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Houseplant TLC: Re-Potting & Potting-Up

Before re-potting my Tiger Tooth Aloe (A. juvena) which has a mind of it's own!

Here we are again, having made it past the deepest throws of winter (aka: February in the Northeast - ugh) and not-so-patiently waiting for outdoor temps to slowly rise. I’ve alluded to it before; now with the planting season firmly on the horizon, these next few weeks between the final dregs of cool weather and the start of “true spring” can be the hardest time of year for garden-minded folk.

Still, March and April are rife with opportunity to knock a few more items off your to-do list, indoor and out. In particular, if you keep houseplants year-round, spring is the best time to consider showing your precious plants a little TLC by re-potting and potting-up.

Why re-pot or pot-up, you ask? It may come as a general surprise, but much like humans, plants do grow and evolve, often to become much bigger than the tiny starter plants we originally purchased from the nursery (much to my boyfriend’s general dismay!). In the same way we buy new clothes when we outgrow them, most houseplants need to be refreshed every year or two, either within their original pot or a slightly bigger one to ensure their continued health and happiness overall.

Spring is best for this type of task, as longer daylight hours mean that plants are coming out of dormancy and beginning to put on new growth, which can help to alleviate any shock to the plant as a result of changing its growing conditions.

Besides giving your plants a fresh start on the season, many of our most common houseplants are also short lived in certain climates by their very nature (think tropical houseplants living in dry air conditioned/heated apartments). Giving your indoor plants a little extra care every year or two in spring can go a long way in extending their lifetime as well as the time we get to enjoy them. Totally a win win.

What You’ll Need

While ultimately what you’ll need to get started depends on what types of plants you’re working with, this list of supplies is generally a good place to start:

- An assortment of pots (either pre-existing or new)

- Fresh soil (depending on the plant)

- Small-medium sized stones or broken pottery (optional)

- Sturdy garden knife and/or clippers

- Clean water

- Butter knife for removing root-bound plants from pots

- A space you don’t mind making a total mess in

A Quick Primer on Pots

You probably guessed it - not all pots are equal! Any discussion on re-potting your plants would be incomplete without a brief primer on picking the right pot for the right plant.

Keep these few points in mind when selecting a pot and you’ll be good to go.

1. Always be sure to use a pot with a drainage hole.

Seems simple, but in fact many pots for sale at big-box stores lack this functional feature, thereby inviting a host of problems for our houseplants even when cared for by the most well-intentioned plant enthusiasts. If you do purchase a plastic pot without a drainage hole, most can be altered by drilling your own.

2. The type of pot/material it’s made of really matters.

In general, the needs of your plant should align with the material function of the pot you choose to use, and different materials serve different purposes.

For example, terra-cotta is a more porous material, which means it breathes better and doesn’t hold excess moisture. I tend to use terra-cotta pots for my aloes, succulents, cacti, and other plants that thrive in dry conditions/don’t like wet feet.

On the other hand, plastic pots do a nice job of holding in moisture and humidity, making them a great choice for many tropical plants that suffer from dry indoor environments.

You may not want to choose a plastic pot for a plant who likes drier soil/less frequent watering, or else you may get root rot. Similarly, a terra-cotta pot might not be the best choose for a plant that needs high moisture/humidity.

Either way, you should be mindful of what kind of conditions your plant prefers. Consider your options and adjust accordingly to give your plants the best chance at success.

Selecting the Right Soil

Just like picking the right type of pot for the needs of your plant, you want to make sure that you’re using the right type of soil as well. If you’re not sure, there’s no harm in consulting the internet!

In general, cactus/succulent mix is ideal for arid plants that require good drainage. Orchid mix is great for bromeliads and other epiphytes (ie, plants that grow on the surface of another plant). Indoor potting mix is a solid choice for most other contenders – if in doubt, you can always make your own or add materials to fluff or aerate your mix (ie, pearlite, sand, peat moss, etc).

If you want to go above and beyond, adding a thin layer of organic compost to the top of your newly potted plants, or even a bit of mulch will add extra nutrients and help your plants continue to thrive.

Re-Potting and Potting-Up: Getting Started

Follow these steps for best results!

1. Gather all your materials in your work space.

2. Gently remove the plant from its original pot – if the plant has never been re-potted and/or is particularly root bound, insert the butter knife around the outside edge of the soil to help with removal. Do NOT pull the plant by the stem to remove it.

3. Once removed, observe if the condition of the plant’s roots – are they extremely dense and/or circling the pot? If so, this mean’s the plant is root bound.

4. Gently shake off excess soil and depending on how thick the roots are, use your hands or a garden knife/clippers to cut through or break apart the roots. Trim any roots that are discolored or rotted. When in doubt, a general rule of thumb is that you can afford to trim back as much as the bottom inch or root material when re-potting and not harm the plant. The goal is simply to remove damaged/diseased tissue and allow for better airflow within the soil.

5. If re-using your original pot, wash and dry thoroughly and then add enough soil to the bottom of your pot so that the soil line of your plant aligns about an inch below the top of your pot. As a note: I also prefer to add a handful of small to medium stones to the bottom of my pots to improve air circulation. This isn’t necessary, but totally up to you – you can also use shards of broken pottery, even packing peanuts.

Adding soil to the bottom of my new pot.

6. Moisten the soil slightly and then add the plant back to the pot. Fill in around the plant with soil, firm down gently to ensure the plant is anchored and water lightly.

7. If you are potting-up (ie, placing your plant in a slightly bigger pot to account for growth), select a pot with a diameter that is about 1-2 inches larger than the original pot. Go too big when potting-up could put your plant in additional shock.

A slightly bigger pot for my root-bound Dracaena.

As a note, there are some plants (such as African Violets) that actually like to be re-potted more frequently and/or prefer to be root bound. Again, when in doubt regarding a specific plant, always do your research first!

And there you have it – do these simple steps every year or so and your plants may just outlive you!

Happy planting!

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