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Happy houseplants are a wonderful thing. Most need little maintenance or special skills. But under the soil line on a thriving plant, the roots are growing away becoming overcrowded. At that point, you need to repot your plant.
Even if your plant isn’t crowded, repotting is a necessary step that you need to take every few years to refresh the soil.
Don’t worry though. Follow our guide, and you’ll see that it’s an easy task that you can get done quickly so you can get back to enjoying your plants.
Why You Need to Repot Your Houseplants
Table of Contents
There are a number of reasons why you need to repot your houseplants. It’s not something you can put off too long if you expect your plant to thrive. Sometimes the soil needs changing, or other times it’s because the plant outgrows its space in the container.
1. Soil Loses Nutrients
Your potting medium leaches nutrients every time you water. It’s just a fact of life. Eventually, the soil will be completely depleted and not even regular fertilizer will be enough to feed your houseplant.
2. Soil Becomes Hydrophobic
Over time, the potting mix ages. All of that watering, dust, and nutrients being taken by the plant starts to affect its usefulness. The soil becomes dry and repels water or doesn’t use it effectively.
The water can’t penetrate the growing medium or the soil can’t hold onto moisture, leaving the plant desperate for water. This affects the plant’s ability to draw nutrients from the soil. Sometimes water pools on top of the soil and sits for long periods of time.
When this happens, your soil has become hydrophobic. The only solution is to replace it.
3. Soil Disintegrates
When the soil becomes hydrophobic or dry and old, it can’t clump together and retain too much moisture. If you squeeze a small amount of healthy potting mix that is moist, it should hold its shape and stay together.
Dry, old soil will crumble even though it has just been moistened. The plant will be starved of nutrients and suffer over time.
4. The Plant is Rootbound
Plants like to spread out their roots. The container prevents this, so it becomes too crowded.
You may see the roots growing out of the bottom of the container drainage holes, pushing through cracks or breaks, particularly in plastic pots, or even making their way to the surface of the soil. In some cases, the plant may be pushed out the top of the container.
This is common, especially when the plant is rootbound for too long and the soil stays dry.
5. Salt and Minerals Appear on the Surface of the Soil
Salts and minerals that are left unabsorbed often end up on the surface as water passes through the soil. This is a good sign the plant has taken the nutrients it needs, and the excess is now unusable.
This excess builds up and you need to get rid of it.
6. The Plant Looks Scraggly or Unhealthy
Despite being looked after, a plant that is scraggly and struggling may be root bound.
Sometimes the roots will circle around and around the inside of the container, rather than push out of the sides or bottom drainage holes. When this happens, the roots are often very thick.
If you see circling roots or roots coming out of drainage holes, it’s time to repot.
7. The Plant is Too Big
If your plant is falling over from being too top-heavy, you will need to repot it into a bigger container.
Equipment Needed to Repot Houseplants
Jobs like this are much easier to complete when you prepare everything you need in advance. Have it all sitting there ready to go. This is especially important if you are repotting a number of houseplants at once.
1. A Planter or Container
Make sure you have the containers you’re transferring the plant to ready to go. You don’t want to have the plant exposed to the environment and then have to go and find a container.
You can also reuse the same container if you’re just replacing the soil. But you’ll want to hurry and clean it out using ten parts water to one part bleach before putting the plant back in.
2. Fresh Potting Soil
Make sure to have your appropriate potting medium on hand to fill the container. You don’t want your poor plant sitting there exposed while you run to the store for potting mix.
This may sound surprising, but it can be a bit of a workout getting plants out of pots. You also run the risk of cutting your hands or getting dirt into wounds unless you wear gloves.
Most manufacturers of potting and seed-raising mixes recommend gloves and even a mask if you’re in an area with little airflow. It certainly couldn’t hurt.
4. Tarp or Plenty of Newspaper
It’s surprising how much old soil comes out of a container. Sometimes there is trapped water or dusty material. You definitely want to contain the mess, and a tarp or lots of newspapers can help you do that.
You can also just do the work outside on a clean surface, assuming the weather is nice.
5. A Watering Can
Water is essential when repotting plants. Having it on hand stops you from having to go back and forth to the faucet right when your plant needs nutrients the most.
