- After reading this post, you’ll never put gravel or other coarse materials at the bottom of pots. Must find out, WHY?
- Every time you prepare a pot for planting you add a layer of gravel in the bottom for drainage! But, is it really necessary or not required at all?
- We have grown plants in containers successfully without adding gravels to pots, and there seems no problem with it. Our plants have done really fine and never suffered from root rot or drainage problem. Let’s find out why it is NOT NECESSARY TO ADD GRAVELS or other coarse materials IN POTS!
- Gravel Improves Drainage?
- A Layer of Gravel Improves Air Circulation?
- Bottom Layer Worsen the Drainage?
- Gravel Takes the Space
- Adding a Drainage Layer in the Bottom Causes Root Rot
- Gravel Adds Unnecessary Weight
- What Should You Do?
- The simple steps:
- At my work table planting & watering succulents in pots with no drainage holes:
- 1.) Put a layer of gravel, rock or pebbles on the bottom of the pot.
- 2.) Spread a 1/2″ (again this will vary depending on pot size) layer of charcoal over the rock.
- 3.) Add a bit of succulent & cactus mix on top of the charcoal to raise the root ball up slightly higher than the rim of the pot.
- 4.) Fill in around the sides with the mix & top with a fine (1/4″) layer of worm compost.
- 5.) I let my succulents settle in for a few days & then water them.
- How I water plantings with no drain holes:
- How to Water Succulents in Pots without Drainage
- Why Are Drainage Holes Important: Do Pots Need Drain Holes
- Why Do Pots Need Drain Holes?
- Can You Use Pots Without Drainage Holes?
- How many and what size drainage holes are needed in DIY planters?
Adding a layer of gravel, stones or pot shards in the bottom of the container is a common practice that most of the gardeners (old or new or even experts) do. But do you really need to do this? We say NO!
WE CALL IT ABSOLUTELY A MYTH THAT IF YOU DON’T ADD GRAVELS IN THE BOTTOM OF THE POT THERE WILL BE A DRAINAGE PROBLEM AND YOUR PLANTS WILL DIE DUE TO WATERLOGGING; ALBEIT, THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE!
To support our claim, we refer to this educative article on Illinois University, according to them “It is a myth that a layer of gravel (inside the bottom of an individual pot) beneath the soil improves container drainage. Instead of extra water draining immediately into the gravel, the water ‘perches’ or gathers in the soil just above the gravel. The water gathers until no air space is left. Once all the available soil air space fills up, the excess water drains into the gravel below. So gravel in the bottom does little to keep soil above it from being saturated by overwatering.“
Gravel Improves Drainage?
Adding a drainage layer looks like an important custom, and it seems a plausible chore. Many gardening experts, even some gardening show hosts, and experienced gardeners suggest this, BUT the soil SCIENTISTS have proved that adding gravel or other coarse material instead of improving drainage impairs it. The soil scientist Kevin Handreck, the author of Gardening Down-Under and Good Gardens with Less Water, even believe that crocking increases the risk of damaging your plants by overwatering.
The Associate Professor Linda Chalker-Scott, an urban horticulturist at Washington State University, calls it a myth that refuses to die. In her report, she also questions gardening websites and books– “Regardless of solid scientific evidence to the contrary! Nearly every book or website on container gardening recommends placing coarse material at the bottom of containers for drainage.“
Read her article on Sustainable Gardening here!
A Layer of Gravel Improves Air Circulation?
We know that plants need good drainage so that their roots can receive adequate oxygen, and we also know that water passes through a coarsely textured material faster than it does in fine material. But what we miss here is that water does not move easily from layers of finer textured materials to layers of more coarse-textured materials, which means instead of passing freely and easily the water sits between the soil and drainage layer and doesn’t start to drip until the soil is saturated completely. ABC SCIENCE also tried to debunk this myth in its article, !
