Routine watering is important for plants so they can stay healthy as they flourish, and potted plants are no different. However, if a plant container has drainage holes in it, watering can result in quite the mess, often spreading a mix of water and soil outside the plant.
How is it possible to keep soil from washing out of pots? Four main methods are available for gardeners to use to prevent soil from washing out of containers during the watering process:
- Use a pot with multiple small draining holes.
- Add a filter.
- Use a lined draining saucer.
- Double the pot.
A potted plant requires both water and nutrient-rich potting soil in order to grow and remain healthy, so the last thing gardeners want is both of these essential ingredients to be completely drained out of the container. The remainder of this post will review the ways in which gardeners can prevent excess water and potted dirt from spilling out during the watering process.
Importance of Pot Drainage Holes
Because the water gardeners give a potted plant often drains through the soil and out the bottom of the container through its holes, it is easy to assume that the easiest way to prevent water and soil from washing out of a pot is to simply block the holes.
However, this can actually be dangerous for the plant, as the holes serve an essential purpose. The drainage holes allow the extra water in the potting soil to flow out of the pot freely so that the plant roots have enough air.
(Source: University of Illinois)
We have written a few good articles on finding the right container to use for your plant that you check out below!
What Size Container Do I Need for My Plant?
The 9 Best Containers for Growing Vegetables
Risks of Not Having Drainage Holes
Although many different species of plants require different levels of drainage, very few can tolerate sitting in undrained or stagnant water. Some risks to not having a drainage system for a pot includes:
- Root Suffocation – Without a functional drainage system, it is likely that a plant’s roots will suffocate because it cannot get enough oxygen from in-between the potting soil particles—where air should be instead of water.
- Root Rot – Another risk of not having drainage holes in a pot is root rot. Root rot is the result of a plant’s roots being heavily saturated in water for an extended period of time. This wet environment attracts fungi, which begin to multiply and break down the roots as their source of food. Signs of root rot include yellow leaves, stunted growth and mushy, brown roots.
- Salt Build-Up – If gardeners occasionally water a plant with a synthetic fertilizer solution, the soluble salts it contains can begin to build up in the potting soil. Without drainage holes, pure water is unable to rinse out the excess salts, and the plant could suffer from root damage.
Soggy soil usually invites root rot and other moisture-related problems because little space is available for air to reach the roots. (Source: University of Illinois) However, with the right drainage system for the pot, these problems can all be avoided.
But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.2 Thessalonians 3:3
Adding Holes to Pots
If the desired container does not already have drainage holes, there are ways to create holes for the plant. The easiest method is to drill a hole into the bottom of the pot. Some gardeners choose to drill one large hole into the bottom of the pot to make things easier, while others opt to drill multiple small holes. Both draining methods can work for a plant; it only matters that there is some type of drainage system. (However, we’ll see later that multiple small holes may be best!)
If an already potted plant does not have drainage holes (common for small, decorative houseplants), it is recommended that after 30 minutes after watering that it be turned on its side to allow excess water to drain out.
Experienced gardeners have the option to re-pot a plant to a container that does have drainage holes; however, during a plant’s growing stages (often in the spring), it is best to leave the root ball alone until it has finished maturing. Disturbed root balls can affect how well the plant can grow later.
Soil Loss Through Drainage Holes
A concern for gardeners is that when watering a potted plant, the drained water will inevitably take some of the plant’s needed potting soil with it.
It is important to note that most high-quality soils have strong cohesion levels, so do not expect to see too much soil leaving the pot. However, soils that are sandy or coarse in nature may be more prone to wash out of the pot. In these instances, gardeners will need to use an appropriate method to prevent a significant amount of dirt from escaping.
How to Keep Dirt from Washing Out of Pots
Drainage holes are necessary for a potted plant’s survival, so how can we prevent the water a plant receives from washing out some of the plant’s nutrient-rich potting soil? The following are some plant-healthy ways to keep dirt from washing out of pots and creating a mess:
1. Use a Pot with Multiple, Small Holes
When choosing a container for a plant, gardeners have the option to pick from pots featuring one large hole or multiple small holes. To prevent potting soil from escaping, it is best to choose a container with several small drainage holes at the bottom rather than one large hole. This way, excess water still has plenty of places to drain, while dirt can stay in place.
2. Add a Filter
Another way to easily prevent dirt from escaping a pot during watering is by placing a thin material over the holes.
It is essential that the material is thin enough to allow water to leak through. Some options include paper coffee filters, cheesecloth, or a square of fine mesh screen that can be purchased for relatively cheap online. If either of these options is not readily available, then a folded piece of newspaper can be used to cover the holes. (Of these choices, this fine mesh screen from Amazon does well for long-term potting compared to the others.)