6. A Gardening Trowel or Knife (Optional)
Sometimes you need a trowel or knife to carefully wedge or tease the plant out of the old container. Depending on how long it’s been in there or how badly it’s rootbound, it can be difficult to remove some plants.
Consider purchasing one specifically for repotting, rather than one you also use in the outside garden, to avoid spreading diseases.
A clean pair of secateurs or scissors can remove the roots or stems that are damaged or diseased. To create a healthy, happy plant, you’ll probably need to do some trimming.
8. Decorative Soil Cover (Optional)
This is purely personal taste, but a fresh container with lava rocks on top almost always looks good. Orchid bark or pebbles can also be a nice addition to your plant, depending on what it is.
How to Repot Your Houseplants
Don’t be intimidated by this job. It’s actually easy if you are careful, take your time, and have all your equipment ready to go.
Water the plant an hour before you begin the process. This helps to loosen the soil, especially if it’s compacted. Allow the freshly watered plant to sit for an hour.
Remove the Plant
Support the plant by holding the stem or stems and tilt the container sideways. Tap the bottom and sides of the container to loosen the soil and slide the plant out. If it’s a tight fit, gently pull on the stem.
Still no luck? Use a knife or trowel and insert it between the inside of the pot and the rootball to loosen it.
You may need to work at this for a little bit, or it may simply slide out.
The key is to be gentle. Don’t force anything. Once the plant is out, gently remove all of the soil from the root ball. You can also wash the soil away with a gentle stream of lukewarm water.
Inspect the Roots
Inspect the roots and remove any damaged or diseased sections. Prune some of the excessively long roots. At this point, consider removing any roots that won’t fit in the new container, but only if you need to. Tease any tight areas out to loosen them.
Place the fresh potting mix into the container. Press it down gently. Don’t press too hard because you don’t want to stop the plant from receiving nutrients and oxygen.
Place in a New Container
Place the plant on top of the new potting mix in the base of your chosen container and check that the root ball is slightly lower than the lip of the container. Add or remove some mix if needed and make sure the plant is in the center.
Gently add more potting mix around the roots, making sure to hold the plant level and in the center.
Once the potting mix reaches the top of the container, press it down lightly to around an inch below the lip. Roots like to be firmed into the potting mix, but not pushed down too much so that they’re overly compacted.
Water well and move the plant to its home. If the area where the plant is normally located is cold or drafty, keep the container in a warm area with indirect sunlight for at least a week before placing it in its usual location.
Choosing a Container for Houseplants
Aside from the aesthetics of a container for your interior, there are some other things you should consider because it really does affect the plant.
Choose a container one size bigger than the original. This is because one that is too big can make the plant look out of place and can contribute to root rot. It’s also a waste of potting mix.
Plastic containers are lighter and so they’re easier to move, though a light container is prone to tipping over if the plant becomes too big or has unbalanced growth.
Clay or terra-cotta pots are heavier, so slightly more stable. They can also prolong the potting mix lifespan. Clay pots tend to draw excess water from the soil as well as the unwanted nutrients that build up over time.
A disadvantage of clay pots is you need to water more often to ensure the plant gets its preferred amount of water.
Make sure the container has drainage holes. This is needed to prevent waterlogged potting mix. Be wary of how much water you use because the drip tray underneath may overflow.
You should always empty the drip tray within 30 minutes or so. If it continues to overflow after that time, you’ve given your plant too much water.
5 Mistakes to Avoid When Repotting Houseplants
- Wrong pot size. If the container is too big you can create too much space and end up with waterlogged soil. If it’s too small, the roots will be compacted from as soon as it’s repotted.
- Not ensuring good drainage. Drill some holes before you repot the plant if necessary and make sure there is a good size drip tray underneath.
- Removing too many roots or breaking the root ball. Be gentle when you loosen the soil around the root ball. If it is tightly compacted, soak if for a few hours or overnight to make the task easier. Only trim excess roots if necessary.
- Repotting a flowering plant. Even the easiest houseplant needs perfect conditions to flower. Repotting during flowering will upset this process.
- Repotting when it’s cold. If it’s too cold, the repotted plant may go into shock. Repot in summer.
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