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:

Houseplants 101: Potting Mix Basics

Repotting a plant is one of the most exciting parts of taking care of plants: you get to see their root development, choose a pot you think best suits the plant, and give your plant a potting mix that will promote growth while fitting your personal plant care habits. Making the right choice for a plant is not always easy, and ultimately comes down to your decision on how to best care for it. Mistakes in potting your plant can hinder its growth, and in the worst case, can contribute to the loss of a plant. I’m presenting the basics about potting mix and repotting in a series of four posts on different topics. Though there’s so much to be said about the media you could choose for a plant’s growth, the best way to learn is by practicing what you know and trying new methods that sound interesting to you. There is no single right way to pot your plants, and though there are some guidelines to help them thrive, many choices come down to your personality, the materials you have access to, and the plants you choose to grow.

Important terms: What’s the difference?

Soil. The natural medium for growth for many terrestrial plants: composed of layers of eroded rocks and minerals and organic matter, inhabited by a community of plants, animals, and microorganisms which contribute to the production and decomposition of the organic and inorganic parts of the soil. Soil types are often measured by their sand/silt/clay ratio, which tell us about the size of the particles and the drainage of the soil.

Potting mix. An artificial medium for growth for plants, usually a blend of organic and inorganic materials which resembles soil, that helps them grow in containers.

Substrate. A material that a living organism grows in (or on). Includes natural and artificial media for plant growth. Also includes the material that aquatic plants grow in inside of a tank.

Medium. The substance in which an organism grows, often with nutrients for growth.

Potting mixes (or potting media) for plants are not equivalent to the soil you’d find in your garden. Natural soils contain layers of decaying organic materials and rocks and minerals which have been broken up over years of erosion. Potting mixes are generally pretty sterile: though they contain lots of organic materials, they lack the complex ecosystems present in natural soils. You might wonder why potting houseplants with soil from your garden is generally not advised, and that is partially because of the unknown organisms you could be bringing into your space. Garden soil is usually more dense than potting mix, and dries out too slowly for plants growing indoors. This is fine for your garden plants because the light reaching garden beds is much stronger than that that sunlight that comes through windows, and so the substrate needs to be water-retentive to keep plants healthy. There are also organisms outdoors, like insects, earthworms, and small animals which aerate the soil by moving around in it. This is not the case indoors, so we need to create an an environment with sufficient air flow in a potting mix.

Potting mix has a lot more drainage and organic material than garden soil. Using potting mix specific for indoor plants helps you control moisture better for your plant and limits the kinds of organisms that make their home inside the potted plant. Healthy soils contain entire communities of organisms, many which don’t negatively affect us, which help control the populations of harmful microbes, usually by competition or exclusion. Potting mix lacks this complex community of microbes. For this reason, it’s uncommon to find mold or fungus growing there; potting mix provides all the nutrients and moisture needed by these organisms to grow and reproduce. Improper watering can contribute to this imbalance in the microbial community of your potted plant, which is why potting mix that is too moist can lead to root rot of your plant, caused by pathogenic (disease causing) microorganisms proliferating inside wet potting mix. White fuzzy mold and mushrooms growing in plants is not necessarily bad for them, though the spores can be harmful to us. In soil, plants and fungi work together to get nutrients, and there are many complex positive, neutral, or negative interactions between the organisms living together. It’s worth mentioning that humans also have complex communities of microbes which live in our gut and help us digest food, as well as stimulating healthy immune responses on our part. Without microbes, we lose out. A plant probiotic can help manage the microbial community composition inside of our plants.

Examples of different potting mixes in my home: brown ground sphagnum moss, peat, coco coir; white perlite; sparkly vermiculite; chunky orchid bark and coco chips; dark gray horticultural charcoal.

What makes a good potting mix?

A good potting mix should benefit you and your plant and promote growth.

Water retention & drainage. A good potting mix will retain water long enough to hydrate your plants, but dry out fast enough to prevent root rot and mold on the soil. I talk more about frequency of watering in my post Houseplants 101: Water, which depends on factors like light, temperature, and humidity. You can see more detailed information about potting mix components and their effects on drainage in that post.

Stability & air flow. Your plant should stand up straight in its potting mix after it’s been watered and when it’s beginning to dry out. You can add a stake to support a taller plant, or bury it a little deeper during the next time you pot it. Particle size also plays a role in plant stability: large particle size media, like orchid bark, are best for plants with strongly gripping roots, but may not support other plants so well. These media also provide really good aeration to the plant roots. Small particle size media, like ground sphagnum or sand, pack together nicely to support a plant, however the air flow to the roots is lower. A great potting mix blend balances air flow and stability for your plants. This exact balance depends on the plant, which is why manufacturers make different mixes for orchids and bromeliads, cacti and succulents, and tropical plants.

Nutrition. In nature, soil contains nutrients that help plants grow. There are also microorganisms and fungi which have complex mutualistic relationships with plants, providing nutrients in exchange for sugars that plants produce. The base components for many potting mixes (such as perlite, coco husk, pumice, etc.) don’t provide any nutrition to the plant. However, adding compost or worm castings (ie. worm poop) can help supplement your plant’s nutrition. Using a fertilizer regularly can also help feed your plant, if the potting medium you use is low in nutrients.

Longevity. No potting mix will last forever. The slow processes of erosion from watering and plant root growth will deteriorate all potting media over time. Most of the time, potting media rich in organic materials need to be refreshed every few years, and media rich in inorganic materials will last longer. One way to extend the shelf life of your potting mix is to keep it on the dry side, which will hinder the growth of microbes which could be breaking down the organic material. Using a high quality potting mix can help you reduce waste down the line, and some materials (like pumice, clay pebbles) can be reused for other plants or projects.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Potting mix and soil are not the same, which is an important fact to consider when caring for your plants: the conditions of a potted plant living in your home are much different from the natural conditions of most plants. Your potting mix can work with you to provide the most favorable conditions for plant growth, though the exact medium you use may be very different from other gardeners. I am looking forward to discuss potting mix and repotting plants in some upcoming posts. Thanks for reading!