Let’s understand this with sponge test:
Julie Day posted a similar article on Today’s Homeowner in which she equated soil with a sponge and wrote– “Water won’t run out into the gravel, or out of the pot, or anywhere until the soil is saturated. If you don’t believe me, try laying a sponge on top of a pile of gravel, then pour water into the sponge. Does the gravel make the sponge drain faster? No, the sponge fills up, and it won’t drip until it can’t hold another drop.“
Read the complete article here!
Bottom Layer Worsen the Drainage?
In our practice, we didn’t find any help from adding a bottom layer of coarse material in containers. The BBC.com too posted an article on this with the title “Are gardeners wrong to put ‘crocks’ in plant pots?“, Several years ago– “You might think that the bigger gaps where soil meets bits of broken crockery would allow more water to filter through. But this turns out not to be the case, some argue. Guy Barter, the chief horticultural adviser at the RHS, says a crock is actually likely to worsen drainage by creating a block.“
Also Read: How to Make a Terrarium
Gravel Takes the Space
Already, space is so limited as you’re cramming a plant in a container and then you add a few inches of gravels or crockery for drainage, what it does is reduces the volume of soil available to plant roots, reported The Guardian in their article Old Wives’ Tales. Basically, it means you make a pot even smaller in size and as a result get an unhappy crowded plant.
The article by James D. Kramer on the website Fine Gardening also support our claim “While it’s a common practice to put gravel or charcoal in the bottom of pots, they don’t help with drainage and take up valuable space, so I don’t recommend using them.”
Check out this interesting article here!
Adding a Drainage Layer in the Bottom Causes Root Rot
University of California’s Master Gardener, Sue McDavid write this– “Plants like good drainage, especially those in containers. If water pools around plant roots too long, root rot will damage and possibly even kill the plant. For too long, gardeners have been covering the bottom of containers with gravel, pieces of broken pottery, Styrofoam packing material and the like. Do not do this… only the potting mix should be put into a plant container. Instead of water draining immediately through the soil, then into gravel or other material and on out the drainage holes, water will completely saturate the soil so that no air spaces are left. This could take a long time, and in the interim, plant roots will be starved for oxygen.”
See the full in the PDF here!
Gravel Adds Unnecessary Weight
This is one more reason to avoid this– A layer of gravel or pots shards or anything at the bottom of a pot adds unnecessary weight to a container because it is heavier than most lightweight potting soils and it becomes hard to move.
The Gardenweb forum has a very interesting discussion between gardeners on adding coarse materials at the bottom of pots, must see that too. Here is !
What Should You Do?
Nothing, as Master Gardener Sue McDavid said– Only the potting mix should be put into a plant container, there is no need of a drainage layer, and you can skip it. However, if you fear of the soil to wash out (which is not going to happen either), you can prevent soil from this by placing a layer of paper towel or newspaper over the holes before adding mix. Also, ensure that you never grow plants in a pot without drainage holes and always check at the bottom to see whether there are sufficient holes or not before planting.
Some pots have drainage; others do not. It’s a pretty straightforward distinction, and yet that little hole at the bottom of your pot means a world of difference in terms of potting, plant care and maintenance.
We field a lot of questions about how to plant in pots without drainage holes. Some people say not to do it at all, arguing that drainage holes are crucial to plant health. Is it possible to keep your plant in a pot without drainage holes? Our answer is yes, but with caution.
What is the purpose of a drainage hole? All plants need water to survive. And yet, over-watering is the most common (and perhaps most efficient) way to kill an indoor plant. Drainage holes allow excess water to seep out of pots after watering, ensuring that water does not pool at the base of a pot, helping to protect sensitive roots from rot, fungus and bacteria.
Here are a few things to remember about keeping plants in pots without drainage.
Rules for Planting: Pots Without Drainage Holes
A little bit of water goes a long way
Every drop of water you add to the pot is going to stay in there. Whereas we normally recommend fully saturating a plant, allowing excess water to seep out the bottom, when watering a plant in a pot without drainage, you want to ensure that you water sparingly and slowly, so the water gets evenly distributed through the soil without pooling at the bottom.
