Introduction: How to Repot Container Plants

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In this instructable I'm going to teach you some of the basic of repotting container plants. Now that it's FINALLY getting warm here in Colorado, my indoor plants have been growing like crazy so I've been repotting them little by little every weekend.

I typically only repot my plants if they're outgrowing their pots, if they're sick, or if I want to refresh succulents arrangements. So far this year I've done quite a bit of refreshing and my plants have done a lot of outgrowing their containers!

While I took most of the pictures as I was repotting succulents, these tips will work with any houseplant or container plant. Keep reading to learn all about transplanting your plants into new containers! I'll cover how to remove plants from pots, how to add soil correctly, and how to clean up your plants after they're repotted and more. :D

Step 1: How to Easily Remove Old Top Dressing From Pots

If you like to reuse your potting soil and top dressings, this is a great way to remove top dressings before repotting! This works best if the soil is below the top dressing is a little moist.

Grab a fine sieve and place it over a bowl. Tilt the pot and gently rake the top dressing out of the pot over the sieve. Shake the sieve to remove any soil and you have a nice clean top dressing to use again. :D

Step 2: How to Cover Drainage Holes in Pots

Drainage holes are incredibly important, but they can also allow a little bit of soil to seep out when watering! To avoid this, I like to use a piece of plastic mesh in the bottom of the pot. (Sometimes also called plastic canvas) It's easy, super cheap, and doesn't take up any space in the pot.

I tend to use just enough to cover the drainage hole, but you can also cut the mesh to fit the bottom of the pot snugly. I find that the weight of the soil is enough to keep a small piece in place!

Don't have any plastic mesh around? Try one of these other options:

  • Window screening
  • A thin layer of pebbles or rocks on the bottom of the pot (but remember that this takes up space and adds weight to the pot)

I've seen folks recommend packing peanuts, coffee filters, and newspaper but I have to admit I've never tried any of those! Packing peanuts seem like a mess, and there's no way coffee filters and newspaper would stand up to repeated waterings.

Step 3: How to Remove Plants From a Ceramic or Terra Cotta Pot

I like to wait until the soil has mostly dried out before I try to remove plants from a ceramic or terra cotta pot. In this case, I'm repotting some succulents as the crassula capitella in the back needed way more sun than the echeveria and crassula luederitzi.

I typically use a skewer or butter knife to loosen the soil from the edges. Then I tap the bottom of the pot with one hand while I support the plants and pot in the other hand. Sometimes the soil will come out a little at a time - sometimes it'll come out in one big chunk!

If you're having problems removing the plants, use your fingers or a small shovel or spoon to gently dig the plants out. This is why I like the soil to be dry - it allows you to carefully dig the plant out little by little without excess soil clinging to the roots.

Step 4: How to Remove Plants From a Plastic Pot

Removing plants from a plastic pot is much easier than harder pots like terra cotta or ceramic. I'm not very particular about whether the soil is wet or dry when I do this because there's a much lower chance you'll have to "dig" a plant out of a plastic pot.

To start, I hold the pot in both hands and press in on the sides of the pot, loosening the soil around the edges. Then I flip the pot on its side or with the opening facing down. I hold the plant and pot with one hand and push down on the bottom of the pot with the other hand.

If you've done this successfully, the plant should come out of the pot easily! If the plant doesn't budge, you may have a rootbound plant that needs a little more massaging on the sides and bottom of the pot before it comes out.

P.S. If it's a very large or rootbound plant, don't be afraid to cut it out of its pot, especially if it's in a thin plastic nursery pot. Often cutting the plant out will be less stressful for it and less damaging to the roots. I repotted a philodendrom selloum this weekend and had no option but to cut it out of a 10 inch pot because it was too heavy and rootbound!

Step 5: What to Do With Roots When Transplanting a Plant

This is a huge debate among the gardening community, but for me it comes down to how large the roots are.

When I repot succulents, I like to remove extra soil or peat from the roots to give them the best chance to get established in new soil. This is because they have very shallow root systems compared to other plants an grow more slowly.