Want to learn more about plant care basics?

Here are some other topics that might be useful:

More information about soil:

Genus spotlight: Pilea

The genus Pilea is a popular plant today with a variety of compelling cultivars available. I want to reject the trope that a genus or species of plant can be boring or ugly. There are a diversity of Pilea available for gardeners interested in tropical plants, and several are suitable for beginners. The different leaf shapes, colors, and habits have the potential to spice up plant arrangements. The ease of propagation of Pilea makes them perfect to share with friends or family, and are safe, non-toxic for households with curious children or pets.

Last spring, I became obsessed with a plant I saw online: Pilea involucrata (mollis) “Moon Valley”. I had never owned a Pilea before, and I was fascinated by the dark brown color on the leaves and the texture, hard to describe in words but papery thin, sharply serrate, and corrugated. Soon after that, I decided to order it, and since then I’ve brought home several other varieties.

Around that time, I published an article about the genus without any experience taking care of them. Even a short time with them (at most 8 months, most recently a few weeks ago) has showed me that Pilea might deserve the reputation of being somewhat challenging, but definitely make up for it with vigorous growth and beautiful foliage given the right care.

General care across Pilea varieties

Pilea are herbaceous plants that can be found in tropical and temperate regions across the world. They are non-toxic in the nettle family, and generally have opposite leaf arrangement. They do not grow very large, some staying quite diminutive which makes them a good choice for terrariums or dish gardening. Pilea are generally suited for shady conditions making them reliable houseplants. Generally, they can handle small periods of dry soil, but missing a critical period of water-stress can seriously harm the plant. Careful not to water too often, because of the risk of root rot. I find my Pilea planted in terracotta dry out too fast; a plastic or ceramic pot may be best for your Pilea. Propagate by pups which grow from the base of the plant, or by stem cuttings. Roots usually grow from a node, the place on the stem where leaves (or one leaf) grew from.

Pilea peperomioides

Pilea peperomioides – friendship plant, UFO plant, Chinese money plant. Don’t mind the damaged leaf on mine!

An iconic, hugely popular species in recent years. Native to China, this plant has unmistakable round leaves. This species, like other Pilea, produces offshoots at the base of the plant: genetic clones of the main plant which can be left alone, or propagated to share with a friend. Named for its likeness to another plant genus, Peperomia. This plant used to be highly sought after, but has become very accessible due to its affinity for propagation and efforts by growers. A very new plant to me, but I’m thrilled to grow it because it has a lot of character. Surprisingly succulent, with a thick cuticle, I feel like P. peperomioides can handle drying out a little more than its thin-leaved relatives. These are easy to find practically anywhere that sells plants; I got mine from Hirt’s.

Pilea cadierei (variegata)

The aluminum plant is another classic Pilea, native to China and Vietnam. The variegated form is less common but I got mine from Steve’s Leaves. This and other thin-leaved Pilea begin to droop when thirsty; if you miss the beginning wilt, the plant will totally flop over. If you’re interested in a plant that will communicate its needs, Pilea cadierei is a really perfect option. The silver coloration on the leaves is really remarkable, and I feel like it’s on the level of Scindapsus pictus or a Hoya pubicalyx in terms of shimmery foliage. I notice that the variegation on this plant gets kind of brown over time, as is the case with other variegated plants. Providing ideal conditions (bright light, consistent nutrients and water) are most likely to preserve variegation. This is a plant I would recommend without a doubt to someone just getting started with plants.

Pilea cadierei minima “Patti’s Gold”

Pilea cadierei minima “Patti’s Gold” – miniature aluminum plant. Not as compact as some P cadierei minima on the market, but with a subtle yellow tint to the leaves.

This is a variety related to the regular aluminum plant, with smaller leaves and a more compact habit. This cultivar is from Glasshouse Works and I think it’s quite remarkable. Like the regular form of P. cadierei, this plant will wilt dramatically when it’s thirsty. One of my favorite plants, I think!

Pilea pubescens “Silver Cloud”

This variety is a cultivar with parentage that I’m really not sure about. The leaves are totally silver, with no trace of green. This Pilea and many of the other varieties in this post are more sensitive to underwatering, and will droop and lose leaves if left too long without water. Its growth habit is bushy, like other varieties, though I think it does better with regular pinching of the end of the shoots to promote branching, and a less leggy appearance. Very good plant for terrariums because it stays fairly small. Bought mine from Steve’s Leaves.

Pilea involucrata [mollis] “Moon Valley”

I have a small “Moon Valley” cutting from Josh’s Frogs, which didn’t do the best in my care, and a larger pot from Hirt’s. I want to pot them together though I’m worried that the plant from Hirt’s won’t have the dark coloration of the other one. Looking closely at the plant on the left, you can see a white inflorescence, which I usually pinch off to promote leaf growth, but not to much success. In the past, I’ve seen the inflorescence develop a pinkish color. To be totally honest, I am unsure whether these plants are the same variety, but I hope to know in time as they grow. In the spring I will probably cut the bigger plant back a bit to promote some growth at the base. I find this plant doesn’t really wilt as much when it gets thirsty, though I think with a trained eye you might be able to tell. Does it live up to my expectations? For what it’s worth, I think I struggled to get the watering right with this plant at first which probably impacted its growth for me. In terms of looks and texture, I think the Moon Valley variety is awesome. If you’re looking for a plant that’s similar to this but with a little more green, I’d suggest the similar Pilea grandifolia, which has brighter green leaves and a more subtle leaf texture.

