Repotting Plants: Everything You Need To Know


A planter carrying a large plant is continually tipping over, a medium-size plant is spilling out of its pot, and another plant has roots growing out of the bottom. These are all different problems that can be all be solved the same way.  It is time to repot the plant. 

Repotting plants is part of being a gardener. It is one of those things that is not talked about until it is needed. All plants will need to be repotted at some time in their life. There are many things to know before, during, and after repotting a plant.

Knowing when, why, and how to repot a plant is essential for plant owners. There is more to it than pulling a plant out of a pot and putting it in a new pot.  Learning about repotting a plant will benefit all plant owners. 

Does Repotting Kill Plants?

The purpose of repotting a plant is to allow the plant to continue growing and thriving. If done correctly repotting a plant will not kill it. The steps are easy to do. If followed correctly, the plant will not have a risk of dying. 

Why Repot A Plant?

A planter is the home of a plant.  A plant is not going to stay in the same home its entire life.  The plant grows and changes over time.  A plant will need a new home for several reasons: 

New Look

A planter or pot comes in so many sizes and styles.  They can be unique or cookie cutter.  Sometimes the owner of the plant wants to change up the look of their home. To do so, the planters need to change as well. 

New Soil

Over time, a plant uses the nutrients that are in the potting mix.  Since planters only have a limited amount of potting mix, they cannot get nutrients from neighboring soil as outdoor plants can.  When nutrients are gone, they need new soil to get more nutrients. 

New Size Planter

If plants are cared for, they are going to grow. Growing means that they will need a bigger home. If plants stay in a too small house, then their roots become root-bound and start growing through all the holes in the pot.  The plant cannot thrive if it is in a home that is too small.

(source: How To Repot A Plant Without Killing ItOpens in a new tab.)

How To Know When A Plant Needs To Be Repotted 

The recommendation is for plants to be repotted yearly to every 18 months.  Plants outgrow their planters, and they also use up the nutrients in the potting mix. 

Flowers and vegetables that have been grown from seed will need to be repotted frequently, even monthly, until they are ready for the permanent home. Their permanent home is dependent on what size plant they will end up. Young plants that have been purchased at a nursery or store will also need to be repotted frequently until they move into their permanent home. (source: When Does A Plant Need RepottingOpens in a new tab.)

There are many signs to look for to see if a plant needs to be repotted.  If a plant meets any of these signs, then it is time to repot:

  • Roots:  Roots are growing through the drainage hole. Roots are appearing along the top of the soil.
  • Water: Water is staying on top of the potting mix and not soaking through the potting mix.
  • Soil: Potting mix looks dried out. Water goes through the potting mix quickly and runs out the drainage hole.  Showing that the roots are taking up too much space, and there is not enough potting mix to catch the water.
  • Growth:  Plant growth is slowing down. 
  • Build up: Salt and mineral buildup is found on the pot or the plant.
  • Plant: The plant falls over easily. The plant looks too big for the pot. The plant takes up three times or more the planter area. The plant looks dry.

(source: Plant CareOpens in a new tab.How To Repot A PlantOpens in a new tab., and How To Repot Your PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

What Time of Year To Repot A Plant

Ideally, the best time of year to repot indoor plants is the spring.  Lots of plants slow their growth in the winter and start growing again in the spring. Repotting in the spring allows the plant to start growing again in a fresh pot. Plants should be repotted whenever they need it, so do not wait for a perfect time of year if the plant needs a new home now. 

(source: When Should I Repot My HouseplantOpens in a new tab.)

When Not to Repot A Plant

There is a list of reasons to repot a plant, but there are also reasons not to repot a plant. 

  • A flowering plant: If a flowing plant is repotted, the process may shock it, and it will drop the flowers and not continue flowering. To keep the flowers wait to repot the plant.
  • A giant plant: If the plant is too heavy to lift, do something called a top dress.  Topdressing is done by removing the top 1-2 inches of soil and replacing with new soil
  • The plant needs to be in a particular size pot: Some plants need to be in a smaller pot so that they can focus their energy on flowering instead of growing roots
  • The plant does not need to get bigger: When a plant is repotted, it will continue to grow. It the plant does not or cannot have more growth, then leave it in its current pot.

(source: RepottingOpens in a new tab.)

What To Know Before Repotting A Plant

Know that one knows the why and the when of repotting a plant, it is time to learn about the materials needed to repot a plant.  The star star is the plant, but one also needs soil and a planter or pot. While it may seem simple, choosing the right soil and the perfect planter can be a challenge. 

