How to Repot Houseplants: The Ultimate Guide to How, When and Why

Overall, houseplants are pretty easy to take care of (lazier is better). Repotting a houseplant is a bit more involved though. Thankfully, you typically only need to do it about once a year.

Why Do Houseplants Need to Be Repotted?

You know that old high school friend who never left your hometown, who’s had the same job for like a decade or more, who basically lives some kind of Groundhog Day life, doing the same exact things day after day, week after week, year after year? They might be happy with their life, but as humans, we need new experiences to really grow as humans, to THRIVE.

Thriving Human and Plant

Houseplants are the same, but with dirt instead of life experiences. New soil means new nutrients and fresh oxygen for the roots, which is what makes houseplants into happy, flourishing members of your household instead of creatures that simply survive.

So, repotting can simply mean changing out a plant’s soil while keeping it in the same pot. But sometimes houseplants outgrow their pots and need to be repotted in a larger pot. Or they may simply need the top layer of soil replaced.

The three reasons houseplants need to be repotted:

  • Fresh Soil – They can stay in the same pot but need new soil for the nutrients and fresh oxygen.
  • Bigger Pot – They’ve outgrown their current pot and need room for their roots to expand.
  • Top Layer Refresh (Top Dressing) – They need a soil refresh but are too large to move to a bigger pot.

Can You Leave a Houseplant in the Pot It Came In?

Sure, but not forever. Depending on the type, size and condition of the plant you buy, it may be happy to stay in the same container for a couple of years. Or it may need to be repotted within a few months. Which brings me to the next question.

When Should You Repot Plants After Buying?

It definitely varies from plant to plant, but a simple rule of thumb is that most houseplants need to be repotted (or at least top dressed) once per year. Early spring is a good time to do it since their spring growth spurt will help them overcome the shock associated with repotting.

Now, repotting when not necessary can do more harm than good. So determining exactly how long you should wait to repot a new plant means looking out for these signs:

  • Straggly, pale foliage and no new growth
  • The pot has no drainage holes
  • The plant has gotten so top heavy it keeps falling over
  • Water runs straight out of the pot without soaking into the soil
  • Roots are poking out of the soil or growing through the drainage holes
  • The roots are tightly coiled into a circle that fills the pot (gently tip the plant out of the pot to check)

Check Houseplant Roots

What Soil Do You Use to Repot Houseplants?

For most houseplants, you can use any high-quality all-purpose indoor potting mix (this potting mix by Miracle-Gro is a good option).

But some plants are pickier than others. There are unique potting mixes designed specifically for orchids, for cacti and succulents and even for African violets. Most other plants should be fine with the basic indoor mix.

What Kind of Pots Should You Use When Repotting Houseplants?

The most mega super duper extremely important thing is that your pots have a drainage hole in the bottom.

So what’s the deal with all those cute, trendy pots with no drainage holes? That’s the flower pot industry’s version of planned obsolescence – they’re selling you crap that will kill your plants so you’ll buy more plants, pots, dirt, etc. Or maybe I’m just paranoid.

If you’ve found the most adorable pot in the world but it has no drainage holes, never fear, this is a problem with not one but TWO potential solutions.

  1. Drill a hole in the bottom.
  2. Use it as an outer pot and plop the actual plant pot inside of it. It will catch the water that drains out so you don’t have to buy those little drip trays/plant saucers.

The second most important thing is that if you’re repotting your plant in a larger pot, your new pot must be no more than two inches larger in diameter than the plant’s current pot (unless your plant is really massive). If you go any bigger, all that soil and all the water you’ll pour into it will mean your plant ends up swimming in the deep end and ultimately drowning. You just want to give it enough room to grow in the year ahead.

What Other Tools Do You Need to Repot Houseplants?

You’ll need a few things in addition to soil and pots:

  • Trowel – for digging and helping move plants from one pot to another
  • Pruners – for trimming off any old or damaged foliage
  • Gloves – unless you don’t mind getting your hands dirty
  • Pebbles or coffee filters – Put a thin layer of pebbles or a couple of coffee filters at the bottom to keep the soil from draining out along with the excess water

If it’s warm enough (above 60 degrees), do your repotting outside for easy cleanup. If you have to do it inside, spread some newspaper or something on the floor to make cleanup easier.

