The snake plant is one of the most popular houseplants, not only because of its signature look, but because it is often touted as indestructible: it can survive any weather extremes and even the most novice of plant owners can grow it.
One question that beginner snake plant owners ask is whether or not these plants actually need drainage holes in the bottom of their pots.
The answer to this question is: not necessarily. You can definitely grow a snake plant in a pot or container that does not have drainage holes, but you need to be diligent about how you water it.
In this article, we will discuss more about why a snake plant can be grown in a pot with no drainage holes, and whether or not this is a good choice. So, if you are thinking about getting a snake plant and want to know more about what type of pot is best for it, then keep reading.
Are drainage holes really important for plants?
Yes, for most plants that are kept in pots or containers, it is important to have drainage holes at the bottom of the container. The holes are there to reduce the chances of the plant becoming overwatered, by allowing any excess water to flow out of the holes rather than standing inside the pot for long periods of time.
Without drainage holes, the soil becomes waterlogged and will be unable to dry out sufficiently for the plant’s requirements. Remember that a plant’s roots need to have access to oxygen in order to survive, and if the soil is perpetually soggy, no oxygen will be able to reach the roots.
Another reason that water should be allowed to flow easily through the soil and out the drainage holes is to help flush out any build-up of chemicals or excess nutrients that might burn the roots.
What problems can arise if my plant’s pot does not have drainage holes?
- Lack of oxygen for the roots
Aside from absorbing carbon dioxide from the air to provide oxygen for us to breathe, plants actually also absorb oxygen through their leaves and roots. Plants need oxygen to survive, just like we do, so if their roots are constantly waterlogged they are at risk of suffocation and drowning.
You will know your plant is not getting enough oxygen if it is not growing as fast as normal and its leaves are yellowing.
A lack of oxygen is also a precursor to root rot, so if you suspect oxygen deprivation, it is quite possible that your plant has root rot, too.
- Root rot
As mentioned above, oxygen deprivation and root rot typically go hand in hand. When a plant is overwatered, its roots stand in soggy soil for long periods and are unlikely ever to dry out enough to get access to oxygen. The roots will drown in the wet soil and die. Once dead, they will become susceptible to opportunistic pathogens, such as fungi of the Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, Phytophthora and Pythium families. Fungi love dank and dark conditions, where they can thrive and attack the compromised roots of plants. The fungi will cause the rot in the dead roots to spread upwards towards the rest of the plant, until eventually the entire plant dies.
You will know your plant has root rot if its leaves are drooping, curling and turning yellow. Unfortunately, these signs are not specific to root rot, which is why it is quite difficult to catch root rot in its early stages. The condition is usually discovered accidentally while the plant is being repotted. For this reason, it is important to inspect your plant’s roots closely whenever you repot it, to make sure you can address the problem as early as possible.
- The plant may get root burn
Another problem that may occur in a pot without drainage holes is the accumulation of chemicals in the soil. These chemicals will have nowhere to go due to the absence of adequate drainage.
This is especially common in plants that are grown in pots with no drainage holes and are frequently fertilized and watered with tap water. In the beginning, tap water and fertilizer may only bring in trace amounts of nutrients and chemicals, but over time these substances will build up around your plant’s roots and cause root burn. Symptoms of this condition include stunted growth and browning of the leaves.
- The plant’s roots will become weak
This problem is connected to those mentioned above, because when a snake plant’s roots are surrounded by soggy soil, they will not thrive and will never be healthy. Weak and unhealthy plants will not be able to effectively absorb water and nutrients. This will become a chronic problem that will eventually affect the entire plant and could lead to its demise.
A snake plant with a weak root system will have droopy leaves, which will start to drop off one by one.
What can I do about a snake plant with poor drainage?
If your snake plant appears to have one or more of the problems discussed above, you will need to act quickly to save it.