Type of Soil

Plants need three things to grow and thrive.  They are the sun, water, and soil. The soil is essential.  Plants get their nutrients or food from the soil.  Potted plants only get nutrients from the soil in the pot, so the type of soil used is key to the plant’s success. 

Some key things to look for in soil are how it works with water, how thick it is, and if it needs extra chemicals for growth. Potted plants do not work like outdoor plants.  They do not drain as well or absorb water as well. An excellent indoor potted plant soil needs to be able to absorb extra moisture. 

The soil should be light and not thick. Indoor plants receive water from above the plant. This does not allow for the soil to move so it can become firm.  When the soil is firm, the roots have difficulty spreading out. 

Some plants require certain chemicals to thrive. When owning plants, it is good to learn about the plant and see if the plant needs additives to the soil, such as nitrogen. 

Potting Soil Versus Potting Mix

When looking for the soil, the bags can start to look very similar.  Reading labels and knowing what the plant needs are essential. Potting soil and potting mix sound similar, but they are very different. Look at the list of ingredients and weight.  Potting soil will say soil in the ingredients and will be heavier than the potting mix. 

Potting Soil-: Potting soil is regular soil that can be used for a plant. It is meant for the outdoors and use in a garden. It is inexpensive to buy and long-lasting. The soil is full of nutrients. The texture is thick, and the soil can get hard over time. 

Potting mix: Potting mix does not contain any soil.  It is made specifically for potted plants. The mix is lighter than traditional soil.  The lightness allows roots to spread out and for the water to drain properly. It is expensive, though, and it breaks down over time. The potting mix contains a mix of perlite, peat moss, vermiculite, bark, and more. 

(source: Difference Between Potting Soil And MixOpens in a new tab. and Best Potting Soil For Indoor PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

Types Of Planters

Plants come in all shapes and sizes.  There is no one size fits all for plants. When a new plant is purchased from a nursery or grown from a seed, it is usually grown in a small plastic pot with lots of drainage holes and is meant for a temporary home. 

Most plants quickly outgrow this first home and need a new one.  Planters like plants come in all sizes and styles.  Finding the perfect planter can be a fun adventure.  When looking at planters, it is important to focus on the size, material, and drainage.

Size

Just like humans need the right size home, plants need the right size planter.  If the pot or planter is too small, the soil can dry out quickly, and the plant will need to be watered often.  The roots can become bound and stunt the plant’s growth, and the plant may tip over. If the pot is too big, the soil can dry slowly and create rotten roots.

The ideal is to use the same size pot when repotting a plant. If the plant is too big for its current pot, then the new pot or planter should be 2-4in bigger in diameter.  If the plant is a fast grower, then a 4-inch diameter increase would be appropriate. If the plant is a slow grower, then a 2-inch diameter increase would be appropriate. 

If pots are 10-inch or less in diameter, then the new pot should have a 1-2 inches bigger diameter.  If the original pot is greater than 10 inches in diameter, then the new pot should increase 2-3 inches. (source:  Beginners Guide To Watering Plants Opens in a new tab. and Best Pots For Indoor PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

Material

Pots or planters can be broken down into two groups: Terra cotta and plastic.

Terra cotta:  Terra cotta or clay is a heavy and sturdy pot.  It costs more to purchase than plastic, but it also is more attractive and has more decor options.  Terra cotta planters are porous, so the plant needs to be watered more.  These planters are good for plants such as orchids, cacti, and succulents as they need more aeration and dryer soil.  Terra cotta is also a great option for large plants as they are sturdier. 

Plastic:  Plastic planters are lightweight.  They are inexpensive to buy and come in a variety of colors and styles. They are great for hanging baskets and shelves. These planters retain water, so they require less watering.

Drainage

Plants do not like to sit in water.  It is necessary to have a drain hole in a pot or planter.  The drain hole allows water to drain out and air to enter. If the planter does not have a drainage hole, the user can use a cachepot or double potting. This is done, but using an outer pot with no holes and then placing another pot inside that does have holes. 

Some containers do not drain well. For these planters, lava rocks or something similar can be placed at the planter’s bottom before adding water. This allows the excess water to drain and helps decrease root rot. 

(source: Best Pots For Indoor PlantsOpens in a new tab. and How To Choose The Best PotOpens in a new tab.

Care of Planters

Planters need to be kept clean to prevent diseases. They should be cleaned between uses. 

