Repotting House Plants - How and When Guide

It's that time of year 'usually springtime' for repotting house plants, pruning or propagating plants. Let's look at the how and when of repotting to enable a successful transition.

It's always important to look at each indoor plant individually when planning to carry out any type of care instructions,including repotting.

Frequency and whether you’re potting up (transplanting seedlings), repotting or you’re just planning to provide a soil change is an important factor that varies from one species to another and its condition.

Repotting is kind of cleaning up, pruning roots possibly and renewing soil while the term 'potting up' is mainly used when transplanting seedlings.

The term 'potting on' is also used for transplanting to a pot usually one size larger. For this article though 'to keep it simple' I will use the term repotting.

Benefits of Repotting

The benefits can be massive for the overall health of our precious indoor plants and protection for the future health of them.

Benefits include, more room for plants to grow, more air getting to the root system, preventing poor soil and roots becoming root bound causing lack of growth - waterlogged soil, more valuable nutrients provided, and the prevention of diseases.

When to Repot

Springtime

For the majority of indoor plants repotting is required during spring and it's best just before or as you see the start of new growth appearing. This is a time for new growth because of longer daylight hours, more sun and warmer temperatures.

Spring repotting does not apply to all plants including winter flowering species and bulbs that become dormant during summer. These other plants are repotted during fall. As always - check the care instructions for that specific plant.

Tip: The beginning of the year is a good time to take a look at the health and condition of all plants within the home.

If you see they require pruning, repotting or any other care provided - you can write this down for each plant. It's a great way to plan ahead. While repotting it's also the ideal time to prune, if required.

Just arrived into the home

Repotting house plants is required for most plants when they are first brought home, unless you know they've been taken care of well and the soil and pot size is correct.

I have seen and bought many garden store plants that have been in a poor condition, and repotting is always done. I would usually do this after a week or two of the plant settling into the home to prevent further shock from changes in the conditions and environment.

Root/Pot bound

Plant roots pot bound

When roots have outgrown the current pot, the term 'root bound or pot bound' is used and it's time to consider upgrading the pot size. Signs of too much root for the pot is the classic 'roots growing through the drainage holes' and roots growing in a circular manner because they have no room to spread.

Keep it in mind that some plants 'especially flowering types' thrive when a certain amount of a tight fitting within a pot is provided, which enables them to flower better, (African violets are a good example). Again, turn to correct instructions required for each species.

If you are not sure if the plant is pot bound from the outside of the pot, you can remove the plant to check. It will not cause harm and you can return it after checking the roots.

Within the next article I will over removal of roots when plants are root bound. This could be the best option for your plant if it has too much root for the plant. When they’re severely root bound, the foliage and flowers lack sufficient water and nutrients for growth.

Plant or pot problems

Slow or no growth can be caused when a plant has become pot bound. Eliminate underfeeding, overwatering or not enough light first though. Soil drying out very quick can be a sign of root bound.

White frost on the outer edge of a clay pot occurs when hard water is used or overfeeding, and a kind of green slime is the result of blocked drainage or the plant has been overwatered. Both will require pot removal, possible repotting, fresh soil and sterilize the old pot before replanting.

Pot Types and Size

Types

There are two main pot types, terracotta (clay) and plastic, although some growers use ceramic containers with a pot inside.

The benefit of terracotta is they’re porous and tackle the overwatering issue much better than plastic. The downside of clay is they're not always best suited for displaying and can look unattractive.

Plastic has the advantage of being cheap, easy to replace, and they’re easier for removing a plant when repotting house plants. However, they do have some downsides, not solid enough for stability of certain plants, overwatering issues can arise, and other points are lacking compared to clay pots to be considered.

I will not go into detail about choosing pots and containers here, that's for another guide folks. Make choosing the right type part of the plan though.

Size

With most pots, just choose the next size up. Standard pots are sold with the diameter of the rim being the same as the as the depth. For certain plants such as African violets the roots grow well in width, so they’re best suited with shallow and wide pots.

Cactus and succulents have a small root system and do not need a deep pot, and the main point is they cannot absorb the water.

We don't want containers that are too big for plants. This can cause waterlogging, root rot, lack of air and diseases, so getting the fit just about right is essential.