Create a drainage layer
A drainage layer is created by adding a medium such as pebbles, stones or pumace to the bottom of a pot before adding soil. Soil particles are very small and tightly packed together, which means that water moves through them quite slowly. On the otherhand, the larger medium used to create a drainage layer have, comparatively a lot more space between them, which allows water to pass through quickly.
Adding a drainage layer allows excess water to get out of the soil more quickly and away from roots before they can be damaged. Though the water is still in the pot, a drainage layer can provide a barrier between too much water and your plant.
Use activated charcoal
We find the best medium for a drainage layer is a product called activated charcoal (we sell it in our shop, and will happily ship you some if you’re not local). Activated charcoal has been heated at high temperatures, which increases its naturally absorptive properties. This means that a layer of activated charcoal at the bottom of your pot is actually able to remove some of that excess water, which makes your plant very happy in the case of over-watering.
Plus, another issue that arises from over-watering is fungal and bacterial disease. Activated charcoal has natural microbial properties, and can help deter those harmful bugs. An added bonus!
Think you over-watered? Tip it over.
Yep – Hold the soil back with your hand, and gently tip your pot to the side (or even invert it, if possible) to allow the excess water to spill out. You can replace any lost soil later.
Don’t get rained on
If you don’t have a drainage hole in your pot, you probably shouldn’t use it for an outdoor plant, unless the plant will be sheltered from rain. You need to micromanage the amount of water going into your pot; if it get’s drenched in a downpour, all could be lost.
Use the right size
More soil means more moisture for longer. We never recommend moving a plant up to a larger pot more than 1 or 2 inches in diameter. This is especially true with no drainage holes, since, without root mass filling your pot, all that soil will stay soggy for even longer, leading to inadvertent over-watering.
If all else fails, repot
You have to listen to your plant. Depending on your space, and your own over-or-under-watering tendencies, your plant may thrive or be miserable in a pot without drainage. If the plant isn’t doing well, gently remove it from the pot and take a look at the roots. Black or brown, mushy roots are a sign of over-watering. Try clipping off any damaged-looking roots, and re-potting the plant in a pot with drainage holes, keeping it just moist until it shows signs of recovery.
Pro-tip: Make it a cachepot
If you’re feeling a bit intimidated about the extra work associated with potting a plant in a pot without drainage, here’s a trick. Find a plastic pot (with drainage holes) that’s just slightly smaller than your planter. Pot your plant into the plastic pot, and then set this inside the planter – if done correctly, the plastic should be hidden, and it will appear as though your plant is potted directly into the planter! You can then take it out to water, and take advantage of the drainage holes in the plastic pot.
Have any advice to share about potting plants with or without drainage holes? Share with us in the comments. Happy planting!
The simple steps:
I’ve done many posts on succulents and there’s one thing I always say: don’t keep them wet. A couple of ways to keep them from rotting is to make sure the mix drains well and the water all runs out. But what happens if you have a pot with no hole in the bottom? This is all about planting, and watering, succulents in pots with no drain holes.
Succulents hold water is their leaves and stems as well as their roots. Water them too often, and plainly put, they turn to mush. They like to dry out in between waterings and that’s why it’s best to plant them in pots with drain holes. I’m a container nut, as well as a plant addict, and every now and then find a pot I must have (yes, simply must have!) without a hole in the bottom. Ever happen to you?
At my work table planting & watering succulents in pots with no drainage holes:
I frequently drill into the bottom of pots to create or add drainage holes but I didn’t want to take a chance on the glossy red one cracking because it has a very thick bottom. My Hatiora, aka Dancing Bones or Drunkard’s Dream, prompted me to do this project. This epiphytic cactus had just been sitting in its grow pot inside the decorative one so it was high time to get it planted in. I’ll need to repot it in a year or 2 but for now, it’s just fine.
The succulents, their 2 pots & my trusted mini-trowel. I love small tools for small projects like this, both indoors & out.