In order to correct problems related to poor drainage, you need to remove the plant from the pot and shake off as much of the old soil as you can, as gently as possible. Inspect the roots to check for any brown or black sections. If you find any brown or black roots, cut them off using a sterilized pair of scissors, as these are rotten or dying.
Wash off any chemical build-up on the roots with water, and leave the plant out to air dry the roots before repotting it.
When the roots are dry, place the plant in a pot with a well-draining potting mix. You can replace a third of the potting soil with perlite or vermiculite to help improve the drainage.
If you feel that the soggy soil was caused by the absence of drainage holes, you may be better off using a pot that has holes to make things easier going forward.
If the new soil is still damp, you do not need to water it immediately after replanting. Wait until the top two inches of soil have dried out completely before watering the plant again.
How can I successfully grow a snake plant in a pot without drainage holes?
Add pebbles or gravel to the bottom of the pot
Pebbles and gravel can act as a buffer or platform for the plant, so that the excess water can drain into the bottom of the pot without making the soil soggy.
The layer at the bottom of the pot should be around two inches deep so that the plants do not touch the bottom of the pot.
You may be tempted to use broken pieces of your old pots to place at the bottom, in lieu of pebbles or gravel, but refrain from using those because there could be some big pieces that might catch water and add to the waterlogging problem.
Mix charcoal into the plant’s potting mix
Charcoal is very effective at absorbing excess moisture, so when added to the potting mix, it will hold onto excess water in the soil.
Use activated charcoal by layering it with the potting soil. Place a layer of charcoal first, then a layer of potting soil, then charcoal again, and so on.
Vermiculite and perlite
Another option is to mix volcanic rock like vermiculite or perlite into the potting mix. Like charcoal, these rocks are also effective absorbers of water.
You do not need to worry about these rocks obstructing the flow of oxygen to the roots; they are quite porous and air will have no problem passing through them.
Replace a third of the potting mix with either rock, and repot the snake plant like normal.
Use an appropriately-sized pot
Do not use a pot that is too large for your plant, because a large pot will hold more excess water which will take longer to evaporate.
Make sure the plant is in a spot where it gets lots of light and a temperature of 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Repotting your snake plant once a year is probably best if it is in a pot without drainage holes, because you can then check the condition of the roots every year in order to avoid root rot and other problems.
The proper way to water a snake plant in a pot without drainage holes
It is definitely trickier to water a snake plant that is grown in a pot without drainage holes, but you will find it easier over time.
Snake plants are very drought-tolerant, so you will not actually need to water your plant that often anyway.
In terms of frequency, it is usually enough to water the plant once a month in the warmer months, while once every two months is best for the colder months.
Before you water your plant, touch the top two inches of soil. If the soil is dry to the touch, you can water the plant, but if it is still slightly damp, wait one or two more days before checking it again.
You can use a spray bottle to water the soil, so that you do not accidentally pour in too much water that you cannot remove.
If you do accidentally pour too much water into the pot, try tipping the plant to one side to get rid of the excess water before the soil completely absorbs it all.
Snake plants can live with or without drainage holes in their pots. It really is more down to the preference of the plant owner whether or not they want to use a pot without drainage holes.
If you do want to use a pot without drainage holes, you just need to be vigilant at spotting the signs of overwatering. You do not want the plant’s roots to be deprived of oxygen or for the plant to get root rot. Add a layer of pebbles or gravel to the bottom of the pot, place alternating layers of charcoal with the potting mix, or add vermiculite or perlite to the soil. These added ingredients can either separate the excess water away from the roots, or they can literally soak up the excess water from the soggy soil so that the roots can dry out faster between waterings.
Control the amount and frequency of watering, check that the top two inches of soil are dry before giving the plant any more water, use a spray bottle to water the plant in small, controllable amounts, and dump out any excess water if you accidentally pour too much in.
Place the plant in a spot where it can get lots of bright, indirect light that can help the soil dry out quickly between waterings, and make sure that the temperature around the plant is between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit to help the soil dry out as well.
Image: istockphoto.com / Natalia SERDYUK