Plant pot with saucer

Large 400mm+

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Plant Saucer Use – Do Potted Plants Need Saucers

Whether grown indoors or out, there is no doubt that the use of potted plants is a quick and easy way to expand your garden. Varying in size, shape, and color, pots and containers can certainly add vibrancy and life to any space. While each plant container is unique, there are a few key aspects to look for, including dishes for container plants.

Do Potted Plants Need Saucers?

In choosing containers, drainage will play a vital role in overall plant health. Using containers which are able to adequately control soil moisture levels will be imperative to success. While purchasing pots with drainage holes may seem obvious, other aspects of growing in containers may not be as clear. Many first-time growers, for example, may be left to ask, “What are plant saucers for?”

Saucers under plants are shallow dishes used to catch excess water that drains from a container planting. While growers are sometimes able to find matching pot and saucer sets, it is more common that containers do not come with one, and the saucer must be bought separately.

Adding a plant saucer to containers can be useful in increasing the decorative appeal of potted plants. Specifically, small stones and pebbles can be added to larger saucers to add texture. One of the main positive attributes of saucers comes from their use with indoor potted plants. Plants that have been watered are able to drain without worry of leaks across floors or carpets. If using saucers in this manner, always make certain to remove the saucer and drain the water. Standing water can promote excess soil moisture and cause plant roots to rot.

Plant saucers can also be used with outdoor containers. Just as those used indoors, they will need to be drained after each watering. Standing water in outdoor saucers can be especially detrimental, as it can encourage the presence of pests like mosquitoes.

Opinions regarding whether or not growers need to use saucers under plants can vary widely. While these dishes for container plants have many positive attributes, there are also some drawbacks. Ultimately, plant saucer use will vary depending upon the needs of the plant, the growing conditions, and the preference of the gardener.

Pots, tubs, and half barrels overflowing with flowers add appeal to any garden, but container gardening can serve a practical purpose too. Container gardening is ideal for those with little or no garden space. In addition to growing flowers, gardeners limited to a balcony, small yard, or only a patch of sun on their driveway can produce a wide variety of vegetable crops in containers. Basil, chives, thyme, and other herbs also are quite happy growing in pots, which can be set in a convenient spot right outside the kitchen door.

Container gardening also adds versatility to gardens large and small. Plants lend instant color, provide a focal point in the garden, or tie in the architecture of the house to the garden. Place them on the ground or on a pedestal, mount them on a windowsill, or hang them from your porch. A pair of matching containers on either side of the front walk serves as a welcoming decoration, while container gardening on a deck or patio can add color and ambiance to such outdoor sitting areas.

You can use single, large containers for outdoor decoration, but also consider arranging groups of pots, both small and large, on stairways, terraces, or anywhere in the garden. Clusters of pots can contain a collection of favorite plants — hen-and-chicks or herbs used both for ornament and for cooking, for example — or they may feature annuals, dwarf evergreens, perennials, or any other plants you’d like to try. Houseplants summering outdoors in the shade also make a handsome addition to container gardening. Window boxes and hanging baskets offer even more ways to add instant color and appeal.

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Containers planted with a single species — rosemary or a bold variegated ornamental grass, for example — can be stunning garden accents. Containers planted with a mix of plants are fun to create and offer almost unlimited possibilities of combinations. The best combinations depend on plants that feature handsome foliage and flowers produced over a long bloom season.

One easy guideline for choosing the plants to combine in a container is to include “a thriller, a spiller, and a filler.” That translates to at least one focal-point plant (the thriller), such as coleus or a geranium with multicolored leaves, for example, combined with several plants that spill over the edge of the pots — such as petunias, bacopa, creeping zinnias, or ornamental sweet potatoes. Finally, add the fillers, which are plants with smaller leaves and flowers that add color and fill in the arrangement all season long. Good fillers include salvias, verbenas, ornamental peppers, and wax begonias, as well as foliage plants like parsley or licorice plants. You may also want to include a plant for height, such as purple fountain grass. Add a trellis or pillar to a container and you can use a vine to add height to the composition. You’ll need a total of five or six plants for an 18- or 24-inch container, for example.