The size & depth of the rock depends on the size of the pot. If you’re planting a 4″ pot, 1″ rock just doesn’t make sense – use pebble. Conversely, if your pot is 12″, then the larger rock would be fine. As an example, the red pot is 7″ wide x 5″ deep & I used 1/4″ pebble.
2.) Spread a 1/2″ (again this will vary depending on pot size) layer of charcoal over the rock.
This is optional but what charcoal does is improve the drainage & absorb impurities & odors. For this reason, it’s great to mix into your soil mix when doing any indoor potting project.
Here you can see the size of the pebble & charcoal I used – the little trowel gives them scale.
3.) Add a bit of succulent & cactus mix on top of the charcoal to raise the root ball up slightly higher than the rim of the pot.
The weight of the succulent will eventually pull it down in the light mix. I use a locally produced succulent & cactus mix which is very chunky & contains chunks of pumice. If you’re using a store bought succulent & cactus mix like this one, you might consider adding some pumice or perlite to further up the ante on the aeration & lightness factor.
4.) Fill in around the sides with the mix & top with a fine (1/4″) layer of worm compost.
This is optional but it’s my favorite amendment. I use this sparingly because it’s rich & breaks down slowly.
5.) I let my succulents settle in for a few days & then water them.
I love this cement log planter – It looks great with succulents in it.
How I water plantings with no drain holes:
I’ve been around plants for so long now that I water most of mine by instinct. To control how much water you give succulents in pots with no drain holes consider using a measuring tool like a cup or even a turkey baster.
I’m going to water my Hatiora (the cactus in the red pot) every 2 weeks now and will back off to every 3-4 weeks in the winter. I’ll start with a 1/4 cup of water and see how it goes. I live in the Arizona desert where temps are in the 80’s and the sun is still shining strong even in early November.
How often and how much you water your succulents depends on the light, temperature and the size of the rootball and the pot. Water even less in the winter because the plants are resting. And, don’t mist or spray succulents on a weekly basis – they don’t need it.
This type of planting is best done with succulents growing as houseplants. If you put your succulents in pots with no drain holes outside for the summer, make sure they’re protected so they don’t get rained on.
Tip: The key to keeping them alive is in the watering. It’s better to under water than over water when it comes to succulents. You want them to dry out in between waterings.
The bottom line is that plants need drainage. I don’t usually don’t encourage planting in pots with no drain hole but every blue moon you find a special pot which doesn’t have one. So, just plant appropriately, go easy on the watering and enjoy that beautiful succulent and pot!
How to Water Succulents in Pots without Drainage
How to tell when the soil is dry
There are a variety of ways to tell when the soil is dry, but the best method is to check the weight of your pot. Start by pouring on your pre-determined amount of water.
Next, lift the pot with both hands (unless it’s super tiny). Move it up and down to get an idea of how much it weighs. Then over the next few days lift it from time to time. When the water has evaporated completely, you’ll find there is a noticeable difference in weight.
I recommend allowing it another 2-3 days of drying time before watering again unless you have a very thin leaved succulent like a Portulacaria afra.
If your pot is too heavy to lift, you can stick a skewer down into the soil. Let it sit in the soil for about 30 seconds or so and then pull it out. If it’s still wet, wait to water. If it’s dry you should be fine to water again, although I recommend giving it another couple of days just to be safe. This is the method recommended by Lula’s Garden and they include a skewer with their arrangements.
Another option is to use a water meter. I haven’t personally found these to be very helpful, but I know a few people who swear by them. If you’re having a hard time with your watering schedule this may be worth a try.
What to do if you encounter problems
In an ideal world it would be easy for me to tell you to water once a week and all your plants will be perfectly healthy, but that just isn’t the case. It takes some experimenting to figure out what watering “schedule” is good for your plants.
Pay attention to the leaves of your succulents over time. If you start to notice your succulents are getting limp and withered or juicy and mushy, you’ll want to gradually change how you water. You can see more signs of watering problems here.
