How to Clean Plant Containers

  • 01 of 03

    How to Clean Plant Containers

    Cleaning a plant container
    Marie Iannotti

    Container gardening is as popular as ever. We don't seem to mind giving them a little extra work during the growing season; keeping them watered and fed and removing failing plants. But many of us balk at cleaning the containers at the end of the season. Sure, we'll dump the dead plants and store the pots away, but too often they get stashed with soil and roots (and who knows what else) still clinging to their sides.

    It doesn't take much time or effort to get your containers clean and sterilized before you pack up for winter and it will not only make them last longer, it can mean healthier plants next year. When you think about how much you've probably spent on your containers, it's well worth the effort.

    Even if you potted fall containers, chances are they will no longer look attractive after the first hard frost. Start by composting the plants in the pot. Don't leave them over winter in containers that can crack from freezing and thawing. You can store and reuse any loose potting soil. Have a large garbage can dedicated to holding potting soil over winter.

    Once the pots are empty, give them a good brushing with a stiff bristle brush, to remove soil, mold, and anything else that has taken hold. This is a good start, but bacteria, spores, and other nasty things can still be clinging to the sides.

    Continue to 2 of 3 below.
  • 02 of 03

    Sterilizing Plant Containers

    Cleaning pots
    A dilute solution of household bleach should kill any lingering diseases on your pots. You can spray it on clean pots or soak the pots in the solution. Wear old clothes and gloves and change the water when it gets dirty. Marie Iannotti

    The second step in cleaning your containers is probably the most important and that is sterilizing them. To be honest, these pots are going to be full of dirt and living organisms again in a few months, so saying we're sterilizing them is probably a stretch. What we're really doing is killing off any pathogens that have hitched a ride and might over-winter on the containers, ready to reinfect as soon as possible in the spring. [Note: if you are going to be leaving your containers outside for the winter, you should save this step for the spring.]

    There are 2 ways to go about this. If you have an outdoor sink or a large tub, you can wash your plant containers in a mix of 10 parts water to 1 part chlorine bleach. This is not something you want to do at the kitchen sink. It's not just messy, all that soil is not good for your pipes. Another caveat to this method is that when it's finally time to clean your pots, it's cold outside. Keeping your hands in cold water can be a challenge. But it's fairly quick and very effective.

    Another approach is to spray the containers with the same mix of 10 parts water and 1 part bleach. Your pots won't be as squeaky clean, but as I've already mentioned, they're just going to get dirty again. Spraying them well will do an effective job of killing off any potential problems. Just be sure to spray all the surfaces, inside and out, until dripping.

    The hard part is over and we haven't even worked up a sweat. Now let the containers dry a bit, before putting them away for the winter. Don't leave them sitting around outside for too long, or you'll invite new problems to take hold.

    Continue to 3 of 3 below.
  • 03 of 03

    Storing Plant Containers for Winter

    Safely storing plant containers
    After all your other efforts, be sure to take some care to safely store them. Sounds easy enough, but it's still important. Marie Iannotti

    Ideally, pots made from breakable material, like terra cotta and ceramic, should be stored individually, not stacked. That always makes me think of the suggestion to freeze things flat, on a baking sheet. Who has the room to do either? I have to stack my containers and I've cracked more than one in the process. Now I use some cushioning, much as I do when staking china plates (although not as fancy). I fold sheets of newspaper into 2 to 3 inch strips and cradle each pot in one. You could use anything handy, cardboard, bubble wrap... But I always have plenty of newspaper around and it's easy to cut to size.

    Store your containers where they will remain dry and somewhat protected. I put mine in a corner of my basement, but a shed or garage will work just as well.

    You don't have to wait until fall clean up to sterilize your pots. You can clean your pots this way at any time of year, if you are swapping out plants. This is particularly helpful if you are starting seeds or planting seedlings in a used pot.