Houseplants 101: Repotting your plant

(This is the second part of a series of articles about potting mix and houseplants. Click here to read part one.)

To keep your plants healthy for many years to come, it’s necessary to provide basic routine care, aside from watering and fertilizing. Repotting is one of those parts of plant culture that may not seem immediately obvious, but makes sense; plants don’t live in pots in nature, and so some extra care is necessary to keep them healthy in unnatural conditions. Repotting disturbs the plant and its roots, and but overall encourages healthy development by promoting new root growth as the plant gets settled in its new space. Repotting is an exciting, challenging experience for beginner gardeners, and can be successful most of the time with attention to watering. The aesthetic aspect of choosing a pot to complement a plant, and potting it “well”, that is, to be pleasant to look at, is another reason to repot and takes practice as well. In this post I talk about why you should repot your plant, as well as the basic steps in repotting a plant. I hope to emphasize that repotting is a good way to troubleshoot issues you may face with a plant, though it may be a good idea to wait to repot a plant that is stressed: new plants in your home, infested plants, or recently pruned/propagated plants for example.

What is repotting?

Repotting is the process of removing a potted plant from its container, checking up on its roots, and potting the plant back into a container. Repotting can disturb the plant’s root system and cause stress, though it will ultimately help promote healthy growth by providing new space in the pot for the plant to grow.

Why should you repot your plant?

  • As general maintenance. It’s a part of good houseplant culture to regularly check up on your plants’ roots by unpotting and repotting your plant. The most you should check up on a healthy plant’s roots is once every year, though many plants (especially succulents and cacti) are better off staying in the same pot for longer. Inspecting your plant’s roots can give you a better idea of any problems that might be going on with your plant’s health. Repotting your plant can help address issues like nutrient deficiency, rootbound, compacted medium, unknown pest issues, or even drainage.
  • Replacing “tired” potting mix. If it’s been a few years since you’ve repotted a plant, it may help your plant to repot using fresh potting mix. I like to conserve a little bit of the old “tired” (but still healthy!) potting medium to mix with the new mix, to try and support the microbiome that has established there.

    If a plant’s potting mix compacted, that is, sunk down in the pot and become really hard, it would be wise to help fluff up the medium in some way. After all, air exchange to the roots can benefit plants. Soak the plant’s roots with water to try and loosen the potting mix, and then you can break it up gently with your hands or a fork. You can do this by completely unpotting the plant first, or try to loosen up the medium from the top. Eventually, it will probably be necessary to repot with fresh potting mix.

    It’s possible if you water your plants with mineral-rich water that salts can build up in your plant pots. In most cases, a really good rinse can help dissolve and flush out these salts, but in extreme cases, repotting in new potting mix might be necessary.
  • To help a plant that’s falling over. An unstable plant likely needs to be re-planted and given some sort of support, like a trellis or a stake, to help stabilize it as the roots develop.
  • To help a plant with infected or infested potting mix. Repotting your plants during a pest infestation is not ideal, but is sometimes needed to fully treat roots, which are sometimes a target for plant pests. You may also want to replace potting mix that’s become really moldy. In these cases, you can control the problem by first throwing away infected soil, washing your plant with gentle soap and water, rinsing, repotting in a clean pot, and later applying a plant probiotic (if you want!) to establish healthy microbes in the mix from the start. Remember that plant pests are natural and can be controlled. Mold and fungi growth in potting mix isn’t ideal for us, though they do not inherently harm our plants.
  • To help a rootbound plant. If you notice a plant has been growing less vigorously than normal, and there are no pressures from pests, under/overwatering, or seasonal changes, you may want to check on the roots to see if a plant is rootbound. Rootbound plants may start growing roots that come out of the drainage holes of the pot, dry out really quickly as compared to other plants, but the best way to know is to check the roots to see if they have completely filled up the pot. A repot should help give the plant more room to grow and reduce the stress from being constricted in the pot.
A plant that’s becoming rootbound.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
  • To fix a drainage issue. If you notice that your plant is drying out too fast or too slowly, it is a good idea to repot the plant into a medium that best suits your watering habits and the environmental conditions that you keep your plant. Poor drainage can result in overwatering and potentially root rot, and can be treated with less frequent watering. Excessive drainage can result in underwatering and dehydration, and can be treated with more frequent watering. Changing the drainage capacity of the potting mix you use can help you alter the speed of which the potting mix dries out, to hopefully address the drainage issue.

