Repotting is an essential part of caring for your plants. Most plants need to be repotted once a year, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the growing conditions and plant type. Repotting is important to the health of your plants because it allows more room for growth, and refreshes the soil nutrients to keep your plants healthy and happy.
Let’s dive into some of the most common questions around repotting plants, and then we’ll go through some step by step instructions on how to best repot your plants.
Why Should I Repot My Plants?
This is a great question. As plants grow in their little potted homes over time they take up nutrients from the soil. This allows them to grow big and strong and also allows their root system to thrive.
As their root system grows more and more it takes up more room in the pot, while at the same time eating more nutrients from the soil. If you let your plant go long enough in the same pot it will eventually run out of room for the root system to grow, and also run out of nutrients to eat as it consumes all available nutrients from the soil.
When this happens, you may not notice any changes to the foliage at first, but at some point, your plant will eventually become unhealthy due to a lack of nutrients and root crowding. To keep your plant healthy and growing it is important to repot it from time to time so you can ensure the roots have enough room for growth and that your plant is getting enough nutrients from the soil.
Another reason, of lesser importance, is aesthetics. As you will see below in the discussion on when to best repot your plants, the size of the pot should look proportional to the size of the plant. Of course, there are exceptions in the plant world such as Bonzai or large planters filled with tiny succulent gardens, but for the majority of house or patio plants, you don’t want a huge plant in a tiny pot or vice versa.
Having too small or too big of a pot can definitely look funny, or at the very least not look as striking as a beautiful, appropriately sized pot can look. Having too small of a pot could also mean you aren’t providing the best environment to your plant.
When Should I Repot My Plants?
Repotting really depends on the plant and the growing condition. Some gardeners follow the simple rule of repotting every Spring, and although this might work well for most plants, it is also important to listen to the plants themselves. Some plants grow faster or slower than other plants, and pot sizes vary.
You should always check your pots a couple of times a year to see if your plant is getting too crowded. The main thing you should be looking for is whether or not your plant is “root bound.” This means that the root system has overgrown within the pot and is now being severely crowded.
Signs of being root bound include roots hanging out from the bottom of the holes in the pot or even coming up out of the top of the pot having grown up through the top of the soil. Additionally, if the pot is plastic, you can also give it a squeeze. If the pot doesn’t have any “give” it likely means that your plant is root bound, if it does flex a bit that means you still have some time.
Another thing to look for is the dryness of your plant and pot. Does the soil in your current pot get dry very quickly after watering? That could mean that your plant has so many roots and such little soil that the pot can’t hang onto any water. This, of course, would be an indicator that it’s time to repot. Another indicator can be the growth rate of your plant. Did your plant recently start growing more slowly? This is another great indicator that it’s time to take a closer look at the pot and see if it’s time to repot the plant.
Looking at the foliage can also be an indicator. Does the plant look too large for the pot that it’s in? If so that could also be a good indicator that it’s time to check the roots and think about repotting. If the plant’s foliage looks like it still has a lot of room to stretch out on the top of the pot, you could still have more time until you repot.
Additionally, if you have a plant with a long stalk or trunk-like feature, see if your plant looks too tall for the size pot that it’s in. This can be another indication that it’s probably time to repot your plant into a bigger home. Another indicator with foliage is the weight of the plant. Do you find that your plant is quite top-heavy and prone to tipping over? This is another indicator that it’s probably time for a larger pot!
If you’ve had your plant for a while, say a year or so, you can also judge when it’s time to repot based on how much growth your plant has experienced. Has the plant grown a lot? (If it started small) Has it doubled in size in the last year or so? Think back to how the plant looked 8-12 months ago. If your plant has grown significantly since then, that’s another good indicator that it’s ready for a bigger pot and a new home.
What do I need to Repot My Plants?
Repotting can be quite simple, although there are some tools that can help make it easier and a bit less messy. For starters, a good hand trowel will help to scoop new dirt to backfill into your plant’s new home, in addition to making it easier to get your plant out of its existing pot.