Step 1 - Prepare the Pots

It's a good idea to clean pots well and sterilize them first with a chlorine solution of 10% chlorine. This is done to prevent plant diseases. Terracotta pots are worth giving a good soak for a couple of hours to remove the dryness of the clay enabling the new soil and plant to take in as much of the nutrients as possible, rather than the pot.

The putting terracotta, pieces of crock or other materials within the bottom of the pot debate continues.

The main benefit of placing material in the bottom of a pot could be better drainage, and prevention of watelogged soil causing root rot. An issue arises if a plant prefers to take water from the bottom of the pot where there would be no soil, and some growers get concerned that insects can access the plant easier (the bottom can have a small covering with tiny holes to solve this).

Pot with terracotta in the bottom

I would go with no crocking for clay pots. Plastic pots for certain plants needing plenty of drainage may benefit from some sort of crocking, and containers without drainage require a layer of pebbles. However, I would not put too much concern on this aspect of repotting, it could just be something picked up from grandma that has no positive affect apart from lessening the amount of soil to be used.

Watering First

Before repotting house plants I water those in terracotta first and leave plants in plastic pots to dry out slightly, but this is not important. Clay pots seem easier to remove a plant with wetness in the soil (water the night before) and dry soil seems to release a plant easier from plastic pots.

Step 2 - Removing from the Pot

Removing plant from its pot

Sometimes plants can be stubborn buggers to remove from pots, especially when they’re root bound and could have spent a bit too long inside.

If all else fails, rather than yanking the plant out which can cause serious problems, break the pot if it's clay or cut through plastic types.

With plastic potted plants I loosen the soil first by squeezing the sides of the pot slightly then turn the plant on its side and slide it out. Nine out of ten times this does the trick or a tap on the bottom is needed.

Some clay potted plants can be harder work that plastic - cannot be squeezed. You may need to run a butter knife between the soil edge and pot wall which normally frees them.

Any problems with removal, check if any roots are growing out the drainage holes. If so, use a blunt object smaller than the drainage hole to push them inside or cut them away with a sharp knife.

It's fine to hold the plant at the bottom of the stem with your hand on the soil and slightly try to ease the plant out, but you must be very careful and know what plant you have and what you’re doing. Woody and strong stems are easier, but some stems are so gentle you could snap your plant from the root ball easily.

Root Care

While the plant is out of its old pot it's worth checking the root system and cutting away damaged and unwanted roots, but this is an issue for another guide on root care that needs more explaining.

Removing some of the old soil from the root ball is useful. This is done by massaging around the outer edge of the root ball and only to remove excess soil in some circumstances.

Step 3 - Potting

potting soil added to the bottom of the pot
placed in pot level with the rim

After you have - chose a pot, cleaned the pot, chose the correct potting mix, and have a plant without a pot ready for transplanting, now place enough soil only at the bottom of the new pot.

The correct amount is when you are able to place your plant on top of the bottom soil with the plant stem and the beginning of the root section sitting at the correct level with the rim of the pot (allow a few millimeters or so gap below the rim for ease of watering).

Add soil around the edges

Once the position is correct and you’re happy with the level the plant is sitting at - it's time to fill up the edges, between the roots and pot wall.

It's useful to press your thumbs down on the soil lightly, but do not over do it and make the soil so compact that not enough air and water can flow freely. You can always add more top soil if required if future waterings make the soil compress down.

You may not have much of a root system to seat the plant on top of the first step of adding soil in the pot. which is fine. Just gauge the level the best you can with the bottom soil and fill up the edges.

Step 4 - Water, Care and Relax

Job done, now just provide the repotted house plants with their favorite tipple, water.

The majority of plants will need a thorough watering from the top allowing water to seep through the whole soil and root system, and then remove additional water from the pot saucer after 30 minutes. If the soil sinks too much after watering, just top up the soil.

Avoid direct sunlight while the plant is recovering from the transplant and do not fertilize for about a month or more (new potting mix should have plenty of nutrients anyway).

Look out for sagging and limp leaves or stems which could be a sign of underwatering - and if they turn yellow, you may be overwatering.

You can rest easily while the plants absorb the fresh nutrients and enjoy new room to grow.

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