Dolores has landscaped for private clients, maintained one client's small orchid collection, and keeps 30 houseplants.
Many factors influence the type of container that is best for a houseplant. Consider:
- Size of the plant
- Type of plant
- Weight of the container
Bringing Home a New Houseplant
When you bring home a new plant, it's best to leave it in the nursery pot for a week or two. Face it, plants are not built for movement. In nature, they stay in one spot for all of their lives. They react to any change and the change in environment is enough stress. Allow the plant to get used to its new digs before subjecting it to the stress of repotting. However, if the plant is root bound or roots protrude from the bottom of the pot, go ahead and repot.
Make sure you set the plant on a saucer so that water does not drip onto your furniture or floor. Plastic or ceramic saucers work best. Terra cotta plant saucers may be cute, but they wick moisture onto the furniture. I always have a few old, unwanted saucers or dessert plates in the basement just waiting for a new plant. Some folks suggest that if you water the plant over a sink, allowing the water to drip out, you don't need a saucer. However, the soil is still moist and that moisture can ruin wood.
You can also set the ugly nursery pot in a cache pot. That's one of those planters you see that has no drainage hole in the bottom. If you do this, remove the plant from the cache pot and water it over the sink allowing the water to run out the bottom. Do not leave water standing in the bottom of the cache pot as it can quickly grow bacteria that will kill the roots. And will stink to high heavens.
A plant should be set in a pot that is smaller than the size of the plant itself. If you think of a houseplant and pot as an overall picture, the container should take up one third of the total size, the plant should take up the other two thirds. This not only looks best due to the rule of thirds in design, but is healthy for the plant as well. If there is too much soil surrounding the roots, the soil will hold more moisture than the roots can take up. This will cause root rot.
Of course this rule is not written in stone. I have a tall dracena marginata where these proportions would not work at all. The skinny trunk and delicate foliage would look ridiculous in a very large pot.
Once the plant outgrows the container, repot into a pot that is 1 1/2 - 2 inches larger. You can tell it's time to move up when you can see roots through the drainage hole. You do not always have to move up a size. Repot if the water quickly runs right through the soil or if the soil becomes compacted. Only move up to a larger size if the roots seem crowded.
Before repotting, read up on the type of plant you wish to repot. Some houseplants including spider plants, clivea, peace lily, certain orchids, and others thrive when they are a bit root bound. Other plants, such as oncidium orchids, have sensitive roots and need to be handled with care.
When you repot, clean the new pot well. Even if you are using the same container, clean with soap and water. White smudges often appear on the outside of terra cotta pots. This is an accumulation of the salts used in fertilizer. A small scrub brush will help remove it.
The most frequent killer of houseplants is over watering. So you want to make sure that any extra water is drained away from the roots. Make sure your containers have holes in the bottom. So many attractive containers these days have no holes! Some people claim with a few stones in the bottom, you don't need drainage holes. That's bunk! Excess water will pool under the rocks and stagnate.
Placing stones or pot shards in the bottom of a plant container helps drainage and helps weigh down the pot so it doesn't fall over. Just make sure there are holes as well.
You can turn all sorts of things into plant containers—a cache pot, a teapot, mug, steep bowl, bean pot, sugar bowl, creamer, etc. A ceramic drill bit is inexpensive and easy to use. Just turn the empty container upside down, sprinkle a little water on the spot you want the hole, and drill through. If you are using an enamelware piece, you can pierce holes with a hammer and a screw driver.
If you think a pot has too large of a hole, place a piece of screening or burlap over the hole before adding stones and soil.
Thrift stores are great places to find containers and saucers. An old crock pot makes a heavy, sizable container once you drill a hole through it. Use your imagination. If you need a large saucer, you can find a round tray or ceramic platter—so much nicer than those ugly plastic trays they sell at big box stores.
