Repotting Plants: Basics Beginning Gardeners Need To Know

I have a lot of repotting to do in the coming months – how about you? Many of you are new to gardening and may be confused about where to start, what to buy and how to do it. I’ve been gardening, both indoors and outdoors, for so long now that repotting plants is second nature to me. 

1st off, a definition of repotting: a plant going from 1 pot to another pot. I want to share with you what I know, but more importantly, what I’ve learned from experience and what has worked the best for me. No matter if it’s walking, reading, writing, or driving, we all start at the beginning! 

When to Repot

Spring & summer are best. In climates with warmer winters, fall is fine. Plants rest in winter so I leave mine (both indoors & outdoors)  be at this time. 

How Often to Repot

I’d recommend researching the plant. Some like to grow tight in their pots like succulents, orchids, bromeliads & snake plants. They won’t need repotting as often.

Be sure to check the “Reasons to Repot” down below.  This will give you an idea as to what factors come into play when determining if your plant needs it.

I live in Tucson, AZ & my houseplants grow like crazy when the weather warms. Some I repot every 2 & others won’t need it for 5-7 years. Succulents & smaller cacti don’t have an extensive root system so they don’t need repotting often.

If your plant isn’t growing that much (ie it’s a houseplant in low light), then it won’t need repotting very often.

When it comes to shrubs, trees & perennials, it depends on the plant & the size pot it’s growing in. If the root balls are too crowded (the roots will start wrapping around themselves) & don’t have room to spread out, the plant will eventually show signs of stress. 

a monstera deliciosa sits on a work table in front of a garage

I’m repotting my Monstera deliciosa in a few weeks because the plant has outgrown the scale of the pot. Spring is right around the corner & this fast-growing plant will be putting out lots of new growth very soon.

What Size Pot

In general, I go up 1 pot size when repotting plants. For instance, if the plant is in a 6″ grow pot then I go up to an 8″ grow pot. 

There are always exceptions like annuals that only grow for a season or 2. They do fine in big or small pots.  Succulents can grow in small pots because their small root systems don’t mind being crowded.

I repotted my Rubber Plants into much bigger pots.  This gives them plenty of room to grow, but a word of warning if you do this. Houseplants can be subject to overwatering with this much excess soil mass; ie, they stay too wet. I’m very careful to water the root ball area only until the plants & roots do some substantial growth.

Pot Type

Most plants, both indoor & landscape, come in plastic pots. This is what I use unless I’m directly planting into a decorative container like I did with my Ponytail Palm, Aeonium, succulents & cacti garden. Terra cotta is great for directly planting too.

Plastic grow pots work for most of my houseplants (there are a few directly planted in ceramics) & I use a mixture of the pot types below for my exterior plantings.

Other types of pots: resin, fiberglass, ceramic, terra cotta & concrete.

2 Things Good to Know: Most pots have large &/or many drain holes. I put a piece of newspaper or paper bag over them to keep the soil mix from draining out. You can see what I mean in this post on repotting a Monstera.

I planted my Bougainvillea Blueberry Ice in a tall container. It’s a low growing bougainvillea & didn’t need all that planting mass. To save on soil added in & keep the weight down, I filled the bottom 1/3 of the container with a mixture of large & small plastic bottles.

Some Of Our General Houseplant Guides For Your Reference:

Check out the video on repotting plants:

Soil Mix

The soil mix you use depends on what you’re planting. Do your research because some plants require & do best in a specific type of mix.

Succulents & cacti do best in a mix like this. Here’s a DIY to make your own succulent & cacti mix

Most houseplants do fine in a good organic potting soil with extra pumice or perlite added in to prevent overwatering. I just bought these clay pebbles & am going to give them a try when repotting my larger dracaenas.

Annuals, perennials & shrubs do fine in potting soil. 

Acid loving plants like hydrangeas, azaleas, Japanese maples, etc prefer a mix like this.

You can look at the repotting category on this site for more info including soil preferences. Also, the other categories will help you with specific plant needs like orchids, bromeliads, perennials, shrubs, houseplants, etc.

various materials for repotting plants sit on a work table
A few of the materials I use when repotting houseplants.

How to Get the Plant out of the Pot

Oh my goodness, some plants have been a bear to get out of their pots & some just glide right out. Here are the methods I’ve used:

Squeeze the pot. You can do this with the plant upright or on its side. For exterior plants, I’ve had to push down on the grow pots with my foot in order to loosen & pull them out.

Loosen the rootball from the pot with a knife. Run it along the edge all the way around. You may have to give the pot a squeeze as well.

Cut or break the pot. Plastic grow pots aren’t the easiest to cut but I’ve done it quite a few times. Breaking a ceramic or terra cotta pot is the last resort.

Note: You may have to cut some roots coming out of the bottom of the pot in order to pull the rootball out. 

a bougainvillea with variegated foliage sits next to a tall blue pot on a work table
Bougainvilleas don’t like to have their roots disturbed so I planted this low growing “Blueberry Ice” in this tall plastic pot so it can stay put for years. The bougie got eaten by packrats late last summer but it’ll come back beautifully this spring.

