House Plant Care 101: Containers

Meredith Gaines — Feb 07, 2022

Let's chat about containers! With endless shapes, sizes, and colors to choose from, picking containers for your house plants is not as simple as you may think. The look of the container is important (not to mention fun!), but it’s not the only aspect you should consider when seeking the perfect vessel for your indoor plants.

Did you know that containers can actually harm the health of your plant just as much as they can help it? While it’s true that plants can grow in almost anything that holds soil, you need to think about the root system and what will help it thrive, not just survive. After all, roots are how plants absorb water and minerals. If the bottom half of your plant is suffering, the top portion will too. This is why container features such as shape and size, material, and drainage holes are so important.

Continue reading to better understand containers and how to master choosing the best one for your plant!

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Container Features to Consider

Shape

Deep pots? Shallow pots? Stacked pots? There are many options out there for you to choose from. To figure out the proper depth and width of your container, first, take a look at the roots of your plant.

Plants with taproots primarily grow down and not out (think of a carrot). Plants with a fibrous root system tend to spread wide and not as deep. Start by researching the kind of root system your plant has or looking at its roots and current container.

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Here's a few popular types of plants and the containers they prefer:

  • Lemons and other kinds of citrus have taproots, so look for a container that’s deeper than it is wide for these varieties.
  • For house plants like Calatheas or Monsteras, most containers you find will suffice. They’ll be happy in a container that’s equally wide and deep, but slightly deeper than wide will be just fine too.
  • If you have many succulent plants around your home, feel free to plant these in more shallow containers that are wider than they are deep, as the root systems tend to stay compact.
  • When in doubt, select a container that’s slightly deeper than it is wide, accounting for the depth of where the soil stops (normally around 1 inch below the lip of the container). Typically, this ranges from 4-10 inches deep for most house plant containers.

Space and Size

The space or size of the container really depends on the age of the plant and how large it will grow. Roots will fill the space made available to them and are known to escape when that space runs out. You’re looking for a pot that’s not too small and not too large - think Goldilocks. The ideal size allows room for the current root system while giving it space to grow into.

Too much space can be harmful, as the extra soil can hold moisture that doesn't get uptaken quickly enough, leading to fungal and possible root rot issues. This means that your tiny plant will wither and die, all because the container was too big. In-ground plants don’t have this issue, as there’s a place for extra water to go and plenty of other vegetation to take up the excess. Too little space means your plant is cramped and the roots can’t function properly, often leading to the death of the plant, or circling roots that can lead to suffocation.

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To find the right size, look at the root ball (the mass of roots) on your plant. You can also reference the size container that the plant currently is in. Aim to get a pot that is a similar shape but around 2-3 inches larger in diameter.

For example, my Pothos plant is currently in a 1-quart container that measures around 4 inches by 4 inches and needs a larger home. I’ll need to look for a container that’s around 6 inches by 6 inches to move it into next.

Note: if you found a perfect container, but it's too big at the moment, don’t worry, we have a tip for you below!

Soil

The kind of soil you use and the container you choose go hand in hand when it comes to your plant’s happiness. To figure out this balance, you’ll have to first understand the needs of your plant, the environment, and your personal taste.

It’s all about trade-offs - if you use a slow-draining soil mix, choose a container that will speed up drainage by being porous and has plenty of drainage holes. If you use a very well-draining soil mixture, then select a container that drains slowly, is nonporous, or only has one or few drainage holes. The ideal container should complement your soil mixture and provide ideal conditions for the roots. For more on soil, check out our soil guide.

soil

Additional Features

Now, more than ever before, there are tons of alternatives to standard container options. Some non-traditional containers have features such as hidden reservoirs for watering, built-in drip pans, air pruning systems for roots, and even digital components that monitor soil health. These features are helpful but might be more work than they’re worth, especially if your goal is to improve your plant parenting skills.

We suggest starting new plants off in standard containers, then transferring them to specialty pots in the future if preferred. This way, you can get the hang of your plant's needs before switching things up. For example, keeping your plant in a standard pot, where you can monitor the drainage, lets you know how much water your plant is uptaking, as opposed to this being concealed in a drainage reservoir.

Material

You’ve spent all this time looking for the right soil, and now you need something for your plant to live in. Below are some of the most common container materials for you to consider.

Container Material

Pros

Cons

Plastic

Can resemble other, more expensive materials; easy to add more drainage; nonporous; wide range of sizes and shapes

Might heat up in the sun if dark in color; not as strong as other materials and may crack

Clay

Cost-efficient; reusable; porous so the soil won’t stay overly wet

Brittle and might crack in colder winter climates; over time will collect salt buildup that will have to be washed off

Ceramic

More ornate and shiny look on the outside, thanks to the coating; soil will stay wet longer

Can be quite fragile and heavy; hard to add more drainage holes

Fabric

Lets air in but holds the dirt and roots in place; flexible; easy to store

Very soft-sided so the shape won’t be as rigid; roots can grow onto the sides

Wood or Metal

Insulates the roots in colder areas keeping them warm; metal is strong

Not long-lasting if left unlined; can rust or rot; metal may heat up in direct sun

Concrete

Low chance of tipping over in wind; long-lasting

Heavy and hard to move

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Our Top Tips for Containers

Don’t go too big or too small

The ideal container will allow room for root growth, but not be so big that your plant will get lost. Look for a container that’s around 2 inches larger than the current one it’s in. If you notice roots escaping the bottom or circling around the pot, it’s time for a larger container.

Think about the use

If you have to bring in your plants when the weather gets cold, think ahead and plant with that in mind. For example, choosing a concrete container is perfect for windy areas like your front porch, but a lightweight plastic container would be ideal for the plants you know have to move seasonally.

Pot within a pot

This is a trick that never fails. If you find the perfect container but know that your plant won’t be happy planted inside, try hiding a slightly smaller container inside of the showy one. To water, simply take out the inner container, water, then place it back inside the outer container after it's no longer draining to avoid making a mess. This solves the problem if you have no drainage holes or if the container is too big for your current plant while allowing you to use your preferred display container!

Drainage holes are a must

Most containers will come with pre-drilled drainage holes or suggested cutouts on the bottom. Unless you’re very confident in your green thumb or know your plant loves water, we would highly recommend having at least a few drainage holes. They should be big enough to let water pass through but not so big that you lose soil every time you water.

containers

Skip the rocks in the bottom of the pot

Some home gardeners swear by this technique, especially in containers with no drainage, but it's not so great in practice, as it can create a false water table (aka overly soggy soil at the base of the container and dry on top). In fact, a layer of rocks won't actually aid in soil drainage if only placed at the bottom.

We suggest avoiding placing rocks or other material in the bottom of the container before your soil to avoid fungal and bacterial issues that might arise from trapped water. If you need extra drainage, try mixing in perlite to the soil to help with drainage throughout, not just at the bottom.

3 Quick Container Steps

  1. Take a look around your home and determine what material your containers are made of.
  2. Check out your current plants to see if the containers are a good fit for them. If they’re not, it’s time to try new ones!
  3. Next time you’re at the store or browsing online, notice the different container sizes and shapes available to familiarize yourself and expand your options. And don’t forget to browse our selection of containers and pots!

Check out the rest of our House Plants 101 guides to learn more and keep your plants healthy! And be sure to shop our full House Plants Collection to discover your next addition!

    Meredith Gaines

    Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

    She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

    Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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