When I repot vine, grass or tree type plants I tend to leave the roots alone for the most part! I'll shake away a little excess soil or sometimes slightly loosen a root ball with my hands if the plant was rootbound, but otherwise I don't worry about them. Their roots will spread easily into new soil.

There are really only two times I mess with the roots of foliage plants:

  1. If the plant is sick, I'll often remove as much soil as possible from the roots to check for signs of root rot and other problems.
  2. If I'm dividing the plant into smaller sections, I also tend to remove as much soil as I can. This allows me to either untangle the roots of the individual sections, or find the right place to cut the root system for division.

To remove excess soil from plant roots, I highly recommend soaking the roots and soil in a bowl of room temperature water. (Water that is too hot or cold can hurt the plant, so be careful!) Swish the plant around lightly in the water to help the soil fall away and use your fingers to "fluff" the roots in the water to separate them.

(Make sure not to pour the soil-y water down the drain or you'll have a clog! Dump it outside instead.)

Step 6: Choosing the Right Pot and Soil and Transplanting the Plant

Make sure to read up on the plant you're repotting before doing so as you'll need to know what sort of growing medium it likes. I always keep a bag each of all-purpose potting soil and cactus soil on hand to use for transplanting. I'll either use one of them or mix them together depending on what I think the plant will like.

The pot choice is important too! To learn more about choosing the right pot type and size, read my instructable over choosing the right pot for your plant. :)

For example: today I'm transplanting a new aloe I purchased a couple weeks ago. (I like to give plants a little time to get used to my house before putting them through transplanting. Too much change at once can be rough on them!) I've used a four inch terra cotta pot (one inch bigger than the pot it was in), put in plastic mesh to cover the drainage hole, and filled the pot with a cactus soil mix.

When transplanting, here are a few tips to avoid problems later:

  • Fill the bottom of the pot with new soil and nestle the plant into it, adding soil around the edges of the roots and pressing down lightly. Then add soil on top around the plant. Soil should be pressed into the pot so that the plant stands upright and strong.
  • Don't fill a pot too full of soil! This can cause a big mess when watering. I normally stop filling no more than 1/4 inch from the top edge of the pot for small pots and 1/2 inch for large pots. The dry soil will settle slightly after it's watered the first time, and you can decide to add more soil after that.
  • Never bury a plant too deeply. Burying leaves or new stem growth deeply in soil can sometimes cause rotting. This is especially important with succulents - I always try to keep them slightly above the soil.
  • Water thoroughly after transplanting until water runs out the bottom of the pot. If you're transplanting a formerly rootbound plant, check back on it the next day. Sometimes the soil in and around the rootball will dry out before the soil around it, so you'll have to water right where the plant's roots are if it gets droopy.

Step 7: How to Remove Excess Soil After Transplanting

It's pretty normal to make a major mess while transplanting, so I always find myself doing a little cleaning up after.

My favorite tool for this is a small paintbrush! The paintbrush allows me to get in all the crevices of cacti and succulents and remove stray soil.

If I've made a mess of a larger plant, I'll normally wipe the leaves down with a damp cloth to remove soil.

You can also buy small air blowers to remove soil and dust.

Step 8: When to Use a Top Dressing in Your Pots

When it comes to indoor gardening, a top dressing almost always means rocks. I mostly use rocks in succulent and cacti planters, but they can be a good idea in other situations too.

Here are a few great reasons to use rocks as a top dressing:

  • Keeps soil from blowing away when it dries out. Super useful for succulents and cacti, especially if they're outside or in windowsills.
  • Keeps soil moist longer. If you have a thirsty plant in a terra cotta pot, adding a to dressing can help retain moisture!
  • Helps prevent delicate plants from getting water damage. This is the major reason I use rocks! The rocks are a dry protective barrier between the soil and the leaves of my succulents. I'm always worried about the bottom leaves, so the rocks provide some peace of mind. :D