Pilea “Dark Mystery”

This Pilea is another one that has been slightly difficult to learn the care. It has been relatively slower growing than other Pilea, and will very dramatically wilt when it needs water. I have been a little late to water this plant for a few weeks now which I think has been causing it stress. I’m even a little worried I see spidermites on the leaves, but that’s the reality for indoor gardening especially during the winter. The flowers are kind of weird, and I’ve never seen it quit producing blooms in the months I’ve had it in my care. I think it’s a really stunning plant. I think it might be related to Pilea dentata or semidentata. I bought this plant with my P. “Silver Cloud” from Steve’s Leaves last spring.

Pilea spruceana “Norfolk”

Pilea spruceana “Norfolk” – dark gray leaves with parallel silver bands going down the leaf. Leaves rounder than other varieties. Distinct leaf texture, looks almost like it was made out of yarn. Pink backsides to leaf. Very fuzzy leaves and stems!

This variety is a bit of a sad story for me, and a reminder that watering Pileas can be a challenge. I noticed my plant was beginning to droop not long after I watered it, which indicated to me that there was some kind of stress acting on the plant. Because it was droopy while the soil was still damp, I felt really anxious that I had a root rot situation on my hands. So, I took some cuttings as insurance in case my original plant doesn’t make it. I’ve struggled to get the care for this plant right, but I do know that it (like other Pilea) propagate rather well from stem cuttings. If you’re looking to fill out your Pilea plant or share a piece with your friend, rooting in water (or by sticking the stem straight into the soil) is relatively fast and easy.

Pilea glauca “Silver Sprinkles”

Pilea glauca “Silver Sprinkles” – thin reddish stems with cold, blue-gray foliage.

This Pilea (and P. depressa) have miniature foliage in comparison to the other plants mentioned before. I’ve thrown tiny cuttings of this plant into terrariums with a great deal of success, the only issue being that it needs to be cut back every once in a while. Very undemanding care in this tiny jar, I just water it when it seems to be pretty dry.

Pilea depressa

Pilea depressa -bright green leaves and stems, very succulent with a thicker cuticle than most Pilea. Much smaller than the other varieties.

This plant was given to me as a couple of stems to put in my terrariums, a couple of which I rooted in a jar and let grow wild! The leaves are very thick and start to shrivel when it needs water, like most succulents. Its small habit makes it a good choice for a terrarium, or grown out in a big pot I believe they start to trail. I barely water this one, and it grows happily for me. Also comes in a variegated form.

More Pilea Varieties

There are a great deal of other Pilea that are worth mentioning:

  • P. cadierei minima – current cultivar is much more compact than the minima in my care, “Patti’s Gold” from Glasshouse Works
  • P. nummulariifolia
  • P. “Silver Tree” – Looks like P. “Silver Cloud” but larger, with darker gray leaves and coppery new growth
  • P. “Moonlight” – from Glasshouse Works
  • Variegated P. peperomioides?
  • P. “Espresso” – Looks like P depressa but a little chocolatey
  • P. microphylla aka “artillery plant” – similar to P. depressa or P. glauca
  • P. grandifolia, including “Coral” cultivar
  • P. semidentata
  • P. mucosa – similar to nummularifolia
  • Glassbox Tropicals varieties: “Purple Ecuador”, repens, and others. Note that high humididty-loving plants may struggle in typical household conditions.

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilea_cadierei
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilea
https://www.gardentags.com/plant-encyclopedia/pilea-glauca-silver-sprinkles-syn-pilea-libanensis-silver-sprinkles/35414
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilea_peperomioides
Found a lot of these additional varieties by searching Google!

Houseplants 101: More on watering

Watering is fundamental to good plant care, and takes practice to get right. There is so much to say about the role of watering: it is critical to life processes, is a vector of desirable (and undesirable) nutrients for plant life, and plants have adaptations to conserve water where it may be scarce. An understanding of plant needs helps resolve a rather difficult question: how should I water my plants?

Does fluoride in tap water harm plants? Should I try bottom watering? How can I use observations to predict my plant’s watering needs? If you feel comfortable with the basics of plant care, you can help your plants thrive by optimizing your watering habits. This is part of a series of blogposts about houseplant culture basics, and expands on a previous post which introduces proper watering and environmental factors that affect how often to water.

Plants thrive with consistency

In your journey to make a plant the happiest it can be, you may feel inclined to change the way you care for it; however, plants need time and energy to acclimatize to changes in conditions, like light, temperature, substrate (eg. the pot and potting mix), moisture content (both in the potting mix and air), or even treatment with pesticide or insecticidal soap. Lots of changes at once can cause stress for a plant, which may inhibit growth, attract pests, or cause leaf drop or browning. It’s usually best to avoid making lots of environmental changes all at once in order to minimize the chances that you lose your plant, though, once acclimatized to a new care routine, the plant may grow even better than before. If a plant is clearly in distress, or struggling, it’s wise to wait to repot or move it around, or make other dramatic care changes.

Ice cubes & water temperature

Many plants that are popular as houseplants are tropical plants, which can’t tolerate cold temperatures very well. In greenhouse conditions, with lots of warmth and humidity, they might grow even better than inside of your home. Because of this, it’s generally not good to use ice or cold water on your plants, which can shock roots and even cause cold damage. Room temperature water (or slightly warm water) is usually ideal for houseplants.