Tools to Repot Houseplants

How to Repot Houseplants Without Killing Them

Finally getting down to the nitty gritty of how to actually repot your indoor plants.

1. Water

Give your plant a light watering to help the soil and root ball slide out of the pot more easily.

2. Remove the Plant From Its Pot

Use your trowel or a butter knife to carefully loosen the soil around the edges of the pot. Then, turn the pot sideways while gently supporting the plant and tap the bottom of the pot until the plant slides out. You may need to give the plant a slight tug to help it slip out of the pot. If it feels stuck, loosen the soil around the edges a bit more and try again. If the roots are growing out of the drainage hole, you may need to loosen or even trim them away.

3. Check the Roots

If the soil doesn’t look moldy or gross and your plant looks healthy, you don’t need to mess with the roots. But if the soil is gross or your plant looks like it’s suffering, gently shake away the excess soil and inspect the roots.

Now, listen closely to this horrifying fact. Sometimes you’ll find a tiny plastic cage literally choking the life out of your plant’s roots. Why? Because the easiest way for big greenhouses to grow new houseplants is to take a cutting, put this little cage around the base of it and stuff it full of peat moss. Once the cutting starts growing little roots, they plop it in a pot full of soil, leaving the little cage so the fragile new roots don’t get disturbed.

This is great for mass production but terrible for people who want their houseplants to survive long-term (not to mention for the actual plant itself). If you see one of these little cages, it’ll probably be super entangled in your plant’s roots. Do your best to carefully cut the plastic and gently pull the roots free in order to fully remove the cage.

If you see any rotten or mushy roots, cut them away. They’re like a gangrenous foot. If left alone, the rot will simply spread to the rest of the plant and ultimately kill it. You can prune up to 25% of the roots. Just do your best to leave the thicker roots at the base of the foliage.

Check Roots to Repot Houseplant

If the roots are coiled in tight circles, your plant is root bound. Use your fingers to gently loosen the roots so they can spread in the new pot (otherwise they may just keep growing in circles, choking off the plant). If they’re coiled so tightly that you can’t tease them loose, use your pruners or a sharp knife to slice one to two inches into the sides of the root ball to encourage new root growth. Here’s a video that shows how to do that.

4. Add Fresh Soil to the New Pot (or the Old Pot if Not Moving to a Larger Pot)

Place a thin layer of pebbles or a couple of coffee filters at the bottom of the pot to keep your soil from washing out. Then dump some soil into the pot for your plant to sit on. Make sure the base of the plant sits an inch or so below the rim of the pot so it doesn’t overflow when you water it.

5. Place the Plant and Fill Around It with Soil

Place the plant on top of your new layer of soil and make sure it’s centered in the pot. Add potting mix around it until it’s secure, gently tamping it down to remove large air pockets. Don’t compress the soil, just pat it down a bit so the roots can still breathe.

Tamping Soil When Repotting Houseplants

How to Top Dress a Large Indoor Plant

If your houseplant is too large to repot, it’s best to top dress or refresh the top bit of soil instead. While supporting the plant, remove the top two inches of soil. Then add fresh soil to replace it. Easy peasy.

What To Do After Repotting a Houseplant

Water the plant thoroughly until water runs out of the drainage holes (read our complete guide to watering houseplants here). You want the soil to get evenly moist all the way around the plant. Sometimes the soil will settle a bit after watering. If you notice any low spots, add a bit more soil to fill in, then water again.

Repotting is a bit stressful for houseplants, so it’s a good idea to keep them out of strong light for a week or two while they recover. Hold off on fertilizing for three or four weeks to avoid burning the roots. You may notice some minor wilting at first, but your houseplant should make a full recovery and start really thriving within a few weeks.

Is There a Video That Shows How to Repot Houseplants?

I got you, friend. It’s right here: