Choosing the Right Container
Get it right first time, for you and your plants.
If you’ve ever walked through a garden centre, you’ll know that plant containers come in all shapes and sizes. The options are endless, from the materials to the size and shape: you have almost as much variety in container choices as you do plants to fill them. Although design is a factor, choosing plant containers is not only about looks: they need to be the right size and have enough drainage to ensure your plants grow successfully.
The materials you choose also have an impact, each with their own pros and cons. We break down the characteristics of containers so that you can decide what suits your taste best, and what will suit your plants. Materials Plastic Most next-generation gardeners would like to start with the cheapest option – plastic. Plastic containers are inexpensive, durable and come in a variety of styles and colours. There is more diversity in shape, size, style and colour than any of the other materials, ensuring you will always find what you’re looking for.
Forgetful gardeners who skip the occasional watering will appreciate plastic pots’ moisture-retaining properties. They are also super lightweight and resistant to damage – clumsy gardeners (guilty) won’t have any problems if they drop or knock them. However, you do get what you pay for: plastic pots can look cheap, especially when the colour fades from exposure to the sun. They can topple over easily in windy areas, damaging your plants. Vegetable gardeners must also be aware of the kind of plastic the pot is made of, as they can leech chemicals into the soil (all plastic pots housing edibles should be made of foodgrade materials).
Most importantly, although they cheap in monetary terms, the costs of plastic pots are high for the planet. Because they are so cheap, some gardeners replace plastic pots often or treat them as disposable, which does great damage to the environment. If you’re going the plastic route, treat them as permanent. Older pots can be sprayed with enamel or polish to restore them, or you can reuse plastic pots as a liner in larger new pots or pot covers. If you’re on a budget and intend to do lots of planting and moving, plastic should be your go-to.
Terracotta is a more traditional material choice. Terracotta pots (meaning ‘baked earth’ in Italian) are unglazed ceramic pots made from clay. Their uniformity and ability to bring out the best in the plants they hold make them a classic choice for plant containers in the garden. Prices vary: you can purchase inexpensive ‘terracotta’ pots, but they are far less durable than their more costly counterparts, breaking easily when knocked and disintegrating in extreme weather. Terracotta is porous, supplying air to the roots and aiding drainage. However, that does come with a downside: the soil dries out far more quickly, so it may not be suitable for plants that need consistently moist soil. Terracotta pots are also much heavier than plastic ones and can be difficult to move when filled. They may have limitations, but their most sought-after value is their beauty, making them ideal for design-orientated gardeners.
Traditional ceramic pots are a pricier option but have the same benefits of terracotta, while mitigating the limitations. They are good looking, durable, hold more moisture and can withstand weather changes. With these reinforcements, ceramic pots will outlast any other pot in your container garden. The only problem they can’t fix is weight – sturdier ceramic pots can be even heavier than the basic terracotta pots and the benefits come at an extremely high cost. They are usually best left for small container gardens or focal point plants.
For a natural look, wood is a great option. The range of styles and sizes available for purchase is wide. Or, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, you could always make your own. Wooden planters are also far cheaper than ceramic options (especially if you choose the DIY route). However, wooden plant containers cannot be made from treated wood, as these chemicals can seep into the soil and harm the plants. If you’re growing edibles, these chemicals can harm you too. When repurposing old wood, use a plastic liner before planting to be safe (this also protects the wood from damage). If you’re buying new wood, cedar lasts longer than pine, although pine tends to be cheaper. Unfortunately, despite their beauty, wooden pots do tend to decay far more quickly than any other material and may only last a year or two if not well maintained. On the plus side, if you opt for wooden containers, you may not need to leave your home to get started. Wooden crates or boxes (even furniture) can be turned into a container garden with a drill, plastic liner and some plants.
Metal plant containers are another popular DIY choice. Thrifty gardeners use a range of household metal containers to create their own pots – tin cans, boxes, even kitchen pots. Their advantages are mostly aesthetic. Because they are made from household materials, each container is different and unusual. Like wooden planters, they can degrade quickly, but this gives them an attractive quality that decaying wooden planters don’t have. These advantages, however, come at the expense of the plant’s health. Metal containers get extremely hot in the sun, drying out the soil and scorching the plant’s roots. Few metal containers have adequate drainage, and the metal rusts faster with constant exposure to water. These containers are best used for shade plants, or as pot covers that can be removed before watering.
Concrete pots are increasingly popular, thanks to their modern looks and extreme durability. As another DIY option, gardeners across the Internet are making their own concrete pots and painting them to create artistic features that complement the plants wonderfully. They are perfect for succulents or cacti as the concrete doesn’t hold much water. There is, however, one downside that deters most gardeners: concrete pots are incredibly heavy. Once planted, they are almost impossible to move, and shouldn’t be placed on any suspended surfaces like balconies. Concrete pots may as well be considered permanent features, rather than one of the movable elements of a container garden.
If the permanency of concrete is not for you, fabric pots may be your ideal alternative for plant containers. Fabric pots are not a common choice, but they are becoming far more widespread than they were and provide several benefits to your plants. Fabric is breathable, supplying air to the roots and draining away any excess water the plant doesn’t need. They come in a range of sizes at low cost. You can set up an extensive container garden in mere minutes. They are super lightweight for easy transportation and are exceptionally durable. They don’t take up a lot of space either – when you remove a plant, simply clean the bag and fold it up, ready for the next use.
Another lightweight option is resin. These pots come in any shape and size you can imagine, cast from moulds. They can even be made to look like other materials, such as wood, ensuring you get the design benefits without the negative characteristics of those materials. They are slightly pricier than other more common alternatives and they may be difficult to find, but you can always make your own resin pots to match your gardening needs.
Ultra-frugal gardeners or creative types can always upcycle their plant containers. With a few holes for drainage and some structure to hold the plant upright, technically anything can be a pot. Old kitchen items, furniture, or even shoes make unique, quirky garden containers. Ensure whatever you choose is the right size for the plants, has enough drainage, and doesn’t contain any materials that will damage your plants. A good rule of thumb is to thoroughly clean anything you plan to plant in before planting (pots from the nursery included) with soap and warm water to ensure there are no harmful bacteria that could infect your plants or the soil.
There is no criteria more important in containers than drainage. In traditional backyard gardens, water spreads throughout the soil and gets washed away. In containers, you control watering completely (bar rain), and without drainage the water will have nowhere to go. Put bluntly, a container without adequate drainage will kill your plant. Consistently moist soil will suffocate the roots and cause them to decay, unable to service the health of the plant any longer. Root rot, unless it is detected early, almost always spells death for a plant.
Save your friends, your time and your money by prioritising drainage. Purchased containers from nurseries or online will typically have the right amount of drainage for the size of the pot. When you are making your own containers, you will have to create them yourself. The holes shouldn’t be blocked by any debris (larger is better) and should be as symmetrically spaced as possible for even drainage. This ensures all areas of the soil have the same moisture distribution, so one side is not overwatered while the other is under-watered (you should also place your containers on an even surface to prevent this same problem).
Depending on the location of your container garden and the level of the surface, the flow of water from the drainage holes may get blocked. If that is the case, raise your pot with pot feet, or make your own using scraps of wood. Choosing the right container can be a minefield, especially for the many indecisive gardeners out there. To narrow down your choices, always consider plant health first. Beyond that, the choice is all yours.