If the plant is not yet planted in the pot, then it is best to line the bottom with the thin material first for better results. However, if the plant is already in the container, the material can still be placed outside the pot, but do note that the plant will likely need to be watered outside or over a sink to avoid messes.
*Note: Some potting containers come with a mesh screen already in place at the bottom, or a second, internal mesh-like layer, like this Orchid Flower Planter (Amazon Link).
3. Use a Saucer
Another method to ensure that dirt does not escape from the pot and end up all over a surface is by placing a drainage saucer—or drip tray—underneath it. The saucer will collect any excess water or potting soil as it runs out of the container’s drainage holes and will stop it from running onto tabletops, floors, decks and other surfaces. Find saucers on Amazon or at a local home and garden store.
However, make sure that the potted plant does not sit in the saucer of water for too long, as this will have the same effect as completely covering the pot’s holes and lead to root suffocation. First, allow the soil to completely drain after watering (about thirty minutes after watering is enough time), and then empty the saucer of water. Any lingering bits of soil can be returned to the pot.
*Note: Avoid using pots that have attached drainage saucers; these types of containers may not allow adequate drainage compared to removable saucers.
Lined Draining Saucers
Alternatively, you can also line the saucer with a layer of pebbles or sand before placing the potted plant on top. (Do not use gravel or rocks, as this material is too cohesive to allow free water movement. Actually, we wrote an entire article about this that you can find here – Good Drainage in Pots: DO NOT Use Rocks and Root Rot Explained) This is especially useful for plants that require a high-humidity environment; when exposed to the sun, the water will evaporate from the moist layer of the saucer to the atmosphere around the plant’s foliage.
A lined saucer will allow the pot to drain water easily without sitting in standing water in it, and potting soil will be kept inside when sitting on top of the layer. Through this method, it is not necessary to empty the saucer of water as often.
*Note: If a plant is indoors, add a decorative element to your saucer by using colorful pebbles.
4. Double the Pot
Double potting works best for hanging plants in order to avoid water and dirt spilling through the drainage holes and onto the floor. It is also ideal to use if there is a larger, decorative pot being used to house the plant that does not contain draining holes.
For this method, simply place the holed pot inside a larger, second pot that does not have drainage holes to capture any excess water or potting soil that filters through. Similarly to saucers, the pot without drainage holes will need to be emptied out regularly after watering to ensure that the original planter is not sitting in standing water.
Many gardeners choose to use plastic planters with drainage holes to place inside of decorative pots. Quite a few different kinds are available here on Amazon that can be purchased at a reasonably low price.
Excessive Water Loss Through Water Holes
Outside of dirt, some gardeners may find that a potted plant is losing more water than it should through its drainage holes. However, as long as the pot has drainage holes for the water to escape freely without pooling at the bottom of the container or saucer, gardeners do not have anything significant to worry about.
However, it is important to take a look at the plant’s soil type and watering frequency, as these two are the most common factors that contribute to excessive water drainage.
If a plant is losing an abnormal amount of water, it is crucial to make sure that the type of potting mix being used for the plant is suitable for its needs. In many cases, the contributor to excessive water loss is the soil type.
Most purchased potted plants are planted with a professional potting mix that combines several organic materials. These materials create a light substrate that retains just the right amount of water around the roots while allowing excess water to drain easily. A light potting mix also allows the roots to have access to air, preventing conditions such as root rot.
You may wish to buy your own potting mix or you can make your own mix as we describe in this article – DIY Potting Soil and Seed Starting Mix to Save Money.
Coarse & Sandy Soils
Coarse potting mixes may not absorb water as well as their counterparts and may see more water drainage.
In addition, sandier soils are more likely to drain more water compared to more cohesive soils. If a plant requires sandy soil but also needs additional water, try moistening the soil before filling the pot with it first. Alternatively, line the bottom of the pot with a paper coffee filter before filling it with soil.
However, another reason gardeners may notice high levels of water drainage is due to frequent watering or overwatering. The excess water will not have anywhere else to go except through the pot’s drainage holes.
On the other hand, if a plant has had much underwatering, its dirt may have been dry to the point that it can no longer absorb water as well as it used to. In these cases, added water may simply fall to the bottom of the pot and through the drainage holes without really soaking into the soil.
If using a water drainage catching system—like a second container or a saucer—and a large amount of drainage is occurring, do not pour out the water immediately. Allow the water to stay no longer than half an hour. It is possible that the plant could absorb the water out of the tray if it is especially thirsty.
Many plant containers have multiple small drainage holes at the bottom to limit the chances of dirt washing out during the watering process. However, if the soil is still leaking from the bottom of the pot, try the above-mentioned tips to help.
Choosing the Right Container for a Plant
Of course, a solution to avoid the problem of excess water or soil leaking in the first place is to ensure the potted plant is set up to be at its best from the beginning.