Moisture control: potting mix and humidity

After you water a plant, as it begins to absorb some water into its roots, some of the water in the potting mix will evaporate and increase the humidity right around your plant. Oftentimes as a plant enthusiast, I hear about folks looking for ways to increase the humidity levels in their homes to help their plants, even creating greenhouse cabinets to grow humidity-sensitive plants indoors. Usually, more humidity is a good thing for plants, however high moisture and poor circulation can cause microbial growth, such as mold or fungus, which is bad for people, and plant pathogens, which we want to avoid harming our plants.

Humidity control. To most effectively increase humidity in your space, you can use a humidifier. This allows you to control how much moisture you want, and with a strong enough unit you can significantly increase humidity even in a large room. You could also use a diffuser, which might not be very effective to raise humidity in a large space, or a pebble tray under the plants you want to increase humidity. Spray bottles can temporarily increase the moisture around your plants, but are not a good long-term solution for low humidity; excessive water on leaves can cause spots from bacterial/fungal infections.

Air circulation control. Humid, stagnant air can cause excessive microbial growth on and around plants, which is why greenhouses have fans for air circulation. If you’re growing plants in high humidity conditions, you should consider using a fan. The additional air circulation will carry moisture around the space, and create a more even, stable distribution of humidity.

Soil moisture content. In plant potting mix, lots of moisture and little air flow can cause microbial growth, including mold, fungi, and root rot. It is essential to create a balanced, healthy potting mix environment in order to allow plants to absorb enough water while preventing microbial growth. You can limit water absorption by improving soil drainage, and increase aeration by using soil amendments which increase the particle size of your soil. Proper oxygenation of your soil (1) prevents excessive growth of anaerobic microbes, some of which cause rot, and (2) allows gas interchange necessary for healthy roots.

Soil amendmentWater absorptionAeration
Ground peatHighLow
CompostHighUsually lower
Coco coirHighLow
Sphagnum mossHighHigh
Orchid barkMediumHigh
Coco chipsMediumHigh
PerliteMedium lowHigh
VermiculiteHighMedium high
Pumice/lava rock/clay ballsLowHigh
Rocks/pebblesNoneMedium high
Soil amendments and effects on moisture, aeration.

Top and bottom watering

My best advice for choosing between top versus bottom watering is: do what best works for you. I don’t strongly believe that one or the other is better for houseplants, and both have pros and cons, none of which will seriously help or harm your plants if you’re taking proper care.

Top-down watering. Watering from the top of the soil down. Convenient for those of us with pots with drainage holes and saucers; carries nutrients from slow release-fertilizer down, evenly distributing nutrients to plant roots; sometimes leaves air pockets in potting mix, which can support air movement to and from roots; some say best fits with how plants are watered by rainfall in nature, flowing downwards. However, water may drip out of drainage holes before soil is fully saturated, since dry soil is hydrophobic (ie. repels water); soil compaction is a risk, reducing aeration and increasing moisture retention.

Bottom-up watering. Placing potted plants in a basin with water, which is absorbed bottom-up by the soil and roots. After the potting mix is saturated (moisture reaches the top of the potting mix), excess water is drained and the plant is returned to its spot. This ensures saturation of potting mix and water absorption by the plant; reduces chance for soil compaction; resembles the way some plants are watered in nature (such as bog or fen plants). Bottom watering is usually more laborious than top-down watering; doesn’t work perfectly with slow-release fertilizer; soaking soil too long can cause rot or mold growth.

Both methods can be successful, with proper attention to the risks of over or underwatering.

What’s in your water?

We know the water that we use from the tap is different from the water bottled at the store, and unless the water has been distilled, there are almost always minerals, salts, or other compounds dissolved in it. Most city water is fluoridated, or has other chemicals that make it safe to drink, and water from wells is usually treated to “soften” the salts and minerals that dissolve in it underground. If you’re worried about the contaminants that may be present in your tap water, you can search your ZIP code on the EWG database. Usually, water from the tap is safe for use on houseplants, though there are some kinds of plants which are sensitive to fluoride and chlorine in the water. For these sensitive plants, you can use distilled or filtered tap water to remove any solutes (ie. dissolved components in water). You can apparently also let water get stale, by leaving it in an open container, to allow fluoride and chlorine to dissipate into the air.

Using rainwater. Water from rainfall is a great source of water for plants; it has less dissolved components than tap water, and virtually no dissolved salts or minerals. As long as the water is fresh, you should be able to use it for non-potable use, which is basically anything but cooking or bathing with it. There are some regional regulations surrounding rainwater collection, so it’s probably wise to check local sources for guidance.

Using water-soluble fertilizer. You may be aware of the different kinds of fertilizers that can be used to feed plants: slow-release, liquid, synthetic, and organic types. Using liquid (or water soluble, ie. “dissolvable” in water) fertilizer is a great way to provide nutrition for your plants. If you use a fertilizer in liquid form, you may want to avoid flushing out the soil with plain water soon after, because the water can sweep the nutrients out the drainage hole and down the drain. If you use fertilizer on indoor or outdoor crops, consider the environmental impact of fertilizer runoff, which can cause toxic algae blooms in our waterways.

Buildup of salts and minerals. After watering many times with water that has high salt or mineral content, salts and minerals can build up in the potting mix of a potted plant. This buildup can challenge plant growth, since salty water is more difficult to absorb than fresh water. If you use terracotta pots, you may be able to even see this buildup as white flaky stuff on the outside of the pot! A good rinse will help dissolve these salts and flush them out of the pot. If you’re still worried about salt after the fact, you may want to soak your plant and flush again, or you can refresh the soil during your next repot.

Different plants have unique water needs

I think I used an example in a previous post that two identical plants will have different watering needs in different environments. What about two different plants in the same environment?

