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Like any normal city dweller, I’ve given the scant free surfaces in my apartment over to plants. But this past year, as my collection grew, I found myself holding off on buying pots, instead using plates and deli containers to keep my plants from weeping on my furniture. I realized that I wanted something more interesting to look at than terracotta, but didn’t want to spend $100 on a handmade pot for a $5 plant from my favorite flower shop in Chinatown. So naturally, I turned to Etsy—but I was faced with an unexpected problem.

Aesthetically, I was pleased with the affordable vintage options I found (circular planters! periwinkle planters! dripware planters!). But many of the pots created in the past century lack drainage—a problem you might run into even with that fancy new $100 planter. So to keep my greenery alive, I needed to figure out a way to help its roots breathe.

And then I realized I happened to have some rounds of charcoal on hand that I’d bought for the lid of my compost bin. I knew that the material has absorbent, antibacterial properties—and a quick online search told me it might just be the thing that could solve my problem. 

To confirm my suspicion, I spoke with Marc Hachadourian, senior curator of the New York Botanical Garden Orchid Collection and houseplant expert. When possible, he suggests planting a porous planter inside a larger decorative one, but when options are limited (say, if you just need that squat pink mid-century pot) Hachadourian says that a layer of charcoal is indeed an effective option for drainage. Just be sure to “water sparingly and be observant,” as it’s easier for soil to become waterlogged without openings and harder to tell when you’ve added too much. 

Armed with this knowledge, I opened up the charcoal rounds (though you can just buy the granulated stuff), popped some into the bottom of a newly purchased planter, then potted my plant as usual. Weeks later, greenery has never looked so alive—and attractively housed. 

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