Clay or Terra Cotta Pots

Terra cotta pots can develop a white crust, which is caused by mineral buildup from evaporating water. These pots can be cleaned with a steel-wool pad or stiff brush using a vinegar and water solution. Once clean, the pots should be rinsed thoroughly. Afterward, they should be soaked in a bleach solution for twenty minutes.  The solution should be 1-part bleach and 9-parts water.  

Plastic Pots

Plastic pots also need to be cleaned.  They can be cleaned with soapy water. After being cleaned and rinsed, they also need to soak in a bleach solution for twenty minutes. The solution should be  1 part bleach and  9 part water.  

(source: Beginners Guide To Watering Plants Opens in a new tab.

How To Repot A Plant

It is time to repot a plant. One needs the plant, the potting mix of choice, the new pot, a trowel, and scissors. 

Materials

New pot Trowel Scissors potting mix

Steps to Repot A Plant

  1. The first step is to remove the plant from the current pot. This can be done by turning the plant sideways and holding the plant by the stem or leaves. Then tap the bottom of the pot. Next, pull or tug the plant out. 
  2. Once the plant is free, the roots need to be loosened. Roots can be loosened with hands by gently spreading apart the roots. Any extra-long roots can be trimmed with scissors. If the plant is root bound, try to unwind the roots. 
  3. Most of the old potting mix should be removed.  At least 1/3 or more of the old potting mix needs to be taken out. If the plant is still healthy most of the oil soil can be reused.
  4. Reuse the old part or choose a new pot
  5. Add the new potting mix to the pot. A layer of the fresh mix should be added to the pot. The potting mix should be pat down to remove air pockets.  If the planter has no drainage, then the bottom should be layered with lava rocks or gravel before adding potting mix. This creates an area for extra water to sit so that it does not rot the roots.
  6. Insert the plant. The plant should be placed in the center of the new pot. The top of the roots should be a few inches below the top of the pot. The potting mix is then poured around the plant. Do not pack too much soil or roots will not be able to breathe.
  7. Thoroughly water the plant.  Once the plant is in the new planter, it needs lots of water.  This allows the water to reach the roots and start growing. 

(source: Plant Care RepottingOpens in a new tab. and How To Repot Your PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

How Hard To Pack Soil When Repotting A Plant

When repotting a plant, the soil or potting mix should be added in layers. The first layer should be pressed down hard to remove air pockets. The next layers should not be hard. The potting mix should be poured loosely around the plant. The roots need room to breathe and water to drain. If pressed too firmly, the soil will become hard, and it will be difficult for the roots to get water and grow.

(source: Packing SoilOpens in a new tab. and    When Should I Repot My House PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

Do You Water A Plant After Repotting?

A plant should not be watered right before repotting the plant.  If watered shortly before repotting the plant, it will be hard to remove the plant from the planter.  It will also be hard to remove the old potting mix that is surrounding and stuck to the roots. So, wait to water until after it has been repotted. 

(source: Water Before Or After RepottingOpens in a new tab.)

How To Water Plants

Plants have many differences from type, color, and size to how they like to be watered.  No two plants are the same. 

Water from above:  Water is poured above the plant if the plant likes everything wet. Tropical plants and ferns are good examples. When pouring above, do not forget to make sure the compost is also wet

Water from below: The plant can be placed in 2cm of water for 20 minutes. Then it needs to be removed and drained. This is great for plants that do not like there leaves or stem wet. African violets prefer this way of watering. 

Misting leaves and aerial roots: Some plants absorb moisture through leaves and aerial roots. The leaves should be misted regularly, but the compost should also be water. Orchids, swiss cheese plants, and areca palms are a few that like this way of watering.  

Soaking air plants: The plant is soaked in a tray of rainwater or distilled water for an hour once a week. After soaking, the plant is drained and fully dried. Or the plant can be misted 2-3 times a week.

(source: Beginners Guide To Water PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

Watering: drainage holes, water every 2-4 days (spring and summer), water desert cacti and succulents less frequently, reduce watering in winter months, remove excess water from pots, avoid getting water on leaves of plants with soft, furry foliage or succulents, and cacti, check for the type of water (rainwater, distilled or tap)

(source: Beginners Guide To Water PlantsOpens in a new tab.)

How Often To Water Indoor Plants

It is difficult to say how often a plant should be watered.  There is no set schedule for plant watering. A good rule of thumb is that a plant should be watered every 1-3 weeks.  The frequency depends on the size and type of plant, the size and type of pot, the temperature, humidity level, and growth of the plant.

Type of plant: Read the individual plant requirements. Some plants need regular moisture, while others like to be dry before a good watering.

Test soil dryness: Poke a finger into the potting mix. Feel for dampness. 

