Sandy's Garden

Flower pots need good drainage

How to ensure good drainage in flower pots

By: Sandy Feather ©2009
Penn State Extension

Q. I have a beautiful container that lacks drainage holes in the bottom. I would like to plant a cactus in it. Can I just fill the bottom with gravel to provide drainage?

A. Absolutely not!  Placing gravel on the bottom of a solid container to improve drainage is one of the most common misconceptions about container-grown plants. Gravel in the bottom of a solid container actually decreases the soilís ability to drain. To prove my point, get an ordinary sponge and saturate it with water. First, hold it over a sink lengthwise and see how quickly the water drains from it. Then saturate it again, and hold it widthwise over the sink, and see how much less water drains from it than when you held it lengthwise. Finally, saturate the sponge again, and hold it flat over the sink, and see how almost no water drains from it.


How does soil work?

Soil works much like the sponge. The longer the soil column, the better it drains; the shorter the soil column, the less it drains. By placing gravel in the bottom of a container, you are shortening the soil column and reducing its ability to drain.

Drainage hole in a flower pot
Flower pots usually come with drainage holes

A better solution is to get a plastic pot with drainage holes in it that will fit inside your decorative container. Pot the cactus in the plastic pot, and then place the potted plant into your solid container. Whenever you water your cactus, be sure to take it out of the solid container and place it in a sink or bathtub until the excess water drains. Then return it to its decorative container. Never allow it to sit in excess water collected in the bottom of the solid container. Cacti (and most other plants) are susceptible to root rot in such a situation.


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