If your plant is extremely root bound and really “stuck” in the pot, a butter knife with a dull edge can also be a helpful tool to scrape around the inside edge of the pot, allowing the roots to release. If your plant is extremely root bound it may also be a good idea to have some scissors on hand as you might need to snip off a bit of the root system (more on this mentioned below!).
Of course, you will also need soil! Look for a good potting soil mix at your local hardware or garden store. Be aware that some plants need special soils, so if you have a highly tropical plant such as a Monstera or something more desert adapted such as a Snake, ZZ plant, or succulent be sure to research what type of soil works best for your particular plant as those plants require looser, less nutrient-dense soil and do well with unique mixtures such as peat moss, perlite, sand, and even wood and mixtures.
Lastly, you will need a new pot. Make sure to choose a pot that works well with the type of plant you have. For example, you won’t want to use a shallow but wide pot for a plant with a very long root system, as it could crowd the roots, but it could work well for a plant with a more shallow root system.
Also, make sure to find a pot with drainage holes to ensure that your plants don’t get root rot in their new home. Found a planter pot that you love but it doesn’t have holes in the bottom? Consider drilling holes in the bottom using a masonry bit which you can easily find at your local hardware store, or repot the plant into a plastic pot that fits inside of the planter pot. This way, when it’s time to water you can just pluck the plastic pot with the plant out of your prettier planter and water over a sink so the water can drain through the bottom. After watering just put the plastic pot back into your planter!
Other things that might help would include a rag to wipe the edges of the new pot off when you’re done replanting and glove to protect your hands. Additionally, you may want to experiment with adding soil amendment to your new plant such as a handful (no more than this or it can kill your plant!) of compost which can be purchased at your local hardware or garden store and can help provide extra nutrients to your plants.
Things to Keep in Mind
The new pot you pick out is important. Choose a pot too small and the plant will outgrow the pot quickly. Too big and you could possibly end up shocking your plant, and it might take a very long time for it to recover. The rule of thumb is usually: choose a pot no more than 3″ larger in diameter for everyday house and patio plants that sit on tables or are in hanging planters, however, if you have a floor planter that is holding a larger plant such as a palm tree or similar, choose a pot no more than 6″ in diameter.
It is recommended to air on the side of caution when choosing a larger planter, as it will always be better for your plant to go just a little bit bigger with the pot rather than too big. Too big and the pot will require more water. More soil in the pot means that the soil will stay wetter longer, and this could lead to accidentally root rotting your plant.
If you go too small, for example, you only size up 1″ or so in pot diameter, you likely won’t ruin your plant, but you also won’t be helping it reach its full potential. The foliage on the top of the plant is, of course, an indicator to the health of the roots of the plant. When you give your plant more space to grow and more nutrients to grow strong and healthy, it will quickly respond to this change.
Too small of a pot and this new growth will halt quickly once your plant ends up root bound again, meaning you might miss out on some beautiful growth you could have achieved had you used just a slightly bigger pot.
Moral of the story: use discretion. Don’t go more than 3″ or 6″ larger in diameter depending on the current size/location of your plant (see above), but also don’t be scared and stay too small or you’ll end up right back where you started in just a few months!
Root Bound Plants
As aforementioned, if your plant is extremely root bound, you might have to give it a little extra TLC before you put it in its new pot. If you find that you absolutely need to use a dull or butter knife to pry your plant out of its current pot, this is a really good indicator that you might have some serious root overgrowth.
You might find that when you pull the plant out, the bottom of the root ball has molded to the shape of the previous pot and looks like a tangled mess. If this is the case, you’ll have to fluff the roots a bit to get your plant ready for its new home. First try to stick your fingers up through the bottom of the root ball, very gently, and begin to separate the roots so they no longer form to the shape of the previous pot.
Be very gentle. You may hear some ripping and see some small pieces of root come off, and that is OK as long as you are performing the action gently and you are staying at the very bottom of the roots. Avoid messing with the roots anywhere close to the trunk or stem of the plant, and only work on the roots at the very bottom, farthest away from the stem or trunk.