Weight of plant: Dry soil is lighter than wet soil. Lift up or move the pot and feel the difference between a dry and watered plant.  

Feel soil through drainage holes: Feel the soil at the bottom of the pot for dampness.

Signs of wilting: Look for wilting or droopy leaves. Check the soil for dampness as well.  Leaves can droop because of overwatering and for underwatering. 

Moisture meter: Inexpensive and reliable method for determining water needs.

Size of plant: Larger plants need more water because they use and lose more water through respiration and transpiration—younger plants, when growing, also need a lot of water.

Temperature: A high indoor temperature will increase evaporation. This will change between seasons and from room to room.

Humidity: This has a significant impact on the evaporation of soil and the rate of transpiration from the leaves. Winter has lower humidity.

Type of pot: Terracotta or clay pots are porous, and they lose water faster than other pots. Plastic pots do not lose moisture.

Size of pot: Smaller pots- are generally for plants that like the soil dry. Larger pots are for plants that like moist soil.

Time of year: Winter plants grow slower and need less water.  Spring and summer plants grow quickly. 

(source: How Often Should You Water HouseplantsOpens in a new tab.)

Best Water For Indoor Plants

Do plants need special water? It depends on the plant.  Most plants can use plain tap water.  Soft water may cause problems with some plants over time because of the salt in the water.  But overall, tap water is sufficient for indoor plants. The water should be room temperature.  To get room-temperature water, it is helpful to fill the watering can after watering and let it sit until the next use. 

(source: Watering HouseplantsOpens in a new tab.)

Overwatering

Plants can be overwatered.  Too much water will kill a plant.  The roots need oxygen, or they will rot and die, and if the roots are floating water, they cannot get the oxygen they need.  Below is a list of signs to look to know if a plant is being overwatered.

  • The plant is not showing new growth, and the leaves are turning yellow.
  • The plant is wilting. Check the soil. If it is wet, then the plant has too much water.  If it is dry, the plant has to little water.
  • If the plant has a smell, it has too much water, and fungi and bacteria are growing.

If the plant is being overwatered, let the soil dry before watering again. Then follow the correct watering techniques. If this does not work, then repot the plant with new soil. (source: Watering HouseplantsOpens in a new tab.)

Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Potted Plants

When it comes to repotting a plant, outdoor and indoor plants follow the same guidelines.  The owner looks for the same signs of a plant needing to be repotted; the plant is too large for the pot or the roots are coming out of the bottom of the pot.  They also use the same steps on how to repot a plant. The big difference is that indoor and outdoor plants vary in how and when they are watered.  

How Often To Water Outdoor Plants

Understanding how often to water plants is a challenge for both indoor and outdoor plants. 

Know your plants: Read the instructions for every plant. Flowering plants do not like to get dry, succulents some like dryness, vegetables like lots of water, and herbs want to get dry between watering. 

Choose appropriate soil: Soil for outdoor plants varies for each type of plant.  A general potting soil is what most plants prefer. Soil caters to cactus and succulents is for plants that need dry conditions. Soils that say moisture control is for veggies and flowers that like a lot of water.

Suitable containers: Many planters are porous, which allows the pot to breathe and dries out the soil. Clay pots, hanging baskets, and even metal parts dry out the soil faster than others, so these pots will need more watering. It is recommended to use the biggest container possible so that the soil will absorb more moisture and have space for the roots. This is different than for indoor plants.

Check moisture levels: The soil may look dry on top but maybe moist underneath. Stick a finger a few inches into the soil and feel for moisture. 

Water deeply: Give enough water so that it runs out the bottom of the planter. This ensures that the roots receive sufficient water.

Water in the morning: Plants are more open to receiving water in the morning.

Water the soil: Some plant leaves can get burned by the sun if they are wet. Avoid watering leaves and water around the plant.

Do not let soil completely dry out: If potting mixes becomes too dry, it will not absorb water.  The soil will pull away from the container. When watered, the water will run down the side of the container and not into the soil. If this happens, submerge the entire planter in water or poke holes in the soil and thoroughly soak the soil with water. 

Do not stop after the first watering: Due to outside forces, many plants may need to be watered several times a day. Check the plants in the morning and midday. 

(source: Watering Plants In ContainersOpens in a new tab.

Final Thoughts

Repotting a plant is a normal part of life as a plant owner.  The steps are simple and convenient.  But, the plant owner should prep before repotting a plant and learn what water, soil, and planter are best for the plant.  If everything is prepped and done correctly, the plant will thrive in its new home.

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