If your plants aren’t getting enough water (limp and withered) you’ll likely want to increase the amount of water you give them and maintain the same frequency. However, if you only water once a month it’s more likely that the frequency of watering is the issue.
The stem and leaves should be firm when watered properly. If they start to become a bit transparent and look extra juicy, or if the leaves fall off with a very slight bump, you’ve likely over watered. In this case, cut back on the frequency of watering.
If you’re only watering once a month because the soil stays wet for a long time, you’ll want to change the amount of water instead of the frequency as well as re-evaluate your soil.
Making gradual changes is very important. If you suddenly start watering every other day when you had only been watering every 2-3 weeks your succulent is going to quickly begin to rot.
On the flip side, if you were watering daily and then cut back to once a month your succulent is going to dry out too quickly and die.
Knowing how to water succulents in pots without drainage takes some extra effort and will require you to pay a bit more attention to your succulents than if they were in a planter with a drainage hole. However, non-draining planters are a great option for using succulents in your home decor.
And remember, if you haven’t already, be sure to grab my free cheat sheet to see what it looks like when your succulents need more or less water. Click here to get the cheat sheet.
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Why Are Drainage Holes Important: Do Pots Need Drain Holes
Why are drainage holes important? No matter what type of plants you are growing, using containers with drainage holes is essential to their health. A lack of drainage is one of the most common culprits in cases of unhealthy and dying plants.
Why Do Pots Need Drain Holes?
With the exception of a few aquatic plants, plant roots don’t like to sit in water. They need to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the air, and excess water closes off the air pockets in soil. Plants in pots without drainage holes are prone to becoming overwatered. Even if the soil surface appears dry, the soil at the bottom of the pot may be sopping wet.
Waterlogged soil can lead to root rot, a serious condition that can easily kill your plants. Signs of root rot include wilted leaves that don’t perk up after watering, yellow leaves, and leaf drop. If you remove the plant from the container, you may see black or brown, slimy or mushy roots.
Another major reason to make sure that there are enough holes in pots is to prevent salt buildup in the potting soil. Tap water and fertilizers contain salts that can harm plants. As plant roots take in water, they leave some of the salts behind, and salts concentrate in the soil over time. When you water thoroughly and let the water flow out through the drainage holes in the bottom of the container, salts are flushed out of the soil.
With no drainage holes, salts are never removed from the soil but just keep building up, creating an unhealthy environment for your plants. If salts do build up in your potting soil, you may see the plant’s leaves turning brown on the tips and edges, or you may see a whitish crust of salt on the soil surface.
Many homeowners keep their houseplants sitting in saucers to protect the furniture or floor from drips. This is fine, but make sure water does not sit in the saucer, where it can wick right back into the potting soil. Be sure to dump the water out of each saucer regularly. Or, try watering your plants in the kitchen sink, then moving them back to the saucers after they drain.
Can You Use Pots Without Drainage Holes?
If your pot came without a drainage hole, see if you can drill holes in the bottom. If it is impossible to drill holes in your container, try using it as a decorative pot in a “double potting” system.
Pot up your plant in a smaller container with drainage holes, then place the smaller pot inside the larger, decorative pot. Every time you need to water, simply remove the smaller container and water it in the sink. When it’s finished draining, replace it in the decorative pot.
How many and what size drainage holes are needed in DIY planters?
Thank you for your question to eXtension.
Most of the university bulletins I’ve seen don’t go into too much detail on the size and number of holes…all they say is “have adequate drainage.” I suppose you can drill a few small holes, fill the container with soil, water it, and examine how well the excess water penetrates. This is fine if you hit it correctly the first time, but having to empty the container to drill more holes would be a pain.
In Purdue’s bulletin on container gardening ( ), they say: “To provide drainage, drill three or four small (1/4 inch) holes in the bottom of the container. Holes larger than 1/4 inch in diameter will allow too much soil to escape. Placing a layer of gravel or broken pottery pieces on the bottom of the container, below the soil, can help stop the flow of soil through larger holes. “
However, using Google, I find numerous self-proclaimed experts using drill bits of between 3/8 and 5/8 inch. I might lean toward that myself, since it’s easy for a piece of perlite or bark to block a tiny 1/4 inch hole (I found that myself, while drilling those size holes in the bottom of a bird feeder for my wife…the millet seed plugged them up immediately).