Repotting Plants: How to Do It

Make sure the plant is well watered 2-4 days in advance. You don’t want to repot when it’s sopping wet but being too dry will cause stress.

Take the plant out of the pot.

If the rootball is a bit tight, gently massage the roots to loosen them up. I usually do this with houseplants. This will help the roots to spread out easier. In the cases of root-bound plants (especially landscape plants with  tough roots &/or those which have been in their grow pots too long), I shave the bottom roots off & score the sides of the rootball.

Note: a few plants don’t like this – read about planting/repotting bougainvillea. Annuals are notorious for having crowded root systems.

This is the time to knock off any soil from the rootball which you don’t want to transfer into the new pot; especially that which is old, infested or has been overwatered.

Fill the new pot with mix so the top of the rootball is even with or just below the top of the pot. If the mix is extremely dry, I water it as I move through this process. The exception would be succulents which I plant into dry mix.

Speaking of succulents, some of them are very heavy so I leave the rootball up  1/2″ – 1″ above the top because their weight will eventually pull them down in the light mix.

Add more mix in around the rootball until the pot is filled up. In most cases, you want to make sure the plant is straight up & down & in the middle of the pot.

Optional: I add in compost & worm compost when I do my repotting, whether indoors or out. You can read about in any of my care & repotting/planting posts.

Water the soil mix thoroughly after repotting plants. Again the exception would be succulents & cacti which I keep dry & let settle in for 2-7 days (depending on the type of succulent) before watering.

Just be sure not to sink the rootball of any plant (except 1 like a Cosmos which doesn’t mind be planted deep) too far beneath the surface of the soil. This is 1 way the roots breathe.

a large variegated hoya topiary grows outdoors in a tall red pot
I planted my hoya topiary in this tall pot because not only did I like the look, but I most likely won’t have to repot it for years. If I do, the reason would be because it needs new soil mix. This grows outdoors on my side patio year-round by the way.

How to Repot a Large Plant

Some large plants aren’t bad to repot & others are a challenge. I’ve oftentimes had another person help me out, especially if the plant is heavy.

It does make a difference to have someone steady the plant & then hold it in place while you fill in the pot with soil. Landscape plants, as they get larger, can weigh quite a bit. You’ll might need a shovel &/or a pruning saw to loosen the rootball away  from the pot.

When I repotted my large Ponytail Palm, I tied up the long leaves of each trunk to keep them out of my way. This made it easier to get the drench diggers shovel in the pot so I could loosen the rootball. You can see the process in the video.

I’ll be transplanting my Dracaena Lisa in about a month. It’s about 7′ tall & has 4 canes. Although it’s large, it’s only in a 10″ pot & isn’t that heavy. I’ll most likely wrap the lower growth in a sheet or tie it up somehow  so it doesn’t get in the way or I don’t break any of the leaves. 

a variety of small tropical houseplants sit on a work table
The Phildodenron Congo on the far left is so lop-sided that it won’t stand up on its own. It’s currently in a 6″ pot & because it’s so heavy & growing so fast, I may put it into a 10″ pot. It obviously needs a more substantial anchor!

Reasons for Repotting Plants

There are various reasons for repotting plants. These will give you something to think about so you can determine when it’s time to repot.

We’ll start with the obvious – the roots are coming out of the bottom of the pot. A few are okay but when a substantial number appear, it’s time for repotting. Sometimes you’ll also see the rootball pulling away from the sides of the pot. The majority of plants need room for those roots to grow.

The soil mix has gotten old. The plant has been in the pot awhile & the soil needs refreshing. I’ve done this quite a few times: take the plant out, shake or “knead” off as much of the old mix as you can, add new mix & fill in.

The roots are measurably exposed at the top. If the soil is only down a 1/2 – 1″, then go ahead & just top dress with new soil. 1 exception would be phalaenopsis orchids which grow with their top roots exposed.

a close up of a root bond root ball of a spider plant
Oh my goodness, my Spider Plant was extremely root bound. When the roots are this tight, they can’t uptake water. The plants was pale green & just didn’t look healthy. I transplanted it & 3 months later it looked good as new. Spider Plants are tough!

The plant has been overwatered. In this case, it might need new soil to properly dry out. Sometimes it’ll recover, & sometimes it won’t. 

This doesn’t happen often (except in my experience with Snake Plants & Cast Iron Plants), but the roots have cracked the pot.

You want to plant it directly in a decorative container. I do this with my exterior plants & also a few of my houseplants like succulents & snake plants.

3 small tropical houseplants sit on a work table
These are plants up for repotting soon. The Hatiora, or Dancing Bones, is directly planted in the red ceramic. I’ll wait until it’s through blooming to do the repotting.

The soil is badly infested & you can’t get it under control. You might need to do this for root mealybugs or ants.

This is obvious but the plant & pot have fallen. My Money Tree fell out of its pot (the root system was weak when I bought it) & I had to repot. It’s finally recovering months later!

