If you are new to taking care of houseplants, it is all too easy to think of them as “creatures of habit”, quite literally rooted in a single location, and to forget that houseplants lack what garden plants take for granted — ample space to grow and expand their root systems.
You may also, on the other hand, be quite aware that most houseplants need to be repotted fairly regularly to keep their strong and healthy roots, but scared that you will make mistakes during the process, and that you could end up killing your plant during the repotting process.
In either case, we’re here to help. In this beginner-friendly guide to repotting houseplants, you’ll learn why houseplants need to be repotted, how to determine that it’s time to get your houseplant a new pot, and how to actually go about repotting a plant.
Why Do Houseplants Need to be Repotted?
While each plant has unique needs, one characteristic remains true for all — plants have evolved to grow outdoors, usually firmly rooted in the soil they grow in. In their natural growing environments, plants do face some challenges. They may have to compete for “root space” with other plants, for instance, or their roots may be damaged by fungal infections. However, they generally have the space they require to keep on growing, and the soil they grow in has nutrients added to it all the time, both naturally and (often) in the form of fertilizer.
If you are caring for houseplants, it is easy to forget that they need more than sun, soil, and water. They also need space to grow. The pots and containers we place our houseplants in, or indeed the pots the plants came in when we bought them, were likely adequate at the beginning. As your plant continues to grow, however, that will no longer be the case.
Failing to repot a plant that desperately needs to be repotted can result in a number of problems, each of which is detrimental to the plant’s health:
- As your plant literally runs out of growing room, its roots can become compacted due to overcrowding. This affects your plant’s health in a wide variety of ways. The plant can become stunted, no longer growing. It can also begin displaying signs of wilting or leaf discoloration, and may stop flowering, in the case of flowering houseplants. In the most extreme cases, plants with compacted roots can die.
- The soil your plant is in can also become so old and devoid of nutrients that it will no longer support your plant’s ongoing growth, no matter what kind of fertilizer you offer your plant.
- When you are transplanting a plant from the garden to a pot, to be grown for as a houseplant, you may bring pests indoors. These could damage the plant you are bringing inside, but also neighboring plants. Such plants need new soil, and the same holds true for plants that were placed in the garden in pots and planters.
- If you have a plant that has become diseased, especially if it was affected by root rot, repotting is almost always a good idea as part of its treatment regimen.
All problems that result when a plant desperately needs to be repotted essentially results from one of these four factors — lack of space, poor and old soil, pests, and diseases.
Signs that Your Plant Is Screaming to Be Repotted
Most houseplants should be repotted once every year to year and a half to continue thriving — but there are exceptions, as some plants grow slowly and find repotting to be a stressful process. We would warmly recommend that you look into the individual needs of the plant species you keep as houseplants to give them the best care possible.
There are also, however, signs you can look out for even without knowing how often a particular species of houseplant typically needs to be repotted. Let’s take a look:
- The plant’s roots could be protruding through the drainage hole in its pot, showing that it is intensively looking for more space and making direction of the only way left.
- In some cases, you may see evidence of roots above soil level, too, indicating that the plant’s roots need more space.
- When lifting the plant from its pot, noticing dense root growth all around the edges of the soil likewise indicates that your plant has run out of space and needs to be repotted as soon as possible.
- A plant that’s “under the weather”, displaying unhealthy-looking or wilted leaves, failing to grow, or failing to flower as it should, could be dealing with a variety of different problems. Overwatering is a common reason for all these phenomena, for instance, and pests and diseases could cause these symptoms as well. If you haven’t repottted the plant in question for years, however, chances are that it needs a new pot.
- In the case of root rot, which is almost always caused by overwatering but can be worsened when fungal spores attack the plant’s root system, the plant will also begin to wilt. You will likewise be able to spot physical signs that the roots are rotten and damaged. Although root rot is often fatal, you can take steps to save the plant by pruning away the diseased roots and repotting the plant.
- If, when you water your plant, the water flows straight into the tray underneath the pot and is not absorbed by the soil, that’s another sign that the plant should be repotted.
- Is there visible white mineral buildup on the topsoil? Your plant needs repotting.
- Plants that need to be repotted may still look healthy, but be top-heavy. They fall over easily, as their root systems are weakened.
- At the same time, these plants may simply not be growing taller any more, even though they should be.
As a general rule, your houseplants will almost certainly benefit from being repotted into a larger container if you have been keeping them in the same pot for years.