If you’re drilling ceramic, the internet experts suggest using masonry bits, avoid putting too much pressure on the drill and bit (to avoid cracking the pot), and having water available to cool the ceramic and wash away the grit as you drill.
I hope this helps. Best of luck!
It’s possible to grow succulents in pots without drainage holes because they require less water than other plants and you only need to water them occasionally. Their specialized stems and leaves store water for long periods. Classic Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) make a suitable succulent plant for beginners and grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 8. Mix forms and colors of various succulent types to make a pleasing display.
The Root of the Problem
Few plants, including succulents, can survive their roots drowning in water. For plants to stay healthy, their roots need air. Overwatering causes a number of diseases and without taking steps to prevent wet roots, your succulents may succumb.
Scab is a disease caused by excess water. Symptoms include corky brown scabs appearing on the stems of the succulent. Some species of cactus are especially susceptible to scab. Decrease watering and increase light to fight scab.
Stem and root rot can kill overwatered succulents. Various soil fungi multiply in the presence of excess water. The plants wilt and a brown or black ring appears at the base of the stem, above the soil. If only the roots show disease, cut away rotted roots with a sharp knife and repot the plant in sterile soil. Wipe the blade between cuts with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol to help prevent spreading the fungi.
Photo via homemadeinterest.com
Working With Containers That Don’t Drain
A few tricks help minimize the risk of diseases from wet soil. The main trick is to water the plant normally but after a few minutes, tip the planter sideways and drain out excess water.
Double potting helps overcome the problem of no drainage holes in a planter. Grow the succulent in a pot liner or smaller container that can sit inside the larger, nondraining container. Make at least four holes in the liner or small container if it doesn’t have them. Layer the bottom of the larger, outer planter with gravel.
After watering the plant, wait a few minutes for excess water to drip out of the smaller container. Lift the plant in the liner from the larger container and dump the excess water. After draining, place the liner or small planter back inside the larger one.
If the container doesn’t have drain holes, you’ll need to be more careful with watering. Water the container only enough to wet the top inch (2.5 cm) of soil. Allow the soil to dry completely before watering again. It should only need watering once every two weeks.
Potting Soil Choices
Succulents require soil that is loose and drains well. A cactus or succulent soil from the garden center works, or you can mix your own. When preparing the soil for a container, use a mixture that contains equal portions of sand and garden soil. If your budget allows, a better soil mixture is equal parts loam, sand, peat-moss and perlite. Aged compost can be substituted for loam.
Test the soil’s quality by moistening a handful of the mixture and trying to squeeze it into a ball. If it is the proper consistency for succulents, the soil will not become compacted but will fall apart.
Cacti only require fertilizer once or twice each year, during spring and summer, while other succulents should be fertilized three to four times during the summer. Choose a houseplant fertilizer such as 3-7-7 that has more phosphorus than nitrogen.
Dilute the mixture to one-half the standard concentration recommended on the product label, so mix 5 to 10 drops in 1 quart of water instead of 10 to 20 drops. Check the instructions as rates vary by brand. Soak the top 0.5 inch (1.2 cm) of soil around the plants completely. Use the fertilizer solution in place of a regular watering.
The Right Light
Succulents need the right amount of light to keep them healthy. Outdoors, place them in full sun or part shade. Indoors, placing the planter near a sunny window should provide enough light, but a cool white fluorescent tube is a good substitute if direct sunlight is lacking. Place the tube 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) above the plant for 14 to 16 hours each day. Use a timer to help automate the process.
- Succulentopedia: Browse succulents by Scientific Name, Common Name, Genus, Family, USDA Hardiness Zone, Origin, or cacti by Genus
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