Repotting 101: Everything You Need to Know About Transplanting Your Houseplants

potted silver satin pothos

Repotting is the practice of removing plants from their current pot and replanting in a new pot or in some cases, the same one. There are two main reasons for repotting; both of which support and sustain the health of the plant. The most traditional purpose of repotting is when the houseplant needs to go up a size to support the growth of the root system. The other reason you may repot is when your plant’s soil needs a refresh.

It’s important to remember that repotting should be performed only when necessary and while the plant is in a healthy state. Transplanting not only disturbs the indoor plant, but depending on the plant, the process can also damage the fine root hairs. But not to cause undue fear, when replanting a healthy plant, things will typically be just fine! On the other hand, if the plant is already unhappy, it’s best to not add extra stress which could trigger more issues. However, there are always exceptions to this rule-- for instance, if the plant is struggling due to pests, constant soggy soil, root rot, or becoming rootbound, then it’s definitely time for a drastic change like repotting. 

Signs it’s time to repot (for the sake of the roots):

pothos soil and roots

Instead of sticking to a set schedule, let the plant dictate when it’s ready for a new, potentially bigger home. Sure, you’ve heard you’re supposed to repot every year or two, but your plant isn’t necessarily on the same timeline as a plant that lives across the country in different growing conditions (temperature, humidity, and light levels all play a significant role in plant growth). 

Keep in mind also that every houseplant is different, so check first to see specifically what it likes (and needs to thrive). Some will require wiggle room for the roots, while others will prefer to stay bound in the pot. In addition, some houseplants (like Alocasia) may have gone dormant over winter (or just experience a slower year) and will take more time to grow to a point of needing repotting. So here are the signs your plant is ready for that new pot:

  • Season Check
      • First, it’s helpful to know when is a good time of year to repot. You may think an indoor plant doesn’t experience “seasons” but it definitely does (see how to treat plants during spring and winter).  Spring & summer (as well as early fall) provide a great opportunity for repotting. The weather will support the plant during the process and yield best results. If it’s a temperate climate where you live, you may be fine repotting houseplants any time of year. 
  • Root Check
      • Do you see roots starting to creep out of the bottom holes of the plant’s pot? Or when you slip the plant out of the pot, are the roots tightly wrapped into a thick coil at the bottom? Are there more roots than soil? For instance, does water bypass the soil and automatically stream straight out of the bottom of the pot when watering? If yes for any of these, then it’s likely time to repot, giving the plant more room to grow.
  • Health Check
      • Next, assess the health of the plant. It’s imperative that your indoor plant is healthy prior to repotting (unless of course it’s a last ditch effort to save it). Make sure there’s no drooping, wilting, yellowing, or other excessive physical symptoms of stress. Another factor to consider here is if the plant’s growth has plateaued. Oftentimes if the plant is otherwise healthy but the plant just isn’t growing (and you’ve ruled out winter dormancy and fertilizer need), then it could be ready to be repotted. The plant also should not have incurred any recent major events (such as being newly-acquired).  Even if it doesn’t show any ill effects, it will want some time to recover before repotting.

    Once you’ve determined that your plant needs and is ready for transplanting, you’ll want to remember a few key tips for the actual act of repotting. 

    Signs it’s time to repot (for the sake of the soil):

    potting mixture

    Sometimes it’s necessary to repot to simply change the soil. In this case, a new pot isn’t needed. So how do you know if your plant needs fresh soil?

  • Nutrient Check
  • Over time your houseplant’s soil may become devoid of nutrients or no longer able to hold nutrients. While fertilizer can be a fix in some cases, new soil is a quick way to control and stabilize a healthy plant. 

  • Soil Health
  • If your indoor plant’s soil is starting to get compacted and no longer retaining any water, it could be a good idea to repot with fresh soil. You’ll want to rule out that the plant’s roots are what’s causing the water to drain right through (as that will require a bigger pot). But if it’s just a soil problem, then a refresh is the right move. 

    In addition, your plant soil health may start to decline if you develop issues like mold growth. Sometimes you can simply scrape away mold, but if the problem persists or you experience other bacterial or fungal problems, it’s best to replace the soil altogether. And make sure to not cross-contaminate!!

  • Pest Check
  • If you’re struggling with pests such as spider mite, aphids, fungus gnats or mealy bugs, and you just can’t get it under control- the problem may literally lie deeper. Pests can burrow, reproduce, and live within a houseplant’s soil. So getting rid of the old soil and replacing with new, sterile soil can usually eradicate these persistent colonies. If you’re repotting into the same pot, make sure to clean it thoroughly with warm water, dish soap, and consider an insecticidal spray before potting back into it.

    How to repot your plant:

    Pick An Appropriate Pot

    planters
    • First and foremost, is picking the houseplant’s new vessel. You’ll want a pot that is the right dimensions for the plant (and again, that’ll vary based on the plant type). But typically speaking, plants will need to go up in size by about 1-2 inches in diameter. If you pick a similar pot to the one the plant is currently in, that means the depth will increase by about an inch as well. It’s a common misconception that the bigger the pot, the bigger and faster the plant will grow. Going too big too soon actually can do the plant more harm than good, and ultimately does not support healthy growth. Stick with a couple of inches and you’ll be set for optimal growth-- at least until the plant needs a new pot again (likely in 1-3 years). Also, your plant will need drainage holes unless you’re accustomed to and comfortable watering your plant with no drain holes. 

    Choose Suitable Soil

    • Next, you’ll need to figure out what type of soil your indoor plant prefers. This step is also crucial as every type of plant has specific needs from loamy, well-aerated, extra-draining, to sandy. The wrong soil can mean too much or too little water is being retained within the soil which directly affects the health of the plant. One thing the majority of houseplants need in terms of soil is a well-draining mixture. You can typically find general houseplant soil as well as cactus specific soil in any hardware store. But check first to see what your plant requires. 

    Transplanting

    houseplant repot
    • Now for the main event, repotting your plant. Get your space ready and be
      prepared for soil everywhere! You may want to take your repotting outside or place a tarp/newspaper under your repotting area. And get your gloves on!
    • Once you’re set, begin to gently glide the plant out of its current pot. If you’re having trouble and the plant’s in a plastic nursery pot, you can carefully squeeze the sides of the pot to loosen the plant. If your plant is in ceramic (or other) pot, this may be tricker. So you’ll tap the sides (and bottom if needed) of the pot with your palm. 
    • Then start to loosen the roots gently with your fingers. We at Outside In
      typically take the hand under the bottom of the plant and almost like a scalp massage, work the hand in a circular motion. If the roots are very coiled, this step is ultra important-- but also be careful since the roots can be sensitive. If you want a complete soil refresh (which can really be beneficial for the plant), go ahead and knock off as much old soil as possible. 
    • Here you’ll want to inspect the roots. You’re looking for healthy roots which again can look slightly different depending on the plant. Typically, they should be firm and whitish (once the soil is off). If you notice any dead, mushy, blackish roots, you’ll need to trim them away. 
    • Now, add a layer of fresh soil to the bottom of the new pot before placing
      the plant in. Slowly fill the pot with fresh soil until it covers all of the roots. Make sure the top roots aren’t too shallow or deep. You’ll want the very top roots to be able a half inch deep, so they don’t become exposed when you water the plant. 
    • When you’re all done, give the plant a nice soak by watering until water drains out of the bottom holes (unless you chose a no drainage pot of course). 
    repotted satin pothos houseplant

    Do note that you may see changes within the first 1-4 weeks of repotting, and that’s totally normal. The plant is likely just adjusting to the new space. But if anything drastic occurs, you may need to look into it further! Happy refreshing and new growth! 

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