself.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to drill a hole in your pot for fear of breaking it (something Hewitt says she can recognize), you have another option. “Use an inexpensive planter (my go-to is terracotta) with a drainage hole, then place that in your decorative pot,” she says.
The main reason it is so important to improve drainage for pots is because root rot can kill a plant quickly. So if your goal is to keep your plants alive for as long as possible, knowing how to spot root rot is essential.
“When root rot occurs, it means that the roots of the plant have been damaged to the extent that they can no longer function properly. That’s why some signs of overwatering are so similar to signs of underwater,” says Pangborn. “You can recognize rotting roots by black or brown spots on the leaves, often with a yellow edge. Yellow or wilting leaves can be another sign of root rot – if the soil is moist, but the leaves are wilting, it’s a sign that the roots are not functioning properly.”
If you notice that your plant is suffering from root rot, don’t panic, at least not right away. If the root rot isn’t too extensive, Pangborn says the plant is treatable. “Lift the plant out of the pot, carefully remove the soil, and trim off any rotting roots with a sharp pair of clippings,” she instructs. “As the root system shrinks, you also need to remove a proportional amount of top growth (so if you remove about ⅓ of the roots, remove about ⅓ of the leaves and stems).” Once you’ve done that, Pangborn says to repot the plant in fresh potting soil, water sparingly, and keep the plant in bright but indirect light. “Additional watering should not be necessary until new growth emerges.”
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