University of Illinois Extension
Container Material Choices - Choosing a Container for Planting - Successful Container Gardens - UniversityofIllinoisExtension

Choosing a Container for Planting

Container Material Choices

There are many creative and exciting choices for container material, shape, and colors and finishes. Some common materials for containers include:

  • Cast cement
  • Clay (terra cotta pots, chimney tiles or drain tiles)
  • Hypertufa (a light weight artificial stone, easy to make-it-yourself)
  • Metal
  • Molded plastic, resin or fiberglass
  • Nylon stockings
  • Plastic bags
  • Peat pots
  • Pottery (glazed or unglazed)
  • Stone
  • Stoneware
  • Wood (boxes, baskets, hollowed stumps, tree bark)
  • Wire (or metal strap) hayrack style planters lined with moss, wood fiber, coco fiber or plastic to hold soil
  • Recycled* materials (like old boots, shoes, washtubs, furniture, milk crates, baskets, wagons, carts, and toys)

*Clean used or recycled containers with soapy water, then disinfect them with a solution of one part chlorine bleach and nine parts water.

Material Choice Affects Maintenance

The container material will affect the look of your garden and its maintenance. Ask yourself some questions:

Is the material porous?

In other words, will it soak up water? Clay or terra cotta materials soak up water. Wire baskets lined with absorbent material soak up water. Peat pots soak up water.

  • Porous material will lose water faster than non-porous materials
  • Containers can be lined with plastic to make the pot resistant to water loss.
  • If you sink a porous pot into the ground and leave the porous rim showing, it will wick moisture out of the pot (ex. peat pots or clay pots). Often the plants dry out and die. They die because water wicks out of the soil (though the porous pot) and into the air faster than it is replaced. So, if you sink a porous pot into the soil, be sure to completely cover the rim. The tops of peat pots can be ripped off when sinking them into the soil to prevent wicking.
  • Water within the pores of pottery will expand if frozen, cracking the pot. If less porous material (like rock or cement) has a crack, then freezing and thawing of moisture will pry open the crack making it worse. Protect pottery in winter. Thoroughly dry out and then cover securely with plastic wrapping to keep it dry. If stored outdoors, turning it upside down can help prevent it from filling with snow and leaves.

Will the container be heavy and difficult to move?

  • Place it on a dolly with casters if the plant needs to be rotated to take advantage of light or moved to a protected place during bad weather.
  • Place it in a permanent spot.

Will it hang in the air?

Examples are a hanging basket, window, fence or rail box.

  • Plan to water it more often. Winds and reflected heat will cause the plants to dry out faster.
  • It may drip on people or possessions below. Consider this when determining placement of a hanging container.
  • Secure hanging items well and consider potential safety issues when hanging.

Will the materials, size or color result in fluctuating soil temperatures?

  • In metal containers temperatures fluctuate more than non-metal ones. Dark colors absorb more heat than light-colored ones.
  • Fluctuating temperatures are also a problem with small pots. These are bigger problems in sun than in shade.
  • Dark-colored containers exposed to the intense summer sun can get hot. That heat transfers to the soil. If it gets too warm, roots are damaged and the potting media will dry out very quickly.
  • If fluctuating temperatures are a concern, protect the roots from extremes of heat and cold by lining the pot with foam or other kind of waterproof insulation.

Will the material rot over time?

Wood or other formerly living material may rot over time.

  • Treated lumber will last longer than untreated wood. Exercise caution with treated lumber when growing food, or where toddlers are concerned. A current discussion may be found on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website http://www.epa.gov/oppad001/reregistration/cca/
  • Choose wood naturally resistant to decay such as cedar or redwood from sustainable sources.
  • Consider safety issues if wood containers are hanging.

How much will it cost?

Is it an environmentally friendly choice? Can it be reused or recycled?

More Information on Choosing a Container