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Do Snake Plants Need Drainage Holes? (Solved!)

You might have heard that Snake Plants (Dracaena trifasciata, AKA Mother in Law’s Tongue) are almost indestructible. While this is true, it’s important to remember that ‘almost’! There is one sure-fire way to kill your Snake Plant, and that is to let its roots rot. 

If you keep your Snake Plant in a pot with no drainage holes, you need to be very careful not to overwater your plant as the excess water will stay in your plant’s pot and cause its roots to rot.

Snake Plants kept in containers do not necessarily need drainage holes in their pots, but they will be much easier to look after in a pot with holes. Using a pot with drainage holes for your Snake Plant will help avoid the biggest killer for these plants – root rot.

Why Is Drainage Important?

Proper drainage is essential for most container plants, including Snake Plants. Drainage holes in the bottom of the container allow excess water to flow out of the container and help to avoid a waterlogged potting mix. 

Additionally, water moving through your plant’s potting mix helps prevent the build-up of chemicals from fertilizer and tap water that can damage your plant’s root system.

If water is allowed to collect in your plant’s container, as it does in pots with no drainage holes, it could cause trouble for your Snake Plant. 

Problems Caused by Lack of Drainage

Growing your Snake Plant in a pot without drainage holes could cause several issues for your plant. Let’s look at these issues in detail:

Root Rot

When the potting mix of a container plant is constantly wet, it provides the perfect place for fungal organisms to live and breed. Many types of fungi cause root rot, the most common being members of the Pythium, Phytophthora, Fusarium, and Rhizoctonia families. 

These fungi take advantage of the wet conditions in waterlogged containers to multiply and eat away at the roots of your plant, quickly causing massive amounts of damage. 

Symptoms of root rot can look similar to those of dehydration – dry, curling leaves, and drooping. It is essential to check the water level of your Snake Plant’s potting mix before watering it, as adding more water to a plant suffering from root rot will make the problem worse.

If your plant has root rot, it’s not necessary to determine which fungi are causing the problem, the symptoms, and treatments similar for all of them. 

Oxygen Starvation

We usually think of plants needing carbon dioxide to survive. While this is true, it is a lesser-known fact that they also need oxygen.

Plants take in carbon dioxide and oxygen through their leaves through pores called stomata, and they take in oxygen through their roots.

If your plant’s roots are surrounded by water, as they are in waterlogged soil, they can’t absorb enough oxygen and begin to suffocate.

The symptoms of Oxygen deficiency are poor, stunted growth and yellowing leaves which eventually drop off, and the eventual death of your plant.

Oxygen deficiency and root rot go hand in hand, so if your plant is suffering from one of these issues, it is likely to be suffering from both.

Root Burn from Excess Salts and Minerals

When you keep your Snake Plant in a pot without drainage holes, it makes the problem of chemical build-up and root burn much more likely.

Tap water and fertilizers contain salts and minerals, which may be beneficial for your plant in very small doses but can be very harmful in larger quantities. 

When water can’t escape from your plant’s pot, these substances build up and collect around your plant’s roots. This burns the roots and stops them from functioning correctly. Symptoms of root burn include browning leaves and roots and stunted growth.

Weak Root System Development

Your Snake Plant needs a robust root system to survive. If your plant’s roots are surrounded by water, not only with your plant be susceptible to the problems listed above, but it won’t be able to grow new strong, healthy roots.

Without a healthy root system, your plant won’t be able to take in nutrients through its roots, and its growth will slow or even stop. It may lose leaves, droop, or even die.

How to Treat Problems Caused by Lack of Drainage

If you suspect any of these problems, it is vital to tackle them straight away. All of these issues could kill your plant in a matter of weeks, so as soon as you think there might be an issue, check your plant’s roots and the water level in your plant’s potting mix. For all the issues given above, here’s how to treat them:

  • Take your plant from its pot and remove as much potting mix from around the roots as you can
  • Use a sterilized, sharp pair of scissors to cut away rotten or damaged roots.
  • If you see crusty chemical build-up around the roots, gently rinse it off with water
  • Repot your plant in a very slightly moist, freely-draining potting mix (use 1/3 perlite or vermiculite to improve drainage)
  • Use a pot with drainage holes if your plant has suffered from issues from lack of drainage
  • Water your plant sparingly and always check the moisture level of the potting mix beforehand – if it isn’t dry, don’t water!

Be aware that these problems can be very severe, and it is not always possible to save a plant with badly damaged roots. Snake Plants are very tough, though, so it’s worth a try!

