When to Repot & How

One of the best things you can do for your plants is give them some “new shoes” every once in a while. Whether this means taking your plant out of its plastic grow pot for the first time and giving it some extra room in a new pot, or just refreshing the soil in its current pot, here’s the rundown on repotting.

As a general guideline, we recommend repotting your plants every 12-18 months, or whenever you find that they are root-bound. In addition to giving your growing plant more space and refreshing the nutrients in its soil, repotting is a great opportunity to check the root health of your plant. Think of it as a yearly physical!

While repotting is generally easy to do and usually good for the health of your plant, keep in mind that it does disturb the plant’s root system and therefore is not without risk. To set your repotted plant up for success, be sure to treat it extra nicely post-procedure. This can include giving it plenty of the kind of light it likes best (indirect or direct), watering it well, and then just leaving it undisturbed for a while.

If you’re bringing a new plant home, we do recommend repotting, but you don’t necessarily need to do it right away. Of course, you CAN repot if you want to, but for certain plants, like those finicky ficuses, it might be better to let the plant get used to its new environment before disturbing the root system. For those especially picky plants, it’s also helpful to repot in early spring, as the growing season starts.

The best time to repot is when your plant is root-bound, i.e. when the soil’s nutrients have been significantly depleted and the roots have “taken over.” This means that there is not a lot of soil left for the plant to draw nutrients and moisture from, which can cause it to become unhealthy over time. Here are some things to ask yourself to figure out if your plant is ready for a repotting:

  • Can you see roots coming out of the drainage holes in the grow pot?

  • Is the soil drying out more quickly than usual?

  • Is the plant top-heavy, tipping over easily?

  • Are the bottom leaves dropping rapidly, even though the rest look fine?

Yes, you say? Your plant may need a new home! If you’re still not sure, gently wiggle the plant out of its pot. Are the roots pressed up against the inside of the pot, and can you see lots of roots without brushing any soil away (photos below)? If the answer is yes, REPOT!

This Aglaonema ‘Spring Snow’ definitely needs more room. You can see a ton of roots that were pressed up against its previous pot without brushing any soil away.

This Aglaonema ‘Spring Snow’ definitely needs more room. You can see a ton of roots that were pressed up against its previous pot without brushing any soil away.

Once you’ve decided to repot a plant, you’ll need to figure out what kind and what size of pot you’ll need. We recommend sizing  up by 1-2” in diameter for smaller, tabletop- and shelf-sized plants, and 2-3” for larger floor plants. Strangely enough, too much space can cause as much stress as too little space. This is partly because soil holds onto water, and excess soil = excess water = root rot! Just in case those words didn’t fill you with terror, root rot is something that you really, really don’t want.

Once you have selected a suitably-sized pot, make sure there is way for water to drain out of the pot. Some pots have drainage holes in the bottom. If this is the case with yours, no need to do anything else. If your pot doesn’t have a hole, that’s fine, but we recommend filling the bottom inch or so with rocks, pottery shards, broken wine corks, or something of that nature—anything that will provide a little drainage space at the bottom of the pot. This is also a good time to cover your potting surface with newspaper or a sheet -- repotting can be a messy process!

At Niche, we use soil-aerating stones as seen in the above photo, but you could use any sort of rock that allows the water to drain out from the soil. Whether you use rocks or not, you should be mindful about how much water you’re giving your plant, especially in pots that do not drain.

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If you’re using drainage rocks, cover those babies up with a bit of soil. If you’re not using rocks, you’ll still want to add some soil to the bottom of your pot to keep the soon-to-be-exposed roots from being pressed up against a hard surface, and to give them something to grow into.

Now take a look at your plant. If there are any yellowing or torn leaves, take a minute to trim them off, if you want to. This is mainly an aesthetic consideration, not something that will affect the success of the repotting.

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Carefully wiggle your photosynthetic friend out of its current pot. Gently massage the roots to get rid of as much old soil as you can without damaging them (pictured below). It’s also a good idea to break some of roots a bit so that the plant puts energy into helping them grow into the new environment. Take a look: do they look healthy and white? If so, congrats! Your plant is in good shape.

This plant is insanely root-bound! You can even see where the soil stayed dry in the middle even after a good watering. Definitely ready for a larger pot.

This plant is insanely root-bound! You can even see where the soil stayed dry in the middle even after a good watering. Definitely ready for a larger pot.

This plant is insanely root-bound! You can even see where the soil stayed dry in the middle even after a good watering. Definitely ready for a larger pot.

If the roots look shriveled and brown or black, if they’re slimy, or if they smell bad, you may be facing a bit of root rot. Don’t worry, there are ways to handle this! See THIS POST for more info on root rot.

Settle the plant into the new pot. Remove or add soil below the plant as necessary to get it up to the right height, where the soil on top will come up to about half an inch below the rim of the pot.

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Fill in around the roots with new soil, making sure to get it all the way down the sides so that the exposed roots are touching only soil. Maybe give the pot a gentle tap on the table, floor, counter, etc. where you’re potting to help the soil settle. You want to pack the plant in firmly, but not too tightly! The roots all need access to the new soil, but you don’t want to press it in so hard that you cut off their supply of oxygen. When in doubt, be gentle! When you water for the first time, this will also help soil settle into any air pockets left behind, and you can always top it off at that point.

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Make sure the soil reaches all the way down the inside of the pot. Be gentle when moving your plant to the side. Once the soil is level and looks how you want it to look, you’re all done! Wipe off the pot (pro tip: a dry paintbrush can be super helpful for dusting off extra soil) and admire your handiwork.