How to Avoid Drowning the Plants in Your Container Garden

Ensure proper drainage when filling your pots

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An essential part of growing plants in containers at home is creating drainage holes in your planters. Installing proper drains may not be as exciting as choosing which varieties of plants to include, but this necessary step lays the foundation for your garden to flourish.

While the term container garden may spark thoughts of large planter boxes filled with a variety of plants, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, it actually includes any of this lively greenery living in pots or containers rather than being planted in the ground. Even a small tomato plant growing in a pot on your patio is considered a container garden—and regardless of their size, your container gardens need to remove excess water to keep the plants from drowning.

Here, learn how to install drain holes to keep your favorite plants thriving.

How to Install Drainage Holes in Planters

There may be conflicting advice about how to keep your container garden plants from drowning. While some recommend adding rocks or packing peanuts at the bottom of the planters (which is a great first step), it's not a guaranteed way to prevent water from building up around your plants' roots. Overwatering and heavy rains can lead to root rot and damage your plants when not dealt with promptly. Thankfully, creating proper drainage is simple, and it allows your plants to drink only as much water as they need.

To install drainage, start by choosing the size of holes you need. Avoid very small holes, as they can become clogged easily by large chunks of soil or plant roots that grow from the bottom of the pot. Opt for large holes: An inch in diameter is a good place to start.

For most container materials, you can use a drill with the proper bit. Some materials like terracotta can crack when punctured, so it's important to use masonry drill bits and start gently. Drill bits made for metal surfaces can be used for both metal and plastic plant containers, while a hammer and a large nail may be suitable for thinner plastic pots.

When you begin creating holes, add as many as possible to the bottom surface without compromising the structure of the container. It's okay if the bottom of your container begins to look a bit like Swiss cheese; just distribute the holes evenly and ensure at least one hole is located at the lowest point of the pot.


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Preventing Soil Loss Through Holes

Once you've created drainage holes in your planters, the holes need to be covered to prevent the loss of soil when watering your plants. Several methods can be used to cover the holes without completely blocking them, which keeps the soil in while letting water out. Any of the following covers can be effective:

Plastic Window Screening

Like the screens on your windows that keep insects out of your home, window screening can be used to keep the soil inside your plant containers. Always opt for plastic screens, as metal options may rust when watered and deteriorate over time. Large rolls of plastic screening can be purchased on a budget. Cut a smaller piece of the screen to the size of your pot's base, then place it inside before adding soil.

Packing Peanuts

Many gardeners use packing peanuts in the bottom of their plant pots. However, there are a few disadvantages to packing peanuts that should be considered:

  • If you do use styrofoam peanuts, it's a good idea to add a secondary barrier like plastic window screening between the soil and peanuts. If they aren't separated, they'll become mixed—so your potting soil can't be reused easily at the end of the season.
  • Packing peanuts can be messy and stick to your hands when pouring them into the pot, which makes for difficult cleanup when small peanuts are used.
  • Some newer packing peanuts are made from potato starch to avoid the environmental impacts of styrofoam. However, this material can melt inside your plant's pot when watered.

For these reasons, it's recommended to choose a different covering option to keep the soil inside your drainage holes.

Coco Fiber, Moss, or Burlap

Along with covering drainage holes, coco fiber, moss, and burlap can be used in gardening to create actual containers. If you've ever used wire hanging baskets with burlap interiors, you're likely familiar with the efficient drainage these materials provide (especially when excess water pours from the bottom after heavy rain).

These all make great pot liners, particularly for their ability to hold soil inside while keeping it moist. To use any of these options as drainage hole coverings, simply place a layer in the bottom of your plant's pot before adding soil.

Better Than Rocks

While some gardeners opt for gravel in the bottom of their plant containers, this method may actually lead to root rot. Avoid gravel, as it actually encourages the soil to soak up water and stay wet longer.

Instead, choose an option like Better Than Rocks. This material can be placed over the drainage holes in the bottom of your pot or window box planter. It's made of recycled plastic, and it can be reused over time. Another advantage of Better Than Rocks is that this product helps improve air circulation in your plant's container.

Planter Inserts

Planter inserts like Ups-a-Daisy can be very beneficial for round planters. These clever plastic discs come in many sizes, and they work by creating a raised-up false bottom with large drainage holes. It's best to use planter inserts with large pots, as you'll need less soil overall.

Once you've created and covered your new drainage holes, proceed with providing your plants with the proper amount of water, knowing any excess will drain correctly.