How to Repot Your Houseplants: A Step-by-Step Guide
If you have determined that some — or even all — of your houseplants could benefit from repotting, but you have never repotted a plant before, the process can be a little daunting. Armed with a step-by-step-guide, the process will be easier. Before you get started, keep in mind that the ideal time to repot your plants stretches from late winter to early spring, while they are generally going through a dormant phase, so that you will not interrupt their upcoming growth season.
Do read all the way through before you get started, so that you know you have all the necessary equipment at hand!
Choosing a New Container for Your Houseplant
In some cases, you will want to place your plant in the same pot again — such as when there is still ample space, but the soil is old, or when you are trying to impede the plant’s growth. In these cases, the old pot will need to be cleaned thoroughly before repotting. You will also likely need to carry out root pruning, which needs to be accompanied by pruning of the plant’s stems, to ensure that the pot meets the plant’s needs.
If you are opting to place your plant into a bigger pot, this step can be skipped. Clay pots should, however, be soaked overnight before placing plants into them.
Remember that it is not a good idea to go from a pot that is clearly too small for the plant to one that’s excessively large — you would generally be advised to select a pot that is just one size bigger, and to repot your plant again when the time arrives.
Choosing the Right Potting Mix for Your Houseplant
Most houseplants will thrive in a regular potting mix designed for houseplants, but some have specific soil requirements. Cacti and succulents need to be placed in cactus-friendly rocky soil, for instance. Where in doubt, look into the right soil type for your plant, and get the right amount for the bigger pot into which you are planning to place your plant.
Getting Your Houseplant Ready for Repotting
Before you do anything else, offer your plant some water to loosen the soil it is currently in, and allow this to settle for an hour. Once you have done this, you can proceed by gently twisting the container while simultaneously methodically pulling the plant up from the base. If you can get some fingers between the soil and the pot, without touching the plant’s stem, the process will be less stressful for your plant. Keep going until the plant comes free from the soil.
Teasing the Old Soil Away From the Plant’s Roots
Using your (clean) fingers or a small implement like a fork, gently tease away the plant’s old soil from the root system. Go through this process in a slow and controlled manner; you do not want to damage your houseplant’s roots as you loosen its old soil.
If the roots have become severely compacted, they will likely be circling the plant’s root ball rather densely. To prepare your plant for a bigger pot, with more growing space, you will need to separate them from the root ball. Do this very gently and slowly.
Should you notice signs of root rot or your plant’s roots are looking unhealthy, or indeed if you are hoping to keep your plant small, go ahead and prune away the sick or excess roots.
Preparing the New Pot
Whether you choose a clay or plastic pot with drainage holes, most houseplants do not benefit from a rocky layer at the very bottom, a practice that limits the space for root growth. Instead, simply fill the bottom of your chosen pot with the appropriate potting medium.
Planting Your Houseplant in Its New Pot
Next, simply place the already prepared plant into the half-filled potting medium you have prepared. Fill in the edges with more soil, and where appropriate, add some compost, as well. Plants don’t appreciate being planted more deeply than they are used to, so check to see that you are planting it equally deeply as in the previous pot.
Once you are done adding soil, and your plant is more firmly in place, you can go ahead and tap the soil down into place, so that the plant is firmly placed in the potting medium you have prepared for it.
Watering Your Houseplant
Now that your plant is safely on the other side of the repotting adventure, it will need some water! This will help to acclimate your plant to the new pot, as well as causing the soil to settle further. This is a deep watering — keep adding more until water drains from the bottom of the new pot (but don’t forget to empty the tray afterward!).
Caring for Your Newly Repotted Houseplant
Keep in mind that almost all commercial potting mixes ship with fertilizer already included. This is why it is important to refrain from fertilizing your plant for around six weeks after repotting. After that time passes, you can go ahead and care for your plant as you did before.
You’re Done — Breathe a Sigh of Relief!
Repotting a plant can be scary, but you did it and discovered that your plant didn’t just survive the process, but is thriving now that it has more growing room and healthy, nutrient-rich, soil. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now that you have done it once, you can be confident about repotting your other houseplants in the future!
Repotting houseplants is an essential part of growing and caring for them. Most plants should be repotted once every 12 to 18 months, and will visibly start to tell you that they are not happy any more if you don’t take this important step. When your plant lets you know that it’s time for a bigger pot, listen — and it will thank you by showing you its most beautiful side.