Ideally, using your hand will be enough to fluff up the roots, but sometimes plants can be so root bound you might have to use scissors to very gently snip of any extremely tangled root ends. If this is the case, be very conservative and snip one tangle off at a time, going back in with your fingertips in between snips to loosen.
You don’t want to cut off too much or be too rough with the root system as it can send your plant into shock, however, you will also need to make sure the roots are fluffed or else the plant will not take quickly to its new potted home.
Step by step Instructions to Repotting your Plant
1) Assess your current plant. Is it deeply root bound, or just taking up a bit too much room in the pot? This will help guide how big your pot should be and also inform what tools you’ll need to gather to repot your plant.
2) Next, assemble what you need. Here’s a list:
- Hand Trowel
- Potting Soil
- New Pot
- Butter or Dull knife (optional, needed if very root bound)
- Scissors (optional, needed if very root bound)
- Compost (optional)
3) Get your new pot ready. Make holes in the bottom if needed. Add a scoop or two of potting soil to the bottom of the pot to get ready for repotting. Add a small handful of compost if desired and mix it into the soil mix evenly.
4) Take your plant out of its existing pot. Be gentle yet firm. Use the hand trowel around the edges if you need help leveraging the plant out of the pot. If the plant is extremely root bound and feels “stuck” take your dull/butter knife and run it around the inside edge of the pot, releasing the roots from the pot to get the plant out.
5) Once your plant is out of its old pot, take a look at the root system. Does it look cramped or tangled? Is it taking form of the previous pot it was in? Does it look like there’s no dirt left at the bottom of the root ball? If you answered yes to any of these questions you will need to fluff the roots in the next step. If the bottom of your root system seems to not be tangled, there’s soil left at the bottom of the root ball, and the roots are hanging freely when you hold the plant up, then you can skip fluffing and move onto step 7.
6) Fluff the roots if your plant seems root-bound. Start with your fingertips, very gently using them to pry up through the bottom of the root ball, using a massaging and pulling motion to detangle the roots. If this is impossible, use your scissors to make a very small snip or two, cutting out a tangle. Then try again with your fingers. Make sure to be very conservative with the scissors so you don’t cut off too much of the root system. Stay as far away from the stem or the trunk of the plant as possible and only fluff and trim roots at their ends. Feel free to give your plant a very gentle shake as you do this to help the root system detangle at the ends. Be gentle with your hands but firm enough you can actually detangle the bottom of the roots.
7) It’s time to put your plant into its new home! Start by putting your fluffed plant into the new pot with a bit of soil at the bottom to see how the plant is looking position wise. You want to leave about half an inch to an inch for small or medium planters between the lip of the pot and the base of the plant, and you’ll want to leave about a good inch for larger planters. Add more soil under the plant or take more soil out of the bottom to achieve the appropriate height.
8) Once the height looks good, place your plant into the pot. While holding it with one hand, take about a third of the soil from the previous pot and add it to the pot, alternative with scoops or handfuls of the new potting mix. Adding some of the previous soil will help your plant adjust more quickly to its new pot! Do NOT pack down the soil as you add it to the pot, this can suffocate the roots and not allow them to breathe or move efficiently. Just add the soil into the pot without tamping it down. Remember to leave half an inch to a full inch of space at the top of the pot for small to medium planters, or a full inch for larger planters. If you fill the pot up all the way with soil it will become very hard to water the plant.
9) Now to clean up and water! Take your rag and wipe around the rim of the planter to ensure that your newly potted plant looks nice and clean! Feel free to also use your rag to wipe around the inside lip of the planter fo an extra touch of cleanliness.
10) Now it’s time to water your plant in its new home! Water it through well. You want to see water draining out of the bottom. Once you see this, stop watering and let it drain out completely. Wipe off the bottom and sides of your pot, and there you have it, your newly repotted plant!