Growing Your Snake Plant in a Container Without Drainage Holes

It is possible to grow your Snake Plant in a container without drainage holes; it just takes a bit more care than in a pot with them. Here are a few techniques that you can use to improve the drainage in pots without holes:

Placing a layer of gravel, charcoal, or pebbles in the bottom of your plant’s pot

By placing a thick layer (at least 2 inches) of gravel, pebbles, or charcoal in the bottom of the pot, you’ll make it possible for water to move down into this layer, away from your plant’s roots. 

Don’t use broken pottery for this purpose – the shape of the shards doesn’t easily allow water through and will often hold water in the potting mix, increasing the problem of waterlogging.

Adding a layer of activated charcoal to your plant’s potting mix

Activated charcoal absorbs water and so it a great choice to improve drainage for your Snake Plant. It draws water from your plant’s potting mix and holds it away from your plant’s roots. 

Layer the charcoal in with the potting mix as you pot your plant. Note that activated charcoal is not the same as ‘barbeque’ charcoal which may be treated with chemicals. You can buy activated charcoal from garden centers, aquarium suppliers, or online.

Mixing perlite or vermiculite in with the potting mix

Perlite and vermiculate are types of volcanic rock that absorb water and hold it away from your plant’s roots in a similar way to charcoal.

Additionally, the porous nature of these substances means that they also hold air, which your plant’s roots can access to take in oxygen. 

Mix one-third perlite or vermiculite with your potting compost when potting your plant. You can buy perlite and vermiculite at garden centers or online.

If you’re going to keep your Snake Plant in a pot without drainage holes, it is important to use an appropriately sized container.

The container should be small enough that water won’t hang around in the bottom of the pot for too long; for a medium-sized plant, a pot around six inches in diameter should be fine.

To aid the evaporation of water from your Snake Plant’s container, make sure that you keep your plant in a reasonably warm place (55 – 85℉, 13 – 29°C) where it gets plenty of bright, indirect light. A position a foot or two away from a window will do nicely.

If you keep your Snake Plant in a container without drainage holes, it’s a good idea to repot it once a year so that you can assess the condition of your plant’s root system.

If you notice any problems with your plant’s roots, such as sections turning black or brown, consider repotting your plant in a pot with drainage holes.

How To Water Your Snake Plant Without Drainage Holes

If you decide to keep your plant in a container without drainage holes, it is important to adapt your watering technique.

Snake Plants are very drought tolerant and don’t need a lot of water to survive, and are much more likely to be damaged by overwatering than underwatering. 

Depending on the conditions in which you keep it, your plant will need watering once a month to once every three months.  

During the summer, when temperatures are higher, your plant will probably need watering once a month, possibly less. During the autumn and winter, you might only need to water your plant every two or three months. 

Here are some tips for watering your Snake Plant if you keep it in a pot without drainage holes:

Check the moisture content of potting mix before watering

Only water your Snake Plant when its potting mix is completely dry. You can check the moisture level of your plant’s potting mix by sticking your finger a few inches down into the mix – if it feels at all damp, your plant does not need any more water. You could also use a hydrometer for this purpose.

Use a syringe or spray bottle to water your plant

This is a great way to control how much water you give your plant. Use a syringe to inject the water directly into the potting mix, or use a spray bottle to spray water onto the top layer.

Remove excess water when possible

If you’ve watered your Snake Plant and you think you’ve overdone it, for example, if water is sitting on top of the potting mix, gently tip your plant so that the water can escape from the top of the pot.

Never water you plant on a schedule or ‘just in case’

Giving your Snake Plant water when it doesn’t need it is the easiest way to kill it. If you’re tempted to top it up without checking first, resist the urge!

Even if your plant could do with some water and you forget, Snake Plants can cope amazingly well without water and won’t suffer from a missed watering or two.

Is It Better to Grow Snake Plants in Pots With or Without Drainage Holes?

It’s up to you whether you plant your Snake Plant in a pot with or without drainage holes. Your plant will be much less susceptible to problems caused by overwatering or waterlogged soil in a plant with drainage holes, but it is possible to keep a Snake Plant happy in a container without them.

Just bear in mind that you will have to pay a lot more attention to your plant and be on the lookout for root problems.

If you are a beginner gardener or often overwater your plants, it might be best to err on the safe side and use a pot with plenty of drainage holes. 

A Final Tip

If you love the look of decorative containers without drainage holes but are worried about harming your plant, there is an easy solution.

Simply pot your Snake Plant in a pot with plenty of drainage holes, place a layer of gravel or pebbles inside your container without holes, then pop your plant inside. Water will drain out through drainage holes of your plant’s pot and into the other container. 

You’ll still need to make sure you don’t overwater your plant, but with this technique, it is much easier to remove excess water should you overdo it.

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