How to Grow a Houseplant—Potting

A pet bird has a cage and a gecko has a terrarium. Plants need a special places to live too.

You have a lot of latitude in choosing a container for your plant. Consider not only made-for-plants pots, but other bowls, cans, and even shoes. However, there are a few requisites.

Drainage is paramount. If your chosen pot doesn’t have a drain hole, add one.

Size matters too. The larger the container, the longer it can go between waterings. Larger containers are also more stable. And large containers provide plenty of root space. However, you need to match the container size to the plant that will occupy it.

Another consideration is container shape. I once had a lovely pot that was smaller at the top than in the middle. It looked great—until it was time to move my plant to a bigger home. Then I realized there was no way to extract the roots without damaging them.

In our dry climate, I choose containers that are impervious to water. It’s hard enough to keep my plants watered, without some of that moisture evaporating through the sides of the pot. Traditional clay pots would be fine in more humid weather, but I stick to glazed ceramics and plastics.

If you are reusing a pot, make sure it’s clean. Scrub off any accumulated fertilizer salts, then disinfect it, perhaps with a 4% bleach solution. (I actually run some of my smaller pots through the dishwasher!)

For a while, your plant may grow happily in the pot it came in. Eventually, however, it will need repotting. This happens for one of two reasons: either your excellent care has resulted in a plant too big for its container, or the aging potting soil is breaking down and becoming compacted, and it needs replacing.

If you see roots growing out of the drainage hole, or if the plant is becoming root-bound (you can slide it out of its pot to check), you need a larger container. Choose one just a little bigger than the present pot. You don’t want there to be too much soil without roots there to soak up the water you apply.

Never use actual garden soil in a houseplant container. Various brands of potting soil are available. Most are peat-based, while others use coir, a fiber derived from coconut husks. Both are Canadian peat and coir are renewable resources, and your plant won’t care which you choose.

Contrary to popular belief, you can skip the part about adding rocks to your pot to “provide drainage.” All those extra rocks do is add weight and take up root space. Because of surface tension, the soil above the rock layer will become completely waterlogged before any of that water makes it down into the rocks.

Pour enough potting soil into the container to form a small cushion, then add your plant. If you’re losing debris through the drain hole, you can put a small piece of screen, a shard of broken pottery, or even a coffee filter over it to hold in the “dirt.”

Gently add enough potting soil to fill the space between your pot and the plant’s root ball. Don’t compress it down too much. Remember, you need room for air and water between those particles. Water enough to settle the soil, and you’re done.

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