Do You Really Need a Drainage Hole in Your Plant Pots?

updated Oct 24, 2023
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Credit: Sandra Regalado

Plant lovers know the scenario well: You’re out shopping when suddenly you spot a gorgeous piece of glazed pottery that would be just perfect for re-potting the white bird of paradise in your bedroom. The colors are just right, and the price is a winner. There’s just one problem: That perfect planter doesn’t have a drainage hole.

You might be tempted to buy it anyway, asking yourself, is it really so bad if my planter doesn’t have a drainage hole? The short answer, which you might not want to hear, is yes, pots without drainage holes can damage plants.

The good news? That doesn’t mean you can’t use them. There are ways to use pots without drainage holes at home that will keep your plants happy and healthy. You’ll just need to use a few tricks to make it work. Below, learn why all your planters should have drainage holes — and how to make them work for you even if they don’t.

Why Drainage Holes Are Important

Drainage holes in planters serve three main purposes:

  • Allowing water to drain from the soil
  • Enabling good airflow
  • Flushing salts from soil

Even plants that enjoy a good soaking and perpetually damp soil don’t like to live in standing water — something pros call “wet feet.”

When roots sit in water for too long and when air isn’t allowed to flow freely (as in the case of saturated soil), the plant can develop root rot. This is exactly what it sounds like: Roots that are consistently kept too wet, with no drying out, can begin to decay. That prevents those roots from being able to pull any moisture up into the plant — so, ironically, standing water can actually cause plants to wither away from dehydration.

Root rot is almost always an irreversible condition for plants. In other words, plants soaking in water is one way to ensure their early demise.

Overly damp, poorly-draining soil can be a problem for any plant, but especially for plants that enjoy moisture. That’s because while you might be giving them a healthy amount of water, that water has nowhere to go and ends up sitting around the roots, causing root rot.

But there’s another, less straightforward possibility for plants to suffer in planters without drainage holes: Knowing that you don’t want your plant sitting in water and knowing that there’s no outlet for drainage, you may be overly cautious and not give the plant as much water as it wants.

For plants that prefer dry soil, under-watering on purpose doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Even so, those plants will still need a drainage hole for moisture to escape and airflow to circulate through the pot.

Another important function of drainage holes is to allow water to flush the soil of excess salts from any fertilizers that you apply. Without a drainage hole, those salts can get trapped in the soil and affect the health of your plant.

How to Use Pots with No Drainage Holes

Some experts suggest using a layer of pebbles as a sort of drainage layer in those pots without drainage holes, saying that the technique allows excess water to flow out of the soil and into the space full of pebbles. Others, however, caution against this method, going so far as to call it a “myth.” Those experts say that water has trouble flowing between the two different mediums and will therefore stay within the soil even if pebbles are beneath it.

Your safest bet for using pretty pots with no drainage holes is to create your own. You can do this one of two ways.

Method 1: Drill a Hole in the Pot

Use a power drill to create a hole in the bottom of your planter. If your planter is wood or plastic, a regular drill bit will work just fine.

For ceramic, you’ll need a carbide drill bit. You’ll also need to add water to the area where you’re drilling before beginning to keep the pot from cracking. Move slowly, starting first at a slight angle before moving your drill so it’s perpendicular to the bottom of the pot.

Method 2: Use an Inner Planter

Don’t plant directly into your pretty pot. Instead, add your plant to a porous pot with a good drainage hole, like the classic terracotta pot or a plastic grower’s pot. Then, place that pot within the larger decorative pot.

When it comes time to water, take the plant (and the inner pot) out of the decorative planter. Once you’re done and the water has drained, you can add it back in.

You can also place gravel or pebbles in the bottom of the decorative pot and place the functional pot with drainage on top of it. In this scenario, gravel can function to keep the plant’s roots away from sitting water, since they are outside of the soil. This setup allows for ambient humidity, which is a boon to many plants.

Note: Pots without drainage holes should never be used outdoors. Since your plant will be exposed to rain, you’ll have no way of regulating the amount of water your plant receives.