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Your Too-Big Pot Is Actually Sabotaging Your Houseplant

published Sep 14, 2021
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Credit: Kristan Lieb

If you’re really into plants, you know that finding the perfect pot is crucial. Maybe you’ve gifted yourself a new ficus or fern, or maybe an old favorite is in need of a new home. You’ve searched high and low for the perfect container that will fit with your design aesthetic, and you’ve finally found it.

But before you strut to the register to make your purchase, you should consider a big potential issue: How can you be sure that your container is right for your plant? Let’s go over a few rules you should consider when you’re shopping for plant pottery.

To cache or not to cache?

Many plant owners these days choose to keep their plants in plastic nursery pots and use cachepots for decorative purchases. They set the plant directly into the cachepot — nursery pot and all. This method can make it easier to control how much water your plant is getting, and might be a good option for you if you know that you’re a handsy plant parent. 

If you’re planning on using the new pot as a cachepot, you’ll need to make sure the nursery pot can sit directly on the bottom of the new container, with a little extra wiggle room. If not, keep reading.

Size up.

The general rule is that you should bump up to a pot size that’s two inches larger than the container your plant is currently potted in. When you’re shopping around, you’ll find that most shops stick to the standard 2-inch sizing rule. Containers typically 4, 6, 8, and 10 inches are some of the most popular sizes, but many shops also carry larger sizes, like 12, 14, and 16 inches.

It’s tempting to size up larger — sometimes much larger — but resist the urge! You might think it’s easier to immediately pot into a larger container so you won’t have to repot it multiple times over the years, but this doesn’t always work. Most of the time you’ll end up with a stressed, dying plant if you proceed this way. 

The science is simple. Most plants that are potted in a much larger container than they’re used to will put all their energy made from photosynthesis and fertilizer into root growth instead of foliage growth. Also, plants potted in too-large containers will struggle to soak up all the moisture from waterings. This means that the soil will stay wet longer, meaning more chances for root rot and other stress issues that come with overwatering.

Don’t fall for the common myth that plants will grow bigger and faster when given a much larger pot. If you don’t know, ask the shop clerk!

Choose your material wisely. 

Your pot of choice might be made of traditional terracotta, wood, fiberglass, or ceramic. There are even some really great plastic ones out there. But which material is better? Unglazed ceramic and terracotta are porous. Porous materials “breathe” and will dry faster than containers that are glazed or slick inside. 

If you know you’re an overwaterer, it might be best to go with a pot that will let your plant dry out at a more rapid rate. 

What about drainage? 

Should you plant in a container with drainage? Technically, yes. For the highest rate of success, you should always choose a container that has a drainage hole and tray. 

However, there’s always a cheat. I’ve planted many plants in containers with no drainage, with a little help from lava rocks and activated charcoal. 

If you’re in love with a pot that has no drainage, simply build your own drainage layer at the bottom before planting. A layer of lava rock topped with a layer of activated charcoal will ensure that the plant’s roots won’t sit in stagnant water. Think of it as a Brita filter for your plants. 

Bonus tip: Even if you’re trimming your houseplant back to make it a more manageable size, you’ll still need to repot. The roots are still growing along with that foliage you’re cutting back.