Container Sizes

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Keep in mind that it’s easier to grow plants in large containers than small ones. That’s because large containers hold more soil, which stays moist longer and resists rapid temperature fluctuations. Small hanging baskets are especially prone to drying out, and during hot summer weather, you may have to water them twice a day to keep plants alive.

It’s also important to decide what plant you want to grow in each container. Several factors help determine how large and deep the container must be. Consider the size and shape of a plant’s root system; whether it is a perennial, annual, or shrub; and how rapidly it grows. Rootbound plants, which have filled up every square inch of the soil available, dry out rapidly and won’t grow well. Choose a large pot or tub for a mixed planting, one that will offer enough root space for all the plants you want to grow. Light-colored containers keep the soil cooler than dark containers.

The maximum size (and weight) of a container is limited by how much room you have, what will support it, and whether or not you plan to move it. If your container garden is located on a balcony or deck, be sure to check how much weight the structure will safely hold.

Container Drainage

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Whatever container you choose, drainage holes are essential. Without drainage, soil will become waterlogged and plants may die. The holes need not be large, but there must be enough that excess water can drain out. If a container has no holes, try drilling some yourself. A container without holes is best used as a cachepot, or cover, to hide a plain pot. Cachepots (with holes and without them) are useful for managing large plants and heavy pots: Grow your plant in an ordinary nursery pot that fits inside a decorative cachepot so you can move them separately.

Self-watering, double-walled containers, hanging baskets, and window boxes are available. These are a useful option for dealing with smaller plants that need frequent watering.

Container Materials

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Each type of container has merits and disadvantages:

Clay or terracotta containers are attractive but breakable and easily damaged by freezing and thawing. In Northern areas, most need to be stored in a frost-free location to prevent cracking and are not suitable for hardy perennials or shrubs that will be kept outdoors year-round.

Cast concrete is long-lasting and comes in a range of sizes and styles. These can be left outside in all weather. You can even make attractive ones yourself. Plain concrete containers are very heavy, so they are difficult to move and not suitable for using on decks or balconies. Concrete mixed with vermiculite or perlite, or concrete and fiberglass blends, are much lighter. For a lighter pot with a concrete look, go with hypertufa.

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Plastic and fiberglass pots and planters are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and available in many sizes and shapes. Choose sturdy and somewhat flexible containers and avoid thin, stiff ones — they become brittle with cold or age.

Containers made of polyurethane foam weigh up to 90% less than terracotta or concrete containers, yet they look remarkably like their much-heavier cousins. Polyurethane foam containers resist chipping and cracking and also insulate roots against both hot and cold temperatures, making them a good choice for potting up plants that will stay outside year-round.

Wood is natural-looking and protects roots from rapid temperature swings. You can build wooden planters yourself. Choose a naturally rot-resistant wood such as cedar or locust, or use pine treated with a preservative. (Don’t use creosote, which is toxic to plants.) Molded wood-fiber containers are sturdy and inexpensive.

Metals are strong, but they conduct heat, exposing roots to rapid temperature fluctuations.

Container Preparation

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Since containers are heavy once they’re filled with soil, decide where they will be located and move them into position before filling and planting. If keeping them watered during the day is a problem, look for sites that receive morning sun but get shaded during the hottest part of the day, even if you’re growing plants for full sun. Afternoon shade will reduce the amount of moisture plants need.

While your containers must have drainage holes, it’s not necessary to cover the holes with pot shards or gravel before you add potting mix. The covering won’t improve drainage, and pot shards may actually block the holes. Instead, prevent soil from washing out by placing a layer of paper towel or newspaper over the holes before adding mix. If your container is too deep, you can put a layer of gravel or Styrofoam in the bottom to reduce the amount of potting soil required.

Plain garden soil is too dense for container gardening. For containers up to 1 gallon in size, use a houseplant soil mixture. For larger containers, use a relatively coarse soilless planting mixture to maintain the needed water and air balance.

