Repot or Not?

How do you know if your plants need repotting? Container gardening guru, Geoff Stonebanks unravels the mystery of repotting.

A potbound plant at Driftwood Garden

If you have a good collection of plants in containers, in the house or in the garden, it can sometimes be difficult to know when they need repotting. Or whether it’s better to actually take them out of the pot and plant them into the ground. It is inevitable though, that the time will come in every plant’s life when an upgrade in its living accommodations will be required. At that point, it’s time to repot. 

Refresh or repot?

Your plant may have outgrown its previous home or it simply needs refreshing with a bit of new compost or soil. Either way, repotting is an important part of keeping your plants happy and healthy in the long-term. So, this is what I’ve learned over the years from my own collection of plants in both home and garden. 

When it comes to how often plants should be repotted, it’s safe to say that it is not an exact science. It can vary, depending on the plant, the age of the plant and the conditions in your home or garden. Generally, young plants will need to be repotted more often than mature, established plants, but timing can ultimately vary. 

Check the roots

One of the easiest ways to tell whether a plant needs repotting is by checking to see if the roots are growing out of the drainage hole at the bottom. If so, this is a clear indication that the roots have run out of room and your plant needs a larger pot.

When to repot

We’re told that the best time to repot is around now, in the spring, so that the actively growing roots will have enough time to grow into newly added potting mix. A common myth is that plants will grow larger if potted in a larger pot, while this seems logical, most houseplants prefer a snugger fit. Some garden plants, like agaves like to be snug in their pots too, like my Agave ‘Kichiokan Glow, which resides in the house through the winter and goes out in the garden for the summer months. I’ve certainly got a large collection of potted plants both inside and outside the home. In general, I find that most plant roots do not quickly fill a space when given room, but rather grow when and where they want to, which tends to be rather slowly. 

agave kichiokan glow at Driftwood garden
Houseplants and some garden plants, like Agave ‘Kichiokan Glow’, like to be snug in their pots. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Plastic or not?

The big question then is what type of pot should the plant be placed in?

Clay or terracotta pots are great for moisture control as they quickly absorb excess moisture in the soil, which evaporates from the porous surface. These then would be a good choice for plants that enjoy dry conditions. Plastic containers on the other hand don’t provide any moisture control benefits, so these are a good idea to use for plants that enjoy moist conditions.  But do recycle and re-use plastic planters whenever you can.

That said, it’s up to you which type of pot you use, personally I don’t mind plastic pots in the house. I tend to put all my houseplants inside a cachepot anyway, which are more decorative. Ensure to keep in mind that if you choose terracotta for a moisture-loving plant, you will need to water it far more regularly than if you choose plastic, and if you choose plastic for a plant that enjoys dry conditions, you will likely need to water less often than if you chose terracotta or clay, especially in warmer weather. 

Houseplants in cachepots at Driftwood
Houseplants potted in plastic pots can be placed in cachepots which are more decorative. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Repotting know-how

In my experience, there is no real rule of thumb for repotting your plants. Generally young and fast-growing plants are likely to want repotting more often than older plants. There are plants that can stay in the same pots for years without needing repotting, many succulents and cacti fit this bill, and they actually do better when they’re in the same pots for long periods of time. There are other plants that need to be repotted much more frequently. 

Sometimes you can break the rules a bit anyway. For example I have some fabulous lilies which experts recommend are repotted every 2/3 years. These stunning red and peach lilies belonged to my Aunt, who passed away in 2004 and they are growing in a lovely green ceramic pot. I inherited them and have never wanted to take them out, as they are a fond memory of her. Consequently, they have been in the same pot, untouched now for at least 25 years. They flower profusely every spring. I have to say they’re regularly fed with Richard Jackson Flower Power each season, which I’m certain helps aid their longevity.

Lilies at Driftwood garden
The lilies have been in the same pot for 25 years and still flower profusely every spring. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Check your plants

If you have a huge plant hanging out in a really small pot, it’s probably time to give it an upgrade; it can only thrive in that space for so long. I read recently that one suggestion is to ensure two-thirds plant height to one-third pot. Check out your own plants, it does make sense, but it also ensures your plant has enough space to stay healthy and grow.

Plants such as this beautiful Brazilian edelweiss (Sinningia leucotricha) require so little compost and can survive for years in the same pot, producing gorgeous flower stems each year that will have delicate orange flowers hanging, once fully extended. If your plant is suffering from yellowing leaves, it’s generally from overwatering or maybe too much light, but if you’ve noticed a lot of yellowing leaves pop up all at once, it could be a sign that it’s time to repot. Give your plants a treat when repotting and add some of Richard’s Root Booster to support healthy roots.

Sinningia leucotricha in pot at Driftwood
Brazilian edelweiss (Sinningia leucotricha) require little compost so can stay in the same pot for years. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

The thing to remember is that if your plant is root bound, there’s not enough soil for the roots. So, there’s also not enough soil to hold the nutrients for the roots to absorb and get it to the plant, when there’s a lack of nutrients, the leaves can yellow.

If I’m being totally honest, while it may be good practice to repot plants, chances are, like my lilies, if you care for them and feed them well, they are likely to do well.


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