Sago Palm with new leaf

Plant Pots | How to Choose the Right Container

How to choose a plant pot:

Whether it’s for a new plant, an old plant, a hanging plant, or one that spends the summer outdoors, choosing the right container can seem complicated. While there’s no hard-and-fast rules about what you can grow a plant in, the wrong container can quickly stunt, sicken, and even kill your precious plants! In order to simplify things, here’s a breakdown of key things to keep in mind while choosing a container:

 

The Plant-

Get to know what you’re growing. Every genus and species will have its own preferences, so if it’s available, always start with the nursery tag. (Tip: instead of throwing it away, take a photo! Or write the information down on a notecard. Better yet, start a garden journal! More on all of these topics to come).

If the tag isn’t an option, do some research online about the specific plant species and its growing preferences. If you don’t know what type of plant it is, there are smartphone apps that can use A.I. to tell you. Or you can try a local university extension, nursery, or garden group/forum.

The key things to look for regarding the plant are the size required and rate of growth, the depth or spread of the root system, and its watering preferences.


The Size-

If you have a new plant, assuming it’s not root-bound (you’ll see roots growing out of the drainage holes, above the soil, or tightly wound in the pot), the first choice would be to choose a pot one size larger than it is in currently. You can simply place the plastic pot inside the larger one, until it’s ready to transplant later.

If it needs to be transplanted, you’ll want to take a look at the roots. When the soil is moderately dry, tip the pot on its side, and gently ease the plant, roots and soil out of the pot a few inches. Determine whether the roots are crowded or not. If so, go up one size. If not, stay at the same size.

Here’s the common sizes (they tend to go up in 2” intervals, referring to the diameter at the opening):

4” | 6” | 8” | 10” | 12”

The Shape:

Some differences in shape can be aesthetic, and others are a matter of utility. Try and match the container to the plant’s root system, plus short-term future development. Plants with deep root systems (think food crops, fast-growing annuals, trees) may require a very deep pot early on, whereas plants with shallow root systems (tropical perennials, most houseplants) will only need extra space to grow outwards.

What you don’t want, basically, is large sections of soil in the pot without any roots growing (currently or anytime soon). That would mean that water could settle there, and without enough roots to use up the water, it becomes stagnant. Stagnant water breeds disease, pests, and can ultimately kill your plant before it even grows into its new pot.

The Materials:

The choices are endless, but here are the main categories, with the characteristics of each:

Plastic-

Most plants come in plastic pots. They are affordable, versatile, and they're tough. Being lightweight, they are ideal for hanging plants (like in a macramé hanger). The major thing about plastic planters is that they keep the soil moist or a long time, so make sure it has adequate drainage (drill more holes if you need to!) and always check the soil's moisture level before watering.

 

Anthurium Crystallinum houseplant

 

Good For: Those who often forget to water (because they act like a waterproof barrier around the soil, it'll stay moist longer).

Bad For: Those who are prone to overwatering. Also, they are not ideal for plants that prefer a fast-drying, airy soil mix (they are waterproof and air-proof).

Terra Cotta-

Another widely available, affordable option. Terra Cotta pots are much more porous than plastic pots, so they dry out quickly and require more regular waterings.

 

Philodendron Red Emerald plant in a terra cotta pot

 

Good For: Over-waterers (you know who you are!). Cacti, succulents, and any plant from an arid region.

Bad For: Forgetful waterers. Plants that prefer "wet feet."

Ceramic-

Similar to terra cotta, but usually made of clay that is finished with a glaze or top-coat. The material itself can be somewhat porous, but the glaze is not (tip: paint an affordable terra cotta pot to match your decor, plus get the added benefit of moisture-retention!). They'll require less frequent waterings.

 

Alluaudia procera “Madagascar Ocotillo” house plant

 

Good For: Those wanting to invest in an aesthetic pot (as they tend to be more expensive, consider a ceramic pot for a plant that won't need to be transplanted soon). Also those who are prone to under-watering your plants. The glaze will keep moisture in longer as opposed to terra cotta.

Bad For: High-traffic areas (they tend to be fragile!). Plants that grow quickly (they are too expensive for short-term use).

Cement-

Very similar qualities to ceramic pots, but more porous. They're great because they are versatile and affordable, plus they are porous, which is great for root respiration and adequate drainage, but they are usually much thicker than terra cotta, requiring less vigilance around a watering schedule.

Good For: Cement pots are very versatile, they can work for most plant situations. DIYers (this can be a fun project! It's quick and easy, affordable, and practically fail-proof).

Bad For: While cement planters go with a lot of aesthetics (modern, industrial, boho), they might not blend in with more traditional or contemporary designs.

 

 

A Note on Drainage:

It needs it. You have options, but drainage is key for sustained plant health. Plant roots can drown in stagnant, anaerobic water-logged soil conditions, which you'll notice as sections of the plant turning yellow. Beyond that, without the ability to leach the soil, salts will build up and create a toxic environment for your plant.

The two simplest solutions:

1) If your plant is already in a plastic nursery pot that has drain holes, you can leave it in the nursery pot and simply place the whole unit into a slightly larger decorative pot.

2) Drill holes!

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