Pre-moisten soil either by watering it before you fill containers or by flooding the containers with water several times and stirring. Be sure the soil is uniformly moist before planting.

If you are planting a mixed container, ignore spacing requirements and plant densely; you will need to prune plants once they fill in. For trees and shrubs, trim off any circling roots and cover the root ball to the same level as it was set at the nursery. Firm the planter mixture gently and settle by watering thoroughly. Don’t fill pots level to the top with soil mixture — leave space for watering.

Selecting Plants for Containers

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Almost any vegetable, flower, herb, shrub, or small tree can grow successfully in a container. Dwarf and compact cultivars are best, especially for smaller pots. Select plants to suit the climate and the amount of sun or shade the container will receive. If you are growing fragrant plants, such as heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), place containers in a site protected from breezes, which will disperse the perfume.

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Use your imagination and combine upright and trailing plants, edibles, and flowers for pleasing and colorful effects. Container gardening can be enjoyed for one season and discarded, or designed to last for years. When designing permanent containers, remember that the plants will be less hardy than usual because their roots are more exposed to fluctuating air temperature. Nonhardy plants will need to have winter protection or be moved to a sheltered space. So consider how heavy the container will be and decide how you will move it before choosing a nonhardy plant.

Vegetables and Herbs

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You can grow vegetables in individual containers — from large pots to 5-gallon buckets or half barrels, the largest of which will accommodate a single tomato plant or several smaller vegetables such as broccoli or cabbage. Dwarf or bush forms of larger vegetables such as tomatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash are most suited to container gardening.

Theme gardens also are fun to try. Plant a salad garden with colorful lettuces, dwarf tomatoes, chives, and parsley. Or perhaps try a pizza garden, with different types of basil, plus tomatoes and peppers. Or plant a container with edible flowers such as marigolds, pansies (Viola × wittrockiana), and nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus).

Annuals

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For containers that remain attractive all summer long, look for warm-weather annuals that bloom all summer or have foliage that remains attractive. Geraniums, marigolds, wax begonias, coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), and flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) are all good choices, but you will find many, many more in garden centers and seed catalogs. Experiment, and if one plant doesn’t work out, don’t worry about it — just cut it down and try something else. For large containers, dwarf cannas and dwarf dahlias also make satisfying additions.

Perennials and Shrubs

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Containers planted with hardy perennials and shrubs can be grown and enjoyed from year to year. Hostas and daylilies are great container gardening plants, but many other perennials work as well. Try ferns, European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), sedges (Carex spp.), lavender, lamiums (Lamium maculatum), sedums, and lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.). Ornamental grasses are great in container gardening, too, as are dwarf conifers and small shrubs.

Container Gardening Care

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Water container plants thoroughly. How often depends on many factors such as weather, plant size, and pot size. Don’t let soil in containers dry out completely, as it is hard to rewet. To keep large containers attractive, spread a layer of mulch as you would in the garden. This will also help retain moisture. Be sure to keep mulch an inch or so away from plant stems.

Container gardening plants need regular feeding. Fertilize them by watering with diluted fish emulsion, seaweed extract, or compost tea. Or foliar feed by spraying the leaves with doubly diluted preparations of these solutions. Start by feeding once every two weeks; adjust the frequency depending on plant response.

Since containers are focal points in the garden, you will probably want to give them special attention to keep them looking their best. Remove tattered leaves and deadhead spent flowers. Prune back plants that get leggy or stop blooming. To keep mixed pots attractive, dig out or cut back any plants that don’t grow well or that clash. You can add something else or let other plants in the container fill the space. Keep an eye out for pests like aphids and mites.

Water Your Way to Happy Plants

Proper watering of the plants in your containers is crucial to having them perform their best. Once you get a little bit of experience, understanding when and how much to water becomes almost second nature. However, when you are first starting out, figuring out how to make those plants happy can be pure frustration. The most common cause of early plant death is generally considered to be over-watering. Luckily for us, ninety percent of the plants out there will be happy if you follow these simple guidelines.

