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Container Garden Drainage

In one twenty-minute thunderstorm, all the planters and seedling holders I had outdoors filled with water. Some potted seedlings floated and tipped sideways. Had I not spent ten minutes draining things, roots might have drowned. Without drainage holes, your container garden poses unecessary challenges.

When I’m not in my small kitchen garden, I spend a significant amount of time browsing the Internet to see what other people are saying about gardening. A few weeks ago, I read an article about container gardening that made my jaw drop. The author poo-pooed putting drainage holes in your containers. I don’t recall his exact words, but this represents the gist:

It seems most people tell you to put drainage holes in the bottoms of your planters. You don’t have to. Go ahead and try planting without drainage holes and you’ll see what I mean.

I hope this author thought that everyone growing plants in containers does so indoors. Then his observation is valid: you really don’t need drainage holes for containers that you maintain indoors. You can control how much water you give your plants, and add more only when the soil is dry; with little effort, you can master watering whether your pots include drainage holes or they retain every drop of water you pour into them.

17 days ago, I cut the top off a soda bottle, punched drainage holes in the bottom, added soil, and planted 11 carrot seeds. Things are coming along fine. While carrots will withstand a light frost, I’ve kept my planter indoors; we’ve had four unseasonably cold nights this May with another on the way. I’ll move the planter outdoors tomorrow.

Container Gardening Outdoors

If you plant in containers outdoors, make sure there are drainage holes in the containers. This is imperative. A single rainstorm can dump many inches of water on every surface. A planter without drainage can capture all that water, and end up overflowing. Depending on what and how you’ve planted, this can be very bad for your plants.

For example, a recently-repotted plant in light soil could float to the surface of the pot and then fall out. A heavy rain can wash much of the soil out of a pot. Perhaps worse: once saturated by a heavy rain, a pot without drainage will hold water that can drown a plant’s roots, encourage the growth of algae and mold, or provide an inviting environment for bacteria that will cause your plant to rot.

Over the weekend, we had a twenty minute downpour that filled some of my planting containers with three inches of water. It was an awesome powerful rain. Many of my potted seedlings sat in that rain. They are still in peat pots, inside of food-storage containers intended to protect my ping-pong table when the seedlings were inside under lights. After the rain, I spent ten minutes draining water from the containers and topping several up with soil (much soil had floated away on the rainwater).

If your small kitchen garden is outdoors in containers, make sure the containers have drainage holes, or heavy rains could destroy your produce.

Here are other articles about container gardening that you might find useful:

  • Which Plants are Best for a Container Garden? – by Sarah Duke. Container gardening is a very easy way to get fresh produce with very little effort. A wide variety of vegetables, herbs and fruit can be grown in pots. Herbs are the most popular, followed by vegetables. …

  • re: grow your own food – you also might think about container gardening. my mom doesn’t want to be bothered with a whole garden and grows just a few tomato plants in pots on the carport. it works great. copy and paste the following url for a fact sheet on …


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7 Responses to “Container Garden Drainage”

  • Lorraine:

    I’m happy to have found your site, I’ll have fun reading! I drink SO much tea.. in those Lipton plastic bottles.. that this year I used the bottles as seed starters. I have pumpkins growing like mad! I also put slits at the bottom to drain.. they are outside. We also had a huge downpour .. it was crazy! You in Kansas City, MO?!?!?! Today I found you because I wanted to do individual carrots, and give them away as gifts? And these tea bottles are perfect for that. Although I think I should stick to maybe 1 seed per bottle? I have seeds for smaller carrots I have started.. so we’ll see.

    Fun site :)

  • Darren:

    I’m curious what the best practice is for making drain holes. I have several outdoor planters that I started this year that had pre-drilled holes in the bottom. We’ve had long periods of rain this year and some of them aren’t draining very well. Is it acceptable to drill holes in the sides of the planter to aid in draining large amounts of rainwater? I also thought about drilling larger holes just above the soil line so when the planter begins to “drown” it will quickly get rid of the excess water. Thoughts?

  • admin:

    You remind me of an experience I had several years ago: During a rainstorm, several of my (plastic) deck planters were awash from torrential downpours; water was pouring over the lips of the containers as quickly as it pours from the faucet when I draw a bath. Contents off the planters were floating, and tipping the planters wasn’t an option–the contents would have spilled, or at least shifted badly. I found my hole-punch tool–basically, an ice pick–and stabbed the planters in several places low-down along their sides. These additional holes provided enough drainage to keep up with the amazing volume of rain.