Water absorption. Not all plants have vascular tissues, that is, specialized cells to transport water inside of the plant. Mosses, for example, don’t depend on roots to transport water in the plant, but instead need relatively consistent water to stay alive. Most other plants, however, have roots and tissues to absorb and distribute water throughout the plant. Depending on the size and health of the root ball of the plant, it may have absorb water differently: more roots means faster absorption.

An unpotted plant with the root ball exposed. That is, the mass of roots and soil at the base of a plant.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Special case: Air plants. In the bromeliad family, air plants (Tillandsia) grow epiphytically in various warm regions of the Americas. They are often sold (and grow just as well) without roots, and can live their whole lives outside of a pot. They are adapted to withstand periods of drought, and use their leaves to absorb water from their environment rather than roots. Be cautious not to keep your air plant wet for long periods, as it may be prone to rot.

Water storage. Plants living in dry environments have developed different ways of conserving water. Lots of plants have waxy leaves to hold onto water (eg. Hoya, aloe, snake plant); some have thick stems (eg. cacti, ponytail palm); some have thick root systems or tubers (eg. ZZ plant). By keeping water in their tissues, these plants can go longer without water.

Water loss. Plants need the sun for energy, but harsh sunlight for long periods can damage plant tissues and cause water loss from evaporation. It’s beneficial to have large leaves to absorb more light, but higher surface area results in more lost water. In extreme dry environments, some plants grow in almost a sphere shape to maximize water storage and minimize surface area for absorption (eg. golden barrel cactus, Euphorbia obesa, Astrophytum sp., others). On the other hand, in places where water is abundant, such as a rainforest, there are many leafy trees and understory plants; lots of moisture allows plants to compete for the sun and other limiting factors. In the same environment (such as your home), a fern and a cactus will have vastly different water needs.

If all plants need water, and water storage is a useful adaptation across many species, why don’t all plants have these traits? Like all adaptations, there are trade-offs: it costs energy to create thick, larger tissues. Other selective pressures might be acting on these plants, like competition for light, nutrients, pollinators, or other limited resources. In that case, plants must choose where to spend limited energy. In other words, dry-tolerating adaptations indicate an evolutionary history where water was limited.

Water availability is a key factor in determining plant growth. Too little can stunt plant growth, and too much risks rot or other microbial growth which can harm the plant (and people, of course!). So, the ideal is somewhere in between: a gray area that depends on the environment and the individual needs of the plant. Still, a thorough understanding of watering means very little if a gardener doesn’t put it to practice. It takes time to feel comfortable with this aspect of plant care, and mistakes happen to the best of us. At the end of the day, if your houseplants bring you joy, there is no need to dramatically change your care habits. However, even small adjustments can make a world of difference to houseplants.

Still not sure how to care for your houseplant?

You can search for the plant on my blog here:

Or you can use an online guide to help identify the plant you want to know more about:

Houseplants 101: Water

Plant care and culture may seem daunting to the beginner, but can be learned by following some general principles. Watering is crucial to get right, but totally manageable with a little practice and observation.

Arguably, the most important part of plant care is watering. Done incorrectly, your plant can deteriorate rapidly if its needs are unmet. There are unfortunately no hard and fast rules for watering for all plants, other than the fact that water is essential for life, and plant life varies a great deal globally. Fortunately, for the beginner, most houseplants are resistant to improper watering, and with a little practice it takes almost no thought to recognize a plant in need of a drink.

What is proper watering?

In almost every case, watering a plant should evenly saturate the soil until any excess water drains from the bottom. Underwatering and overwatering usually describe patterns in watering habits, not the quantity of water needed when watering. If you don’t fully, evenly moisten the soil in your plant’s pot, the plant’s roots may grow unevenly (leading to an unstable, unhealthy plant) or the water may evaporate away before the plant has a chance to absorb enough water with its roots.

For many tropical plants (with some exceptions), it is recommended to let a plant’s soil dry between waterings. If you keep a plant’s soil moist all the time, microbial growth will establish in your potted plant, some of which may cause root rot or other infections that could harm your plant.

Letting your plant dry out excessively also may harm the plant. Without water, a plant may show visible signs of stress, like wilting, dried or yellow leaves, and the roots may begin to die, too. So, it’s necessary to practice watering habits that are consistent, without doing so too regularly or infrequently.

Knowing when to water

Many plants will change in appearance as they run low on water. You may notice wilting or limpness in a plant that is usually fairly upright. Some plants become noticeably dull, losing a little bit of shine that’s typically there. For very fleshy, succulent plants, you may be able to observe shrively leaves or stems. The best way to learn to recognize these signs is to observe your plant every day, acquainting yourself with your plant’s change in appearance as it becomes thirsty.

Most times, the soil of your potted plant should be dry before you water your plant. You can use your finger to feel the soil at the surface and a couple inches below. You could also use a wooden chopstick to probe the soil and see how dry it is deeper down. I would recommend using a moisture sensor to learn about how dry your plant typically becomes before it shows signs of stress. Once you’re sure your plant is thirsty, you should give it a drink.

Pro tip:
Water evenly, until the soil in the pot is saturated, and excess water comes out of the drainage holes.

Soil and drainage

Just as different plant species have different water needs, different pots and potting mixes influence water retention and your watering habits. Because of the nuances in pot composition, soil mix, and drainage, my advice for beginners is to experiment and observe how plants behave in different kinds of pots and soil types. At the beginning, try to use well-draining soil mixes, pots with drainage holes, and water when the plant is dry (or according to its specific needs).

Drainage holes. At the bottom of a planter, you may notice one or more holes to let excess water drain away from the plant while watering. By preventing water buildup, and by allowing air flow to reach the bottom of the plant’s soil, drainage holes help prevent overwatering and root rot in plants. Planters without drainage holes are tricky, because accidental overwatering just one time can be enough to kill a plant. You may choose to use a pot without a drainage hole as a decorative cover pot for a plant, by placing a plant with a different pot (with a hole!) inside it.