If you are planting in a pot, make sure there is at least one drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. Proper drainage is essential to happy roots, and happy roots are essential for happy plants. Pots that do not have proper drainage are very easy to over-water.

Rather than watering on a set schedule, check first to see if your plants need water. If your plant is in a pot, check the surface of the soil in the pot either by looking at it or touching it with your finger. Wet soil will be dark in color while dry soil will be lighter in color. For peat based soil mixes (the most common type), this means dark brown to black is wet, while ‘paper bag’ brown is dry. If the surface of the soil is dry to the touch (or looks dry) water your plants. You may need to check your plants twice a day to see if they need water. Remember just because one pot needs water that doesn’t mean they all do. Differences in pot and plant sizes will impact how quickly a pot dries out.

When you water be sure to moisten the entire root zone. In other words, water until water comes out of the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. It may take as much as ¾ or a gallon of water to thoroughly water a 10 to 12 inch container. More plants are killed with a ‘cup of kindness’ rather than a good long drink of water. Plants that frequently receive a cup of water, seldom develop roots in the bottom 2/3’s of the container. When that daily cup of water is not available, the plant wilts and could easily be lost due to dehydration.

Making sure the whole root zone is watered is important for two reasons. First it will encourage roots to grow all the way to the bottom of the pot, which means happier plants. Second, you won’t have to water as often if you water thoroughly.

Do not allow the pot to sit in water. Pots sitting in water will keep the soil in the pot too wet, allow excess water to drain away.

It is best not to water at night. If you water your plants too late in the day the foliage will tend to stay wet all night. Wet foliage at night makes a great breeding ground for disease. If your plant isn’t wilting and it’s after 6:30 at night you should be able to wait until morning to water. If the plant has wilted, go ahead and water that evening, its need for water outweighs the chances of catching a disease.

Here is your crib sheet:

  1. Be sure your pot has drainage holes
  2. Water only when the top of the soil is dry
  3. Water until water comes out of the drainage holes
  4. Don’t allow your pot to sit in standing water

A few more tips on containers. Early in spring when your plants are smaller and the temperatures are lower you may only have to water every 3 or 4 days. As the plants get larger and the mercury creeps higher be prepared to water every day, with small pots or water “pigs” you might even have to water twice a day. You will also need to water more quickly if it is a windy day. Wind will cause pots to dry out more quickly, especially hanging baskets.

If you want to water less often use larger pots. Larger pots hold more soil volume. More soil volume means more water held in the pot. More water in the pot means watering less often.

There are additives that can be added to the soil to help it retain more moisture. These can be helpful in long dry summers. If you do incorporate these additives be careful that you don’t over-water in spring when the pots are drying out less quickly, something I learned the hard way.

If you have dried your pot down to the point that the plant is wilting it may take more than standard watering practices to get the plant hydrated again. Commercial potting mixes can become almost water repellent if they get too dry. If you water your plant and it seems like all of the water is running down between the sides of the pot and soil ball, you may need to take steps to re-hydrate the soil. Fill a tub with water and soak your pot in the water until the soil has expanded and is no longer pulled away from the edge of the pot. Resume normal watering practices.

If soaking your pot or basket in a tub of water is impractical you can also rehydrate by watering repeatedly. To do this water the plant liberally, it will probably seem like most of the water is running around the soil rather than soaking into the soil. Wait 30 minutes to an hour and then water again, it should seem like more water is soaking into the soil. Wait another 30 minutes to an hour and water one last time, by the third watering the soil should be hydrated and taking up water like normal again. This method works because the first watering starts to moisten the soil surface even though not much water soaks in. The following waterings then get the water to penetrate the soil ball and moisten the entire basket. Waiting between each watering allows the water you have already added time to soak into the soil and helps to make the soil less water repellent.

Most plants will do best when fertilized using a water soluble fertilizer every 7 to 10 days or a controlled-release fertilizer once a season.

For most plants the watering guidelines described above are perfect. There will always be those plants that prefer to be kept drier than this (cacti, some succulents, etc…) or wetter than this (Juncus (Rushes), Papyrus, Acorus, Elephant Ears (Alocasia, Colocasia) etc…) but for the most part these guidelines will fit the bill.

