How to repot a plant

I love repotting day — the day when every plant in my house that needs a new pot gets one. Someday I’ll have a little potting bench, where it’ll be easy to repot a single plant quickly and easily, at exactly the right time. But until then, it’s more efficient to get out the supplies, gather all my plants, and repot them all at once. Of course, they don’t always need repotting at the same time, so some wind up waiting a bit longer than what would be ideal, and others move into bigger digs a tad before absolutely necessary — but in the end it all works out just fine. 

What time of year should I repot my houseplants?

Experts say the best time to repot houseplants is in the spring, right as most plants are naturally entering their growing phase. But sometimes I like to wait until my plants have had their growth spurt so they end up in the right size pot when it’s over! 

Honestly, I don’t think houseplants are especially picky about when you repot them, especially when they’re needing fresh soil and/or more space. One advantage to doing them in the warm weather is that you can take them outside and make the repotting mess there. Just make sure the temps are above about 65 degrees and that you’re not in the direct sun.

A person preparing to repot a plant

How often should I repot my plants?

It depends on the plant. My Sanseveria (snake plant) hasn’t needed a new pot in years (though I do top dress it with fresh soil now and then), while the Monstera I bought two weeks ago is going to need a bigger pot before the summer is over. For many houseplants, though, once a year is about right. If not (because I’ve purchased more plants, most likely), I’ll do another potting session whenever a plant needs it.

How can I tell if a plant needs repotting?

Sometimes you can just look at a plant and know it needs a bigger pot. It’s just much bigger than the pot and top heavy and may even be inclined to topple over. (For most plants, the above ground portion shouldn’t be more than three times the size of the pot.) But it’s not always obvious. Besides, some plants like to have their roots a little packed into the pot, while others enjoy more space. So it’s nice to get to know your individual plants and their preferences.

In general, though, these are some signs that your plant may have outgrown its pot:

• When you water your plant, the water runs out the bottom of the pot (rather than soaking into the soil).

• There are roots growing out the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.

• Roots are pushing the plant up out of the planter.

• The plant has slowed or stopped growing.

• The soil dries out quickly

• The leaves are always droopy and sad looking. They might also be yellow or brown.

There are times when a plant needs repotting not because it has outgrown its pot, but because it needs fresh soil. The soil might look hard and dry, or it might have salt and/or minerals building up on the top or on the planter. In this case, you can simply repot the plant back into the same pot (see directions below).

stacked terra cotta pots and saucers on a tiled flour

What kind of pot should I use?

This is a personal preference and really, as long as you provide drainage, anything goes. Some people like plastic pots because they don’t need watering as often, they are light, don’t break, they’re inexpensive, and they can be used to line other (decorative) pots. Resin pots have similar advantages and come in a good variety of decorative choices.

I like ceramic pots, and my favorite pots are terra cotta. They’re also inexpensive, and — because of the porous nature of the material — they don’t hold water. It does mean I need to keep a little closer eye on watering, so the plants don’t get too dry. But a little drying between waterings is what most plants prefer.

Ready? Here’s how to go about repotting your plant

• Use great potting soil. It makes all the difference. There are different blends for different plants. For example, succulents, African violets, orchids, and some tropical plants do well with customized soil. For most plants, though, a good, all-purpose potting mix will be perfectly fine. You can mix your own, or you can purchase from a reputable plant shop or nursery. My local plant shop sells an all-purpose potting soil that I use for all my plants. Be aware that not all dirt is created equal — very inexpensive potting soil may be little more than topsoil, which won’t provide the drainage or nutrients your indoor plants need.) 

• Choose a pot with a drainage hole. I’m speaking from an abundance of experience here. Never plant in a pot without a drainage hole. It’s just too easy to drown the plant’s roots. If you love a pot and it doesn’t have a drainage hole, plant in a pot with a hole first, then slip that pot inside the pot you love with a buffer like rocks at the bottom to keep the drainage hole elevated.