Types of pots. The most common types of material for planters are plastic, ceramic, or terracotta. Plastic pots are affordable, light and easy to carry (even with a heavy plant), and resistant to breakage. Ceramic pots are more expensive, heavier, and prone to breakage. Plastic and glazed ceramic pots retain moisture very well, while porous terracotta wicks moisture away from potting soil, drying relatively fast. It is easier to overwater plants in plastic or glazed pots, and easier to underwater plants in fast-drying terracotta.

Pot size. Usually, bigger pots dry out more slowly than small ones.

Soil composition. Any general purpose potting mix should be fine for beginner gardeners, but, again, we come back to this theme that it’s not possible to generalize about all houseplants. Dry-tolerant plants often do best in fast draining soil, and moisture-loving plants do better with soil that retains more water. Chunky, light soil (with bark chips, perlite, pumice, gravel, grit, sand, etc) drains faster than small-particle, dense soil (with ground peat moss, compost, coco coir, vermiculite, etc), which retains water. If you want to avoid overwatering, you can choose to pot your plant in a well-draining mix (such as cacti/succulent mix, or orchid mix). If you want to avoid underwatering, you may want to stick to a general purpose mix.

Sunlight and temperature

Generally, water evaporates faster from a plant’s soil and tissues in sunny, hot conditions; even in the same room, two identical plants may dry out at different speeds with one on the windowsill and the other opposite the window. Placement of your plants may affect your watering habits, as will different seasons, or different weather.

Watering schedules might seem tempting, reminding you to check up on plants regularly, but it’s better to observe signs of water stress in your plant, feel the soil, and consider the weather before you water.

Being able to consider (and manipulate) factors like sun, temperature, pot types, and soil mixes takes practice and some trial and error, but you can learn to personalize your plants’ care to suit your needs and preferences.

Examples of mindful watering

Imagine picking out a new plant from your local garden center. You really want a big floor plant to bring home, and you choose an aglaonema in an 8-inch plastic pot. The plant was grown in a greenhouse with lots of good sun and high temperatures, and grew in a peat potting mix. The location you chose for the plant gets moderate sun, and your house is cooler and less humid than the greenhouse. When you bring the plant home, the soil is still moist below the surface so you leave it alone for a few days to be sure not to overwater. A week goes by, and the plant still looks happy, and the soil is still slightly damp a couple inches down. After another week, you notice the aglaonema starts drooping, and the soil feels really dry. A few hours after you water it, it perks back up and you don’t notice it start to droop for another couple of weeks.

In a very different scenario, your friend gives you an orchid she propagated as a gift, planted in a terra cotta orchid pot in orchid bark. She tells you that she keeps the plant on a table because it dries out too quickly in the windowsill. She also says that the leaves start to flop down when it’s really thirsty. A couple of days go by and you notice the orchid is wilting. You water it thoroughly, and the next day it seems okay. After a few more days, you notice it wilt again, and the bark mix seems very dry. The roots look healthy, so you water it again. The next day, it’s back to normal.

Of course, it may not always be obvious when it’s necessary to water your plant. Pests, changes in temperature, moving, or other stress can complicate things. It may be helpful to keep a log of when you water your plant, and it might be fun to take note of other things happening with your plants, too (like a plant diary!). In addition to watering, plants have other needs, like light, fertilizer, and pruning, which take practice to get right, too. With good watering habits, you can begin to learn more nuanced parts of plant culture, and introduce more challenging plants to your collection!

Houseplant haul!

Crassula perfoliata var. minor – ‘airplane plant’

The first plant I picked up this week was from a vendor at my local farmers market. It was my first time visiting, and I was surprised to realize that the market was only a short walk away from my apartment! I couldn’t pass up on their fantastic variety of succulents, and I picked up my first ever Crassula plant. Closely related to the Jade plant (Crassula ovata), this Crassula plant has thick, velvety leaves and I honestly hadn’t seen anything like it. I believe that these plants can get pretty big, and have gorgeous red blooms.

Peperomia sp, identified most likely to be wolfgang-krahnii

I saw this Peperomia and knew I had to get it. At first I thought it was a Peperomia columella, a succulent variety I’ve been eying for a while now, but after some research and discussion with some other Peperomia collectors I think it may be wolfgang-krahnii or a hybrid. Columella is a bit more compact, and I guess I’ll just have to keep looking! I already have a Peperomia dolabriformis which is somewhat similar to this variety, but this one is just totally unique. I am so pleased to have gotten this!

I also received an order this weekend from Steve’s Leaves and feel super happy with my shipment.

The first plant I ordered was Pilea ‘Dark Mystery’, a hybrid that is indeed mysterious and beautiful. The plant arrived in flower, which is a testament to the great conditions in which it was raised, though I’m sad that the shock of transporting it might cause it some strife.

I also ordered Pilea pubescens ‘Silver Cloud’, with totally shimmery foliage and burgundy stems. These plants are super unique and deserve (in my opinion) a little more love.

It’s been a busy week so I’m not really prepared to share other updates, though my plants have been pretty much doing well all around. Thanks for checking in!

Updates (4/10/21): What’s growing?

