With a little imagination and common sense, even those on a tight budget can enjoy potting plants. The important things always remain, whether you pot fancy or plain: (Hey–That rhymes!)

  • Good soil
  • Good drainage
  • Good pots
  • Ingenuity


Soil is the one thing that must be bought (in some manner) for indoor potted plants. So this is where you must spend just a little. After the soil expense, you're home free, because everything else you need is probably lying around the house. However, folks often tire of buying bagged potting soil when it is too light, too "peaty", too heavy on the perlite, or on the other hand, perhaps too dense, too wet, or heaven forbid, infested with springtails or gnats. We don't have money to waste, do we? It seems we are left with two choices: Find a great bagged soil, or make up your own from separate components.

There's good news: Not all store-bought potting soils are bad. But I caution you against trying to save a dollar or two on bargain potting soil. Don't get the ultra-cheap stuff.

As a place to start, why not try orchid soil? The principle is fast drainage, which is essential for healthy plants. I personally use Miracle-Gro Orchid Potting Mix in an 8-quart bag. The bag just says "Formulated from forest products" without an ingredients list, except a .10–.02–.05 ratio of nutrients added in. Open it to see that it has peat, fine bark, and perlite in just the right proportions, and plants seem to love it.

This soil can be used alone or used as a base soil to mix in other ingredients if you want. Because sooner or later, you will want to have some level of control over your potting mix ingredients. You do not have to be a scientist to do that, nor do you need to spend a lot of money.

For cacti and succulents, you might want to try mixing in a little coarse sand, the coarser the better. Contractor's sand (builder's sand) or landscaper's sand is generally available this time of year (summer) at discount stores, garden centers, and home improvement centers. One bag bought for a few dollars will last a very long time as an ingredient that you occasionally mix into your base soil. So those few dollars spent on that one bag are a good investment. (Caution: Even small bags of sand can be heavy. Bring along a strapping young man or ask for someone to load it into your car for you.)

You can also find bags of tiny aquarium stone for fish tanks sold in pet or discount stores that is just a bit more coarse than sand. But to save money, maybe you already have aquarium stone sitting around in an unused aquarium. Wash it good, and use it for plants! I always throw a handful of very fine stone into my mix before potting. If your stones are not tiny, try a handful anyway.

Using beach sand is a question that comes up from time to time. I live near many beaches, and as a cacti and succulent lover, naturally I take sand home with me to experiment! But beach sand is full of salt. I have had to boil it, triple wash it, and set it out to dry, and even then it is used sparingly. After all the washing, it might be more economical to just buy the builder's or landscaper's sand. But don't hesitate to experiment! This is all about learning things and saving money, too.

For some ideas for making your own potting soil, try these links:

An article with a great recipe for potting soil, courtesy of Master Gardener Paul Rodman, "paulgrow": Make Your Own Potting Soil.

An in-depth explanation of soils, drainage, and another great potting soil recipe, courtesy of Al, "tapla" from the Dave's Garden Container Gardening Forum.

Don't be overwhelmed by the names of the raw ingredients, their availability, or their price. If you can only afford the bagged potting soil, it's okay to experiment. That's why using a good potting soil as a base to start with is a good idea and worth the few dollars you have invested. Sometimes you might want to add in just one extra ingredient to your quality bagged potting soil like sphagnum moss or vermiculite. Go ahead and try it. See what happens. Live and learn.


Many pots are beautiful but inappropriate for the health of your plant. They might be painted with something toxic to the plant, or they might not have a drainage hole. Or if they do, it's only one small hole in the middle or on the edge with a saucer attached right underneath the tiny hole. These pots look nice but are not designed with optimum health of your plant in mind. Steer clear of these types. Try to find something with a large drainage hole or several drainage holes without the attached saucer.

The most attractive pot in the world speaks nothing if it contains a plant that is clearly struggling to survive. This is very often an issue of drainage and is discussed at length in the Container Gardening Forum mentioned above. Overhead shot of healthy young spider plant in makeshift plastic potI believe a lush, healthy plant makes its own statement. The pot is secondary, but necessary, so here goes:

Clay pots

Ever budget-conscious, I shop for pots at thrift stores. In the past, I would quickly buy up every clay pot I could afford, especially the hand-painted and glazed ones. But then I noticed that my plants, especially my succulents, did not do as well as those in plain clay pots.

Generally speaking, I don't think that paint and plants were meant to co-mingle. There's something about chemicals and paint that bothers plants. So I'm back to natural clay for my cacti and succulents and lovin' it.

When buying used plain clay pots, take them home and scrub them in warm, soapy water. After a thorough rinse, dunk them in a kettle of hot water that has just begun to boil to get rid of germs.

Plastic pots

For used plastic pots, follow the same procedure but skip the boiling water. A drop of bleach in your cleaning water can disinfect the used pot; rinse thoroughly. A carefully cleaned and dried used plastic pot is safe to put plants into. Sometimes the most humble plastic planter encourages great growth, so stick with the plastic if it's working for you!

Economical multi-packs of plastic pots are available online if you are willing to do a little hunting. Try the Marketplace here on Dave's Garden or try E-Bay. In addition, you could join a local online Freecycle group as another source for recycled planters and pots. Freecycling works two ways: You must give in order to receive. That makes it fair.

Dollar stores often sell plastic planters in multi-packs in the spring and summer. Usually, you must punch out your own drainage holes in the pre-scored circles on the bottom of the plastic pots. Some people punch. Some people drill, especially on thick or ceramic pots. Personally, I like to use a solder gun to melt holes in the bottom of all of my plastic pots. I got that idea from a member in the Dave's Garden Community of Forums, an invaluable resource for ideas. Melting holes in the bottom of plastic pots sounds crazy, but it works. If you want to do it, please be careful!

For good measure, I create a few more holes than what the factory pre-scored for me. I don't think a plastic planter can have too many holes in the bottom. The water needs to flow in and flow out again fairly rapidly. After making enough holes and potting, I love to use plain plastic planters (complete with potted plant) as inserts placed inside of a fancy glazed clay pot just for show. The outer pot is purely decorative. It may or may not have a hole in the bottom, but if it does, it's probably a small one, and if so, a saucer to catch drips is essential. Pour off the overflow immediately! It's not good for plants to sit around with wet feet.

Found Pots

When I have neither the time nor the money (nor the gasoline) to shop for pots, I look around the house to see what I can find. Kitchen, bathroom, entertainment room, kids' rooms, any room is fair game.

Mouthwash lid with Marble Queen Pothos cutting in soilThis little Pothos on the left is planted in—Can you guess? That's right! It's a mouthwash lid.

Keep in mind that this white lid has a hole created in the bottom so the water can drain. If you remember nothing about this article, please remember this: DO NOT PLANT WITHOUT A DRAINAGE HOLE!

This little row of planters has been customized with bottom holes as well.Four tiny plastic cups in a row, each with a small Living Stone plant and soil Can you guess what they really are? (I thought they were just the right size for these young Living Stones plants.)

Sometimes I go for very long stretches without pots, (or shopping!) and at those times, food storage containers will Three Opuntia leaves taking root in a square plastic food container filled with orchid soilsuffice for my purpose. Again, my very first step is to create drainage holes in the bottoms. Unfortunately, when I'm done, these containers cannot go back into the kitchen.

Stacks of disposable bathroom cups nested in each other A member right here on Dave's Garden suggested using small plastic bathroom cups for pots, such as a pack of 100 for less than two dollars. These work great for just about anything, including moving seedlings around outdoors. Don't forget the drainage hole!

Container ideas