Types of Container Materials
There are so many available plant containers out there thanks to the popularity of houseplants and container plants. Here are some to consider:
Plastic or Fiberglass
These work well if you need a large container for a large plant. Ceramic can be quite heavy. If you use a plastic pot that is not very wide, make sure to place stones in the bottom. Plastic and fiberglass are so light they can easily fall over. There are some very pretty plastic pots, especially large versions. Be careful not to overwater as fiberglass and plastic tend to retain moisture.
Terra cotta is classic, simple, and relatively inexpensive. I personally love the plain old terra cotta pots, though some more interesting versions are available. Of course, the interesting ones will be more expensive. I wanted something more interesting for the pot shown above. I had some crackle medium on hand and love the rustic look.
Terra cotta pots dry out more quickly than plastic, fiberglass, or ceramic so may need to be watered more often. It is also more prone to breakage than the other materials. (Don't forget to save those broken pieces to use in the bottom of other pots!)
Ceramic is heavy enough to keep a large, top heavy plant from toppling over. Ceramic is also quite attractive and durable. It comes in many colors and designs from smooth and sleek for a modern look, to artificially aged for an antique style. The prices of ceramic pots vary greatly so shop around.
This is lightweight and attractive. Enamelware plant containers are widely available but do not always feature drainage holes. Pierce holes in the bottom with a hammer and screw driver. You can probably find some nice enamelware at the thrift store. Old rusted enamelware looks nice too.
Wood is generally used for outdoor containers. It may work best as a cache pot because it so easily rots. Baskets made of wood are often used for orchids and other epiphytes.
Containers for Orchids and Other Epiphytes
Some popular houseplants called epiphytes can not be planted in soil. They need a special medium that allows for air circulation. Mixes include bark chips, perlite, moss, terra cotta balls (LECA), etc. Moth orchids (phalaenopsis) for instance, so widely available at grocery and big box stores, should be kept in special pots. Made of plastic, these pots feature holes to enhance drainage and air flow. This is where a cache pot comes in handy. Set the perforated pot inside the cache pot. Remove to water over the sink.
There are ceramic orchids pots that feature decorative holes in the side if you want to avoid plastic. The problem with these types of of pots is that the roots can protrude through the holes. In that case, repotting can lead to root breakage.
Some people plant orchids and other epiphytes in wooden baskets that can be hung from a bracket. The wide spaces allow for air circulation. They are available online and at specialty shops.
Alternatives to Containers
Some orchids as well as staghorn and elkhorn ferns can be mounted on a piece of wood. Bark usually remains on the wood for this type of project. Simply line the wood with a bit of damp moss, place the bare rooted plant on the moss, and cover with more moss. Affix the moss and plant to the bark with jute or fishing line and hang.
Kokedama is a method of growing plants without a container. The unpotted plant roots are rolled up carefully in a ball of soil or orchid medium, surround by sheet moss and wound around with jute or other natural twine. The plant is then hung suspended. If you use fishing line to hang the plant, it may appear to be floating in the air! This is a great way to display your plants if things are getting a bit too crowded. Water plants by dunking in water and allowed to drip dry before hanging.
Plants grown without containers will need more frequent watering. Without the container, they can dry out quickly. Many need to be misted often.
Air plants do not use soil. You can mount them on moss or be very creative with display as long as you mist them daily. Tuck them into shells, cork, on pieces of wood, driftwood, wire coils, or those little glass balls you can find where air plants are sold.
For Further Reading
Living With Plants : A Guide to Indoor Gardening by Sophia Lee; published by Hardie Grant; 2017
Houseplant : The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Plants by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf; published by Cool Springs Press; 2017
Wild at Home: How To Choose, Style, and Care for Beautiful Plants by Hilton Carter; CICO books; 2019
Houseplants 101: How to Choose, Style, Grow, and Nurture Your Indoor Plants by Peter Shepperd; published by Green Fingered Gardener; 2021
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Dolores Monet
Dora Weithers on October 18, 2021:
This article is very timely and helpful. I've been a silk-flower lover, but now that I've taken an interest in gardening, I also want to try houseplants. You've answered many of my questions. Thank you.