The plant is heavy & needs a bigger base. My Phildendron congo won’t stand up on its own because the weight of the leaves & stems is causing it to tip.

close up of the exposed roots of an aglaonema houseplant
The roots of my Aglaonema Siam are notably exposed. Plus, the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot which means it. This is another plant I’ll be repotting in a month or so.

The pot is out of proportion with the plant. This is the case with my Monstera which you saw in the picture towards the beginning & in the video. The plant is fast-growing & the base is too small. 

The plant is a pot with no drain hole & you want to move it into 1 with drain holes. This is why I’m repotting my succulent Hatiora after it gets through flowering.

Succulents & other plants with smaller root systems are fine in small pots. Most other plants in small pots need watering more often which may not be your thing.

You buy the plant & the soil just doesn’t look right. That’s the case with my Variegated Jade which I just bought a couple of weeks ago. The root ball is sticking up by a couple of inches & the soil is looking “punky” & a bit moldy.

Big growers often use the same soil mix across the board for all their plants. As you have probably gathered by now, some plants need a soil more suitable to their needs & the mix they’re currently in isn’t the best for their optimum growth.

close up of the partially exposed root ball of a variegated jade plant
This is my new Variegated Jade. It looks like a 4″ plant was plunked into a 6″ pot & the rootball is really sticking up. Plus, the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot & there’s green mold (which isn’t harmful by the way) in the soil. I’m going to directly plant it into a jazzy metallic ceramic pot.

You want the plant to grow more straight & repotting will help with this.

Remember, some plants prefer to grow a bit tight in their pots so do your research & don’t rush to repot. 

Questions About Repotting Plants

Can you kill a plant by repotting?

In most cases, no. The exceptions would be if you severely damage the roots in the process, or over or underwater it after planting.

What happens if I don’t repot a plant?

It depends. Some plants are fine to grow tight in their pots & some are slow-growing. Fast-growing plants will need repotting sooner. Check out the reasons above for an answer.

How do I get all the old soil off of the roots?

For smaller or more delicate root balls, I knead off of as much of it as I can with my hands. I’ve found that the root balls of landscape plants tend to be more tight so the soil can be hard to get off. I’ve used the flat side of a shovel or trowel to try. In some cases, I was only able to get the top layer of soil off.

This little Dracaena Lemon Twist in a 4″ pot is really growing. A large root is already coming out the bottom. I’m going to plant it into a  low ceramic bowl with a couple of other dracaenas.

How do I know if my plant needs to be repotted?

A good sign is that your plant is looking stressed, like in the cause of my Spider Plant. If the roots are too tight & crowded, the plant can’t successfully uptake water & nutrients.  The plant will start look unhealthy & will loose its normal vigor. Again, read the reasons above & that’ll give you an idea.

How long can plants stay in a pot?

It depends on the plant, the size of the pot, & the environment it’s growing in. Some plants need repotting every 2 years & some are good for 7+ years.

Does the pot need a drain hole?

Unless you’re really good about monitoring the amount of water a houseplant gets, then yes. My Hatiora is currently in a ceramic pot with no drain hole (it’s been in this pot for almost 2 years now) & I’m going to repot into 1 with drain holes very soon. It’s growing & needs a bigger pot so it can become a beautiful specimen. Note: When it comes to landscape plants, pots with drain holes are a necessity.

This DIY succulent & cactus mix is light & chunky. My succulents love it!

Do plants go into shock after transplanting?

When repotted properly & cared for afterwards, then no. I’ve never had this happen. If the plant was extremely stressed or was weak to begin with, then it could. I live in Tucson, AZ where the summer temps can reach 105F+. I try to avoid repotting at this time because if not properly watered & kept out of strong sun, they could go through shock.

Do you water plants after repotting?

Yes I do. If I’m repotting large plants with a lot of soil mass, I like to water as I go. Otherwise the heavier rootball will cause the plant to sink in the dry mix & it’ll end up too far below the top of the pot. Note: The exception is succulents & cacti which I keep dry for 2-7 days (depending on the type).

Does it really matter what container I repot my plant into?

The type of pot doesn’t matter as much as the size.

When is the best time to repot my plant?

Spring is ideal along with summer. I live in a climate with warmer winters so fall is fine. I avoid repotting in winter because plants prefer & need to rest at this time. Then the roots wake up & the plant puts out all that Spring growth!

I just had to throw this in.  Adding worm compost & compost are my favorite way to nourish my potted plants.

Can a dying plant be saved by repotting?

It depends on what it’s dying from & what condition it’s in. Without seeing a plant, it’s hard to tell you.

Can you leave a plant in the container it came in?

Yes you can, but not forever! Again, how long it stays in that pot depends on the type of plant, how it’s growing & the size of the container.

I hope you’ve found this guide for repotting plants to be helpful. I have lots of repotting to do this Spring so be sure to check back in for the how to’s!

Happy gardening,

Signed by Nell Foster


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