There’s much more to choosing the right container for houseplants than just making a pretty match.

You found the houseplant of your dreams. You and that fern are going to make beautiful music together. Not only did you discover the botanical version of Mr. Right, during the same shopping spree, you also scored a perfectly cool container to accommodate your new best friend. That swank new container is just the right color to show off your fern’s fancy fronds. But read on, because it’s not all about putting together a pretty picture.

Growing plants in great soil makes perfect sense, right? But another key issue is finding an appropriate container to hold that plant…and many factors weigh in. Literally, the container you choose could spell the difference between success and failure for your houseplant. Let’s run through the options.

Graduating Houseplants

First on the agenda is deciding whether your plant needs a new container. Of course, you’ll want to give your adopted plant a good-looking anchor when you first bring it home from the garden center. The leprechaun green or boring black flimsy plastic containers that often serve as an underpinning at the purchase point are pitiful—and definitely not the right match for your cool décor. You can do better. Plus, you’ll want to give your new adopted roommate a good base of excellent organic soil, no matter what it was potting in at the orphanage. So yes, if you just gave a plant its forever home, definitely throw in a snazzy container.

Or, you might have adopted a houseplant sometime in the past, and you are wondering if it’s ready to be repotted. No problem. Deciding whether a plant needs repotting is as easy as checking the root system. First, give the plant a light drink of water and wait a few minutes for the moisture to soak in. Then, simply turn the plant upside down, tap it lightly on the edge of a bench, and let the root system fall into your hand. Can you see roots? Have they formed a visible dense network? If so, that plant could use a graduation. If not, return the plant to its original container and check in again in the future.

Selecting the Right Size

So, you’re wondering: What size container should you choose? The quick answer is– Graduate gradually. Basically, you can’t go from kindergarten to college in one leap. If you give your houseplant a container that’s too large, the small root system is going to swim in soil. Remember that you are hosting these plants in windowsills where incoming light might not be optimal, especially in winter when light levels are low. When you water a houseplant that’s been “over-potted,” damp soil will surround the roots—and the soil might stay soggy without roots to wick away the moisture. Not good. You’re risking causing a nasty case of root rot.









Instead, graduate about one pot-size at a time. If you give a plant an additional inch on all sides when repotting, that should do the trick. Check it again in a few months. Yes, you might have to repot more often, but that’s just part of the fun, right?

Do I have to Continue the Promotions?

No, when you grow in a potting soil that furnishes nutrition, it’s not essential to continually repot as the plant gains size. However, keep in mind that “pot-bound” roots will dry out more frequently than roots that are not squeezed in. You might be running around your house with a watering can A LOT. Here’s a solution: When a plant is small, repot it regularly. When it reaches a pot size that is your limit, check the root system periodically, remove dead roots and add potting soil. You can also root prune, but be careful to simultaneously cut back foliage from the plant. You don’t want reduced roots trying to quench masses of thirsty growth.

Shapely Containers

What container shapes work best? You should keep the root system in mind, and we’re going to reveal the best shape for some popular plants in a future blog—so stay tuned. In general, start by looking for a container of the right size. And yes, you can fit a round root system into a square container. However, take care when repotting any root system to fill all the angles fully with soil. That’s critical, because empty air pockets will cause the roots to dry out. Use a pencil to fill the gaps. And always water a plant immediately after repotting to “settle” the soil into the new container. Add potting soil if necessary after the soil has settled down.

There is one shape that might eventually be a bear. “Bean pot” shaped containers with mouths that taper in from a flared middle can eventually be repotting nightmares. Think about it: You’ll be trying to push a wider root mass through a smaller opening (unless you want to break the pot to liberate the root mass). Go for mouths that flare wider than the roots below.

And this is really important: Select a container with drainage holes. For some strange reason, not all containers are endowed with drainage—check before purchasing. Even if you have to drill (which risks ruining the container), drainage is key.

So fear not, have fun, and pot up. This is your moment of creativity—Go For It!


Written by award winning author, Tovah Martin.  Photos also taken by Tovah Martin.  Find her books and more information on her website:

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