For more information on general watering practices read “Watering Container Plants.”

For information on what to do if you have overwatered your plant read “Wait That Plant is Drowning!”

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Houseplants: Does your planter need a saucer?

A cachepot and a pot with a saucer. (Annette Gutierrez)

Not a day goes by in our store, Potted, that someone doesn’t ask about whether they need a saucer, especially with houseplants. It’s a good question because most planters don’t come with saucers—and some don’t even have holes. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about using saucers with houseplants:

Small pot with matching saucer. (Annette Gutierrez)

Basic plant and planter facts:

  • Almost every plant needs drainage (except water plants)
  • Using rocks instead of drainage only kinda works sometimes—and only if you’re really lucky
  • Every ceramic pot and saucer has the potential to “sweat” if left with standing water in them (meaning: the water could damage the surface below)

So how do you deal with these issues? Well if you’re lucky enough to find a matching pot and saucer, like the one above, do a happy dance. On a sunny windowsill, this plant would do great and nothing would be damaged beneath it as long as you’re not watering it there (more on that later). Alas, the chance of finding a matching saucer like this is not good. And if the pot is an irregular shape, what do you do then?

Pot with mismatched, oversize saucer. (Annette Gutierrez)

My solution for making odd saucers work is to pretend that I meant it to be that way. I fill them with pretty rocks, glass, or marbles and celebrate their happy union. As you can see from the example I created above, it’s easy and actually looks good. This gorgeous planter by Austin-based Foxwares Ceramics came with a hole, so I absolutely had to find a saucer solution and I think it works great.

A cachepot has no hole for drainage. (Annette Gutierrez)

But what happens if you don’t have a hole? A planter without a hole is called a cachepot, which is French for “to hide a pot.” This is how I have every one of my 24 houseplants (yes, 24). The beauty of the cachepot is that you don’t need to worry about finding a saucer—and you don’t risk ruining the beauty of the pot with an ugly saucer. I leave all my houseplants in their original nursery containers, which have excellent drainage, and merely set them inside the cachepot, allowing the planter to essentially become the saucer.

I don’t water my plants in their cachepots—or on top of their ceramic saucers—because it’s too easy for water to build up and seep through. Instead, when it’s time to water, I take my plants to the sink for a good soak and put them back into their homes once they’ve drained through, which takes about a minute each. It’s super easy and my plants thrive.

Use these in place of saucers … or with them. (Annette Gutierrez)

The following items (shown above) can also be really helpful:

  • Cork pads: I use these under the saucer of any plant that I have potted in soil and intend to water in its pot. The pad keeps the planter from scratching the surface I’ve put it on, and its plastic backing keeps any “sweating” the saucer may produce from damaging wood surfaces. You can also use cork pads as saucers under small planters with plants that don’t require a lot of water, like succulents; I use them under my cachepots for the same reason. It may seem like overkill, but every pot will leak at some point—hopefully not on your vintage oak table.
  • Plastic saucers: I use these to make a planter with a hole into a cachepot by putting the saucer inside the planter. (You could use these as actual saucers, but I think they are a little unsightly and I’ve never found any amount of rocks that could make them look otherwise.)
  • Rubber pot risers: These work by lifting the pot off the ground and providing good air circulation. I only use these on larger plants that I can’t take to the sink to water. What I do is elevate the plant inside the cachepot with the risers so there is much less chance of them sitting in water (make sure you use a cork pad under the planter, as you will have standing water from time to time).Of course, the best use for pot risers is outside on a deck. I often see people buying saucers for their deck plants because they think they are protecting the wood and are then horrified when they move the planter and see everything rotted underneath. The saucer is no different than the planter … it’s trapping water underneath, and without a chance to dry out, it’s going to cause rot.

Houseplants, a beautiful addiction. (Annette Gutierrez)

Guest blogger Annette Gutierrez is the co-owner of Potted garden and outdoor-living shop in L.A.’s Atwater Village.

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