If planting in a container, it is easiest to choose one that already has drainage holes—ideally one with many small holes versus one big one to eliminate dirt washing out.
The following are a few of the top-rated planter pot options available on Amazon that offer suitable drainage for plants:
|Rivet Geometric Ceramic Planter||Compact size; 100% stoneware|
|Keter Cozies Large Plastic Planter Bowl||Removable liner; drainage plug|
|Ceramic Planter Pot with Saucer||Drainage hole and mesh net; removable tray|
|Bloem Terra Pot Planter||Multiple drainage holes; can be purchased with matching removable tray|
|Self-Watering Modern Round Planter||Self-watering and aerating system; draws moisture from bottom tray for future watering|
|Ceramic Flower Pot Set||Outdoor and indoor use; drainage hole with plug|
|Southern Patio Metro Poly-Resin Planter||Durable material; drainage hole with plug|
|Modern Ceramic Garden Flower Pot Set||Set of three flower pots; water drainage hole with removable tray|
|Greenaholics Plant Pots||Drainage hole; set of two pots|
|Chive Succulent Planter Pots||Set of three planter pots; drainage holes with detachable trays; decorative look|
With the new pot in hand, place a thin mesh wiring at the bottom before filling the container with potting soil and the root ball. If avoiding a mess is important, then use a draining saucer underneath the pot, remembering to frequently empty it of water around a half-hour after the watering process.
Also, keep track of how frequently and how much the plants are being watered. Overly dry soil from underwatering can shrink and crumble and, therefore, fall from the bottom of the pot during the next watering.
Plant Watering & Soil Maintenance: Do’s & Do Not’s
Potted plants usually have a limited soil volume, so proper watering and fertilizing are vital in maintaining a healthy plant throughout its growing season. The following are some final tips to ensure a potted plant retains a healthy amount of water and soil, and surfaces stay mess-free:
- Water the Plant Outside – For an outdoor garden, try taking the plant outside to water nearby. This way, any excess water or potting soil can be used to help the other plants out, and while outdoors, the potted plant can enjoy a little more of the sun, too.
- Use Self-Watering Pots if Necessary – If time is an issue when it comes to watering plants regularly or if a vacation is coming up and no one is available to care for the plants, then some brands of self-watering pots that use various methods to draw water from the bottom water-collecting reservoir to deliver back into the potting soil through capillary action can be utilized. A variety of plant waterers that slowly deliver water to plants over a period of time are also available, so the soil does not become soaked.
- Keep Track of the Plant’s Watering Needs – How often a potted plant needs watered will not only depend on the type of plant in question, but it will also depend on the time of year, location of the pot, how long the plant has been living in the container, type of pot, and type of potting soil. If it is difficult to tell if a plant needs water, try the finger test. Insert a finger into the first two inches of soil; if the first inch of it or more is dry, water.
- Know the Watering Limit – A plant should be offered enough water in that the entire soil ball becomes moist. In other words, give plants enough water to start dripping out of the pot’s drainage holes.
- Water Plants in the Morning – This gives the water enough time to move down to the roots of the plants before draining and evaporating.
- Aim for Clay Pots – Clay pots are a little more porous compared to other plant container materials and are more able to allow the constant flow of air and moisture. Poly-clay pots have similar effects. (Source: The Home Depot)
- Add Gravel to Inside the Bottom of Pot – Gravel can prevent excess potting soil from escaping through the drainage holes, but can, unfortunately, do the same for water, too. Water will end up pooling above the course material until it has been fully saturated into the soil it is in. (Source: University of Illinois)
- Overwatering – It is recommended that gardeners give a plant enough water that it starts dripping from its draining holes, but not so much that all of the soil is soaked. The idea is to keep the soil moist, not wet.
- Underwatering – It may be tempting to think that by limiting the amount of water given to a plant (just enough to make the soil a little moist), the less likely it will seep through the bottom of the pot and bring dirt with it. However, this method is unhealthy for a plant’s roots because they will not be able to develop as they should.
- Patting Down Dirt When Filling a New Pot – While patting the dirt down will make it more cohesive and less likely to wash out of the pot, it also eliminates the space in-between the particles of soil for air for the plant’s roots. Instead, gently scoop and pour the potting mix in.
- Water Too Fast – How gardeners water a potted plant is another factor to consider for excess water and spilling soil. When gardeners pour water into the plant’s potting mix too quickly, the speed and force may not allow enough time for the dirt to absorb all of the moisture. By pouring slowly, they give the plant time to soak up the water it needs before draining.
In conclusion, factor in the type of plant, type of soil, placement, and watering frequency when it comes to problems of excess dirt or water draining from a pot. Keep all of the above tips in mind when preparing to care for a potted plant and this will help to greatly reduce any chance of complications down the line.
Check out Our Favorite Products page to find everything you might need to help make your garden a success!