    A few thoughts: If rain temporarily fills your planters without disturbing the contents (other than making them wet), you don’t have a problem as long as the planters drain when the rain stops. If the standing water is gone three-to-six hours after a storm, the planters are draining as well as many fine planting beds.

    Two good reasons to improve drainage: 1. The accumulating water actually moves stuff around in your planter: things float; soil washes away; seeds get moved around; soil (some potting soils will do this) becomes suspended, making a slurry rather than a firm growth medium. 2. The only way water seems to leave the planter is through transpiration of the plants, and evaporation from the surface of the soil. In this case, you’ll have standing water for days after a heavy rain, and most plants will die.

    In the case of stuff moving around, sometimes no amount of drainage will help; add water too quickly, and bad stuff happens. I suppose above-the-soil-line holes would help in this case. However, I’d rather see water drain lower in the container, so I’d consider a few things: Why are the existing drainage holes not working well? Can you open them up better by pushing something in from underneath? Is the soil bound too tightly so it doesn’t let water through efficiently? Maybe starting again with a fresh, different potting mix will solve your problems? Finally, I’d add more drainage holes either in the bottoms of the containers, or very low on the sides.

    If the water simply doesn’t drain-even several hours after rain stops, it’s imperative that you improve the drainage. Again, are the bottom drainage holes letting water out? If not, either clear what’s blocking them or add more holes. I’ve relied on holes that are no more than razor slits, and they’ve been fine. When a container with such holes gets overfull with water, it takes a half hour or so to drain, but it does drain… and that’s good enough. Actually, I prefer a slower drainage rate because it means I don’t have to water as frequently during dry weather.

    Oh, here’s why I don’t care for the idea of drainage holes above the soil line: When I’m doing the watering (as opposed to rain), and the planter is well-established, I like that I can fill the space between the top of the soil and the top of the planter with water and let it soak in at its own pace… I don’t have to stand there and add slowly as water gets absorbed. Without the catch basin effect, hand watering requires more attention and more time.

    Best of luck.

  • Darren:

    Thanks for your insight. It gives me a lot to think about.

    I’m not sure what’s causing the 2 or 3 that don’t drain well. If I had to guess I’d say the soil is probably packed too tightly, but it’s the same type of soil (specifically for vegetables) that I used in all my planters. I have tried using a screwdriver to clear the holes in case something was blocking them but no luck. I’d like to find a solution using the existing soil/planter so I don’t potentially damage the existing plants in them.

    As far as drainage speed, I believe it is ok for normal rainfall, but the problem is it’s been raining here for several days straight so the planters just stay full of water (just like you experienced). Ideally I’d like to keep the drainage speed as is for normal watering/rainfall, but have sort of an “emergency” drainage for the weather we’re having now. I’m afraid if I drill more holes at the bottom, the normal watering will drain much too fast. That’s the reason I thought of the drain holes just above the soil line. I suppose I could devise a stopper of some kind.

  • admin:

    Container gardening introduces an interesting dynamic: In extreme weather, you can outperform nature. Consider that an in-ground garden cannot escape an endless downpour… your planters are behaving very much as a garden. By providing more efficient drainage, you’ll make the planters perform better than an in-ground garden during endless downpours. As you observe, the planters won’t hold water in as long during hand watering, and you may need to apply more water each time you water to get the soil saturated.

    One modification to provide the best possible balance is to find catch-saucers or catch-pans into which the planters will fit. Then, add more drainage holes in the bottoms of the containers. During these crazy rain events, your plants are going to be saturated no matter how you package them. But when the rain stops, you could lift the planters, dump the catch-pans, and set the planters back. For normal watering, the catch-pans will hold water that drains too quickly but keep it in contact with the soil (through the drainage holes). The soil will act as a wick and draw water back in from the pan until the soil is saturated. This is how I water my house plants, and it works reliably.

    If you don’t mind precision hand-watering, then drainage holes at the soil’s surface would certainly reduce the overflow from the top of the planter… but it won’t change the saturation of the soil. In a long-term rain event, some water will run out those holes when the rain starts. However, it won’t take long for the soil to become saturated up to the drainage holes.

  • Lynn C Behnke:

    Just a thought. Are the holes being punched from the inside or the outside? With some of my projects, the plastic that gets pushed through the hole can be in the way of threading a lace through the hole unless you’re moving in the direction the hole was created. Could it also be blocking some of the water flow if the holes were punched from the outside?

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