• Choose the right size pot. It matters. The new pot should only be an inch or two larger in diameter than the pot the plant is now living in. I know, it’s so tempting to plant it in a much bigger pot, to give it room to grow (and so you won’t have to repot it again very soon). But the plant won’t like it. Too much soil without roots will stay soggy and cause the roots to rot. If you end up using a pot that’s a little bigger than necessary, be very careful not to overwater! 

a person settles a plant into a tan pot on a table covered in dirt

• Use a clean pot. Hot soapy water will get rid of lingering larvae and disease. Rinse and pat dry. (I’m often tempted to skip this step, but I’m also always happy when I don’t. It’s more satisfying to do this correctly.)

• Water the plant lightly before repotting. Yes, it makes the soil a little messier to work with, but the plant will slide out of its pot more easily, and it’ll be less traumatized by the move. 

• Take extra care with large plants. If the plant is very large or unwieldy, wrap the leaves loosely in a clean sheet to protect them while repotting (and keep them manageable).

• Be gentle when you pull the plant out of the pot. Don’t yank it by the stem, if you can help it. Tap the pot to loosen the soil, Turn the pot sideways, squeeze the pot (if it’s plastic) while you hold the plant near the base, and gently slide it out. If it’s stubborn, use a knife around the edges to loosen it. If the plant really won’t budge (it happens), you may need to cut the pot (if it’s plastic) or break it (if it’s ceramic or terra cotta). 

• Assess the roots. Use your fingers to loosen the roots a bit. If they’re tightly coiled, pull them apart and spread them out the best you can. Trim any roots that are very long or dead. If you want the plant to slow down its growth, it’s fine to cut the roots back by about one quarter.

• Shake off extra soil. If the soil doesn’t look great (it’s hardened with minerals or has bugs or is waterlogged, for example), then remove as much of it as you can. But if the roots are surrounded by good soil, it’ll stress them less if you leave some of it intact. A good rule of (green) thumb is to take away at least a third of the old soil. New soil has new nutrients, and this is the time to provide your plant with the best soil.

• Trim any dead or broken leaves or stems off the plant. 

• Cover the drainage hole. Or don’t. There are mixed opinions about this. Of course, if you cover it you want to use something that the water will drain through, such as gravel. I place a broken pottery shard over the hole so that it forms a little bridge. The water easily drains out, but the soil tends to stay in the pot. 

a repotted plant on burlap with shovels, a smaller pot, and a brown bag of soil beside it

• Plant about an inch below the rim of the pot to avoid overflowing during watering. Put a couple of handfuls of dirt in the pot. Test to see where the plant will sit, vertically.  Pat the soil down, so there are no air pockets. I like to make a little hollow for my plant to sit in — it helps it sit up straight while I’m filling in around it.

• Place your plant on top of the soil, sitting nice and tall and centered. Fill in with potting soil, a little bit at a time, pressing down (not too hard — you don’t want it too packed in) as you go. Don’t fill the soil above the level that the plant was planted before (no higher on the stem, in other words).

• Give your plant a good watering. Water slowly, so that the soil gets evenly moist all around the plant.

• Wipe off the pot and the leaves with a clean, damp cloth. A small, soft brush (like a cosmetic brush or even a little art brush) is helpful for brushing off soil that’s stuck in small places on the plant. 

• Don’t fertilize your plant for about a month after repotting, to avoid burning those now-sensitive roots.

What if I don’t have time to repot?

When you don’t have time to repot a plant, but it needs some refreshing, simply top dress the plant with new soil. I do this throughout the year, when the top layer becomes a little hardened and depressed (literally and emotionally, it seems). I like to loosen the existing top layer of soil with a little hand trowel or fork, then top with a layer of fresh soil (at least an inch or so is good). Water gently to help the soil settle in. Your plant will appreciate the attention and added nutrients (it’ll look nicer, too) until you get a chance to give it a new pot.

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