How to repot

Here I have my cactus to be repotted, a new terracotta pot, and some potting mix in a bowl. I’m using the lid to my potting mix container to cover my counter, though that’s optional if you’re worried about the mess.

First, you should gather the materials you will use to repot your plant:

  • Potting mix – choose an appropriate mix for your plant
  • Spoon, trowel, your hands… something to scoop potting mix
  • A pot
  • Flat surface, maybe with something to protect the surface from dirt, like a towel
  • Plant to be repotted
  • Clean scissors or pruners (optional)
  • Pebbles or broken terracotta shards (optional)
  • Spray bottle with water (optional)
Here is the root system of my cactus. They look healthy, thankfully!

First, gently work the plant out of its current pot. You can use the spoon or shovel to help loosen up the soil around the edge of the pot. If it’s a flexible plastic pot, you can squeeze the sides to help remove the plant. It it’s a large plant, you can gently lay the potted plant down on its side on the ground before gently pulling the pot away.

Tip: Repotting spiky plants can be a challenge. Use gardening gloves or cardboard to your advantage when handling these plants. (Fold cardboard around the stems of large, spiky plants to grasp them without touching them directly.)

Definitely not a root bound plant, since I just propagated it at the beginning of September. No dead roots either, so I have no need to trim them.
A little hard to tell, but this is the root ball of one of the pads, which is small.

Next, check to see if the plant is rootbound or has any dead or decaying roots. Gently, remove some of the potting mix from around the root ball: the mass of roots and potting mix that developed inside the pot. If there are dead or decaying roots, remove them with the pruners or scissors. Now, if you intend to repot the plant inside the same pot, as long as the plant is rootbound, you should trim away a portion of the healthy roots to reduce the size of the rootball. This way, the plant will be limited in its shoot growth while it spends some energy regrowing its roots. If you want to use a bigger pot, massage the rootball gently before getting ready for the next step.

Tip: Use a spray bottle with water to spray the roots to prevent them from drying out too much if repotting is taking a long time, or if you’re repotting a very sensitive plant. Moisture can also help loosen compacted potting mix.

Next, fill the bottom of the pot with some potting mix. If you’re concerned about potting mix falling out of the drainage hole, you can add a layer of crocks, pebbles or broken ceramic shards, to the bottom of the pot, although adding anything to cover drainage holes can impede drainage for your plant.

Then, you can place the plant into the pot and fill in the sides with potting mix, tamping down the sides gently to help support the plant. Fill up the space around and on top of the root ball to fully stabilize the plant. Leave some room from the top of the potting mix to the lip of the pot so that it doesn’t overflow when you water.

My finished product. I expect the potting mix to dry out faster in this terracotta pot!

Finally, gently water the plant to get rid of any air pockets that might remain in the potting mix, and fill in any gaps that may have formed in the potting medium. Repotting is a stressful experience for many plants, so don’t worry if you see yellowing leaves or leaf drop soon after the repot. You may want to check if something is wrong if the plant starts drooping even after watering, or shows signs of dehydration.

Potting mix typePotting mix qualitiesSuitable plants
Orchid and bromeliad mixChunky, fast drainingOrchids, bromeliads, epiphytes and tropical vines
Succulents and cacti mixGritty, fast drainingSucculents, desert cacti, palms, citrus
General purpose mixPeaty, slower drainingMany tropicals, ferns
*works for most plants in a pinch (with careful watering)
African violets mixPeaty, slow drainingAfrican violets, episcia and other gesneriads
Common types of potting mix available at your garden center and how to use them. For what it’s worth, general purpose potting mix goes a long way.

If you want to learn more about repotting your plants, there’s an abundance of resources online to help you. If you take a look at my Plant Resources page, I include some helpful YouTube channels you can search to find repotting tutorials and other information.

Want to learn more about plant care basics?

Here are some other topics that might be useful:

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