It’s been a tough week, but a whole lot has happened nonetheless. I launched a new planty Instagram account since Instagram tends to be the main hub for plant-related media online, and I haven’t been super active up until now with other plant hobbyists. The problem with Instagram is that it’s driven by aesthetics, ‘rare’ plants, and intrinsically promotes a hunger to consume: taking care of plants of my own has made me realize that aspiring to have perfect, ‘rare’, or large numbers of plants really saps out the joy of taking care of them. Nonetheless, there is a culture of sharing that is possible through Instagram (sharing information, cuttings, enthusiasm for the hobby, etc.) that I want to be a part of. I also want to know what plants are trending; it’s not much of a surprise that, as spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, the craze surrounding aroids and hoyas is still going strong. You can follow me on Instagram @bogtime if you would like to see what I’m up to! I hope that having a plant-specific account will make it a little easier for me to share my plants with others without posting constantly on my regular account about them (lol).

Philodendron wendximbe

New growth is truly astounding me this spring, and this Philodendron is a fantastic example. It’s gotten pretty unruly since I got it a month ago, and it seems to be loving life in my home. A lot of its new growth is fairly small, but it’s bushing out like crazy at the base with at least a half dozen active growth points.

Not to say I’m not struggling with any plants; my Rabbit’s-foot fern has dropped a bunch of fronds over the week, and has died back a little bit. My very-special Hoya carnosa appears to have some sort of damage, maybe sunburn or just physical damage from me repotting it.

lots of cabbage, kale, and mustard greens sprouting

My garden isn’t off to a great start, but I definitely have an abundance of sprouts started that I’m realizing I may be out of space for. I also had a lettuce plant stolen (possibly by an animal?? hopefully not a neighbor) off of my porch, which makes me a little anxious about getting a container started outside of my apartment later on. Speaking of seeds, my cacti seeds are doing pretty good! Not a sign of life for my Rhipsalis and Blossfeldia seeds, which makes me rather disappointed. For the little attention I paid to starting them, I feel like I’ve seen pretty good success so far.

Top row: Lithops sp.. Middle and lower rows: ungerminated Blossfeldia liliputana.
Top and middle rows: ungerminated Rhipsalis ramulosa & horrida ‘Madagaskar’. Lower row: Selenicereus sp. mix.
Misc. desert cactus species (not sure which is which 😰). Not pictured: Opuntia sp. mix.

Feeling really grateful to see that my ‘Moonshine’ Snake plant is recovering from severe dehydration, and hopefully is getting roots established. I am also grateful to pot up some ‘Pearls and Jade’ pothos propagations from the mother plant I bought last summer. They had really vigorous water roots and I hope they can become established soon in soil so I can give them away.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but Steve’s Leaves restocked and I decided to treat myself to a couple of really awesome plants. I really intended to quit buying plants but something came over me in that moment! I’m super excited regardless. Thanks everyone for checking in! 🙂

Updates (4/3/21): What’s growing?

1. Garden prepwork

My seeds arrived!! I started them right away, since I’m kind of late to start my garden. I expect to probably buy at least a few starts since I’m still learning how to raise seedlings. My greenhouse has 72 cells planted. I bought my seeds from Chauly’s Favorite Seeds, and apart from the great selection available, she was super generous with my order! I am honestly thrilled to be planning my garden, and I have a ton of seeds leftover.

My seed starts! Something is germinating even just days after planting. Super cool!

2. Cacti and succulent seeds germination

My cacti and succulents seeds are chugging along, and I’m waiting excitedly for them to sprout. I wonder if I need to supplement their light or temperature conditions, but they get excellent indirect light from the window that warms them up during the day. Since the containers are so foggy with condensation, I’m having a hard time getting photos! I also hesitate to open them up, and I think I’m going to try to avoid doing so for as long as I can.

Some Selenicereus sprouts.

3. Terrarium moths

I’ve been seeing moths in the terrariums I planted moss in a few weeks ago. They don’t really seem to do a whole lot so I’m just letting them hang out.

4. New plants on the way

My online order is taking a while longer to ship than I anticipated, I guess because plants are propagated uniquely for every order, and so a few weeks (or months? 😰) are needed for rooting and acclimation. For the number of plants that I ordered, and for the price I’m getting them, I don’t mind waiting. I’m just afraid I’ll get impatient and bring home more plants in the meantime!!

5. New growth

As spring is dawning, I’m noticing a lot of plants pushing out new leaves: ZZ plants, ric-rac cactus, Pilea involucrata, blooms on my spring cactus, hoya and Monstera deliciosa; hopefully my cacti and succulents follow suit. My aquatic plants aren’t looking fantastic, nor are my rabbit’s-foot fern or my Rhaphidophora tetrasperma cuttings. I hope some warmer weather and sun help turn things right around for them! The semester is coming to and end and I’m really feeling the heat. I hope to keep on top of things as I’m getting busier.

It’s been a pretty busy week so I don’t really have any other updates! Thanks for checking in! 🙂

Updates (3/27/21): What’s growing?

1. Plant chores

The part of the stem of my rhaph that sits below the soil.

Much of my past weekend was spent repotting plants, mostly just to check on roots. I found by repotting that many plants had good root development, but some were somewhat constricted by poor potting (by me) last year. I made sure to give my plants stakes that needed them, and I’m looking forward to a happy spring!

The (mostly) healthy roots of R. tetrasperma.

One plant that is bothering me is my Rhaphidophora tetrasperma. Despite many unsuccessful propagation attempts, I’m kind of at a loss for what to do. The plant also had roots coming out of the top of the soil, but the plant wasn’t rootbound like I thought. I wonder if this plant was a tissue culture or something; apparently there was some drama last year about the species that I’m not totally familiar with.

2. Aquatic plants

Beginning my aquatic plant journey with a tank, some pebbles, and two plants. The red one is Xyris sp. ‘Red’, and the other is Syngonanthus sp. ‘vichida’, both of which are suffering a little bit, though I hope they pull through.

