Expert Tips On Houseplant Repotting + A Step-By-Step Guide

mbg Contributor By Taneasha White
mbg Contributor
Taneasha White is a Black queer writer and editor. She has a degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her work has been published at Rewire News, Next City, them, and more.
Woman repotting plants at home
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As we humans go from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we need to go up in clothing size. The same goes for houseplants! As they grow, they'll need to be repotted in pots that offer up more space.

To give us some tips on how to repot a plant, we chatted with plant experts and enthusiasts Maria Failla, founder of Bloom and Grow Radio, and Nora Schaefer, former greenhouse worker at Strange's Florist and current plant mom to 63 houseplants.

 

How will I know when it's time to repot? 

"Some plants love to have their roots crowded in a small pot; others need access to air and still more need continuous moisture," cautions Schaefer. "You should look up what your particular plant needs to be sure!" 

While each plant will have different needs, here are some general signs that your little buddy is outgrowing its pot:

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1. Its roots are overgrown.

Schaefer tells mbg that a good rule of thumb is when you see your plant's roots peek out from the drainage holes or start to grow up the sides of the top, it is time to repot. "When you pull it out (gently!), a plant that's ready to be repotted, it will have a web of roots that have grown to densely cover the sides. You'll have an exact copy of the inside of your pot made by roots."

2. Its roots are starting to form one massive root.

Another example of crowded roots is when they become rootbound. If you remove your houseplant from its pot and notice that the roots have grown together in a circular motion, you've got yourself a rootbound plant. Failla says that rootbound plants are often confused with underwatered plants since they show similar symptoms: frequent wilting, yellow leaves, and quick-drying soil.

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3. It's really slow to grow.

Another way to know if it's time to repot your houseplant? Take note of its growth. Has it been longer than a year since it was last repotted? Has it grown significantly and is having a difficult time staying upright in its current planter? Is there a lack of growth during the growth season, despite your care and fertilization? It's probably time for a new planter! 

It's not a bad idea to repot houseplants that are fresh from the plant store too, since you don't know how long they've been sitting in those plastic pots.

What to look for in a new planter.

When searching for a pot to upsize your houseplant, bigger is not always better. “You should never go more than 2 inches up in size," Failla notes. This is because jumping up in planter size too quickly will make it hard for your plant's roots to fully soak up the moisture from all that new soil. 

"If you buy a pot that's too big, when you water your buddy, the roots will be surrounded by moisture for too long," Schaefer adds. "Excessive moisture breeds mold, fungus, and the perfect home for pests."

Your new, slightly larger pot should have a drainage hole. Without a drainage hole, there is nowhere for the water to go, and you run the risk of drowning your plants' roots. If you fall in love with a pot that doesn't have a drainage hole, you can either (safely) drill holes in the bottom or plan to set one of the plastic planters with premade holes inside your larger, decorative pot. Voilà! Plant problem, solved.

Finally, avoid bottle shapes or pots that get narrow at the top. The roots will naturally shape to it and then you'll have a lot of root breakage trying to wrestle the plant out the next time you need to repot.

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Step-by-step repotting instructions:

  1. Choose an area for your repotting, keeping in mind that things will get messy. "Having a large trash bag, big cardboard box, tarp or other way to cover the ground you're working over helps for an easy clean up," Schaefer says.
  2. Get your new soil ready: According to Failla, you should never use outdoor garden soil for your container plants. "It's much too dense and doesn't drain fast enough," she says. Instead, use a high-quality indoor potting mix for better aeration.
  3. Hold your two pots together to see roughly how much taller the new one is. That's how much soil you'll want to place at the bottom of your new pot, to ensure your plant doesn't get buried too deep in there.
  4. Gently lift your plant from its old pot, being careful not to break off any stems.
  5. Massage the roots, dislodging any loose soil. Failla encourages gently separating any roots that have grown together since "if they have grown in a spiral into the pot, they will continue to grow that way."
  6. Place your plant in the center of its new pot and fill soil around its perimeter. Pat the sides and bottom of the pot to make sure soil is evenly distributed and tightly packed. Gently pack down the top layer of soil and continue adding more until you hit the base of your plant.
  7. Once your plant is settled in its new home, the last step is to give it a nice, long drink. In addition to being healthy for your plant pal, the water will help the soil settle. Use room-temperature water; your plant will be sensitive to extreme hot or cold right now.

How to tell if your plant is unhappy in its new home.

Repotting can be tricky, and sometimes it doesn't work out the way we'd hoped. Plant shock is common following repotting, so you may notice a few leaves fall off, wilt, or yellow in the days that follow. This does not automatically mean there is an issue! Your plant may just need time to adjust.

However, these are some signs that your plant friend's new pot is too big: 

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Its roots are drowning.

Healthy roots are usually white to off-white in color. Its newest, small roots may even be a little fuzzy looking. If you notice slimy, dark-colored spots in the roots, you've got yourself some root rot and your plant is not able to absorb all the water it's getting in its new home.

There are bugs on its leaves.

The soil is an important component of whether your plant bud is doing well, but make sure it doesn't have any buggies hanging on its underside. While bugs are inconvenient, they are also a sign of overwatering and are great at hiding underneath the leaves. 

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The bottom line.

Repotting can feel daunting, but it is important to the overall health of your plants. Keep these pro tips in mind the next time your plant needs a new home, and you'll notice new growth in no time.

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