3. Garden updates (& haul)

I ordered seeds online and bought pots, a mini greenhouse, and potting mix for the spring! The seeds haven’t arrived yet, but I plan on starting them indoors and transferring them outdoors in (hopefully) a few weeks.

4. Spring blooms

My winter cactus (Christmas cactus) has bloomed! I’ve been watering it (and my spring cactus) with an orchid bloom booster to help them along. Though my poor Christmas cactus seems confused, I’m thrilled to be expecting my first ever flowers among my houseplants. I placed my spring cactus closer to the window and am drying it out a little to hopefully coax out some flowers. Only time will tell!!

5. Cacti & succulent seeds updates

(Top, from left to right: Blossfeldia liliputana varieties, Lithops sp. Bottom, from left to right: Rhipsalis ramulosa, R. horrida v. Madagaskar, Selenicereus sp. mix)

(Top: Carnegiea gigantea (Saguaro – protected species), Pilocereus azureus, Pygmaeocereus bylesianus, Myrtillocactus geometrizans. Bottom: Opuntia sp. mix.)

Not a ton of updates here, other than a few rogue sprouts of lithops, selenicereus, and some other species. No signs yet of life for the Rhipsalis, opuntia, nor Blossfeldia liliputana, though :(. Seeing algae growth in some of the containers, which tells me that there are some nutrients available for the baby plants. I’m considering moving some of these into a larger greenhouse container to conserve space, though I am still waiting to start those other seeds.

6. Plant purchases

I spent $60 on eight new plants this week, bringing my total for the month up to 16 new plants, not counting any seedlings, propagations, or outdoor plants. This is the most plants I’ve brought home all at once (possibly ever before), after a long dry period over the winter and fall not buying any new plants. In my defense, I only bought small, inexpensive plants, and I think I’ve pretty much reached maximum capacity! One important goal I have for myself this year is to reduce unnecessary purchases, and limit myself to only bring home plants I really love. So far, the plants I brought home this month have been thriving, minus a couple of unfortunate cases, and I really do love them. Next month, I want to avoid buying new plants and really focus on the ones I’ve got, especially now that I’ll be able to do some outdoor gardening!

What new plants have you brought home this spring? Let me know!

Annual plant care: Cacti & succulents

Spring is right around the corner, and I expect most gardeners (and houseplant collectors) are gearing up for the growing season. Apart from your weekly, monthly chores that are needed to keep your plants happy and healthy, each Spring there are a few things you should do to check up on your plants and prepare them (and yourself!) for another year. My focus for this weekend was to check up on my desert plants, and the work I did applies to most succulents, cacti, and other desert species.

Repotting

Generally, plants that have fully filled up the space in their pots need to be repotted. Desert plants usually don’t have root systems that are that deep, and since they grow relatively slowly, they don’t need to be repotted that frequently.

Many of my first plants were succulents and cacti, and I was forced to reckon with some questionable choices in potting when I was first starting out. I removed pebbles that I used as top dressing, and scooped the soil out gently with a spoon. I massaged the root ball to remove excess soil.

Sedum sp.

Succulents like well-draining potting mix. To refresh the soil of some of these, I mixed about 1:1 ground peat moss to perlite. Terracotta pots are also porous, and help succulents dry out quickly. I didn’t repot any of my succulents into bigger pots; I didn’t think any of them needed it.

Haworthia/gasteria sp.

When I originally planted some of these succulents, I filled the bottom of the pot with pebbles, though I think that was a rookie mistake. A few pebbles near the drainage hole helps prevent a bunch of soil washing away during watering, but there are few advantages to adding more than that. As you can see, the soil mix I used for these plants was super well draining.

Myrtillocactus geometrizans ‘blue myrtle cactus’

I was pleased to see healthy roots on these cacti. If you are handling cacti with particularly sharp spines, use a strip of cardboard to grip the plant.

Boobie cactus

I was disappointed to see little root development on this cactus, which cost me a pretty penny last summer. It was shipped to me bare root and I think they probably all rotted away. In any case, the stem felt firm (not mushy) and I replaced (“refreshed”) the potting mix with some new stuff.

I added a bit of slow-release fertilizer to the top of all of these plants and replaced the pebbles as soil cover. All of these plants were due for a watering, so I gave them all a good drink of water afterwards.

Propagation

Spring is the best time to propagate plants, and succulents and cacti are no different. If you’re looking for a sign to behead your leggy succulent, this is it.

Unfortunately I’ve been struggling with my variegated opuntia and couldn’t figure out why, but when I was checking the roots I found that some of the stems were beginning to rot. Since they were pretty mushy, I used a sharp pair of shears to cut above the rot and left the cacti out overnight so that the cuts could callus over a bit. I planted them in new soil, washed the pot that they were in really well, and watered it.

Opuntia monacantha monstrose (?) variegata

For unrooted succulents, you should basically pretend like they have roots like your other succulents: unless you’re giving them especially bright light, I would avoid watering them frequently. I usually use a soil top dressing to stabilize my succulents and make them look a little prettier, though I’m choosing not to do this for my propagated cactus so I can use a moisture meter to make sure I’m not overwatering it.

Euphorbia trigona ‘African milk tree’

This is the exact same process I used to propagate my Euphorbia trigona a few weeks ago, another succulent plant that I unfortunately mistreated. This plant is weird and extremely toxic, like other species in the genus; if you choose to propagate it, be careful to avoid touching the white latex sap that it bleeds if cut. This is also a plant to keep away from children and pets. According to Bev, this is a fast grower. I’m super glad that she shared a cutting of her plant with me!

Final thoughts

As long as you give them some space, succulents and cacti will be just fine. Since they don’t get big, they’re really great to collect. Which succulent variety is your favorite? Let me know!! 🙂