How to Repot a Plant: Easy Step-by-Step Instructions

overhead shot of repotting plant materials plus spilled dirt and plant

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 30 minutes
  • Total Time: 30 minutes - 1 hour
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $40 (or less depending on size and material of new pot and amount of potting mix used)

Knowing how to repot a plant is an important skill for any plant owner, since roots often need more space and nutrients to support foliage, flowers, and fruit overhead. Yet repotting a plant can be surprisingly tricky, sometimes even for experienced gardeners.

Despite those delicate roots and crumbly soil, this doesn’t have to be a harrowing task. By making sure you’re well-prepared, and by following a few guidelines, you can significantly increase the chances of your plant surviving the transition out of its old pot—and even thriving once it’s settled into its new one.

Transplanting is stressful, but it’s an inevitable part of life for many potted plants—and for their human companions. While it’s generally better to avoid repotting a plant unless necessary, it’s also unwise to delay once the necessity is apparent. There are often clues that it’s time to repot a plant: Maybe it’s visibly root-bound, for example, or its leaves are wilting and turning yellow.

You can repot a plant at any time of year, but while different plants may have their own seasonal preferences, spring is often the best time, since that’s the start of the growing season for many plants.

Once you’ve determined your plant needs a new pot, here’s what to do next.

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

  • New pot, roughly 2 inches larger in diameter than the old one
  • Clean, sharp pair of scissors or knife
  • Coffee filter, paper towel, or a few shards of broken clay (optional)

Materials

  • Potting mix (soil or other potting medium), enough to fill the new pot
  • Water

Instructions

  1. Choose the Best Pot for Your Plant

    various sizes and shapes and colors of plant containers on outside table

    Treehugger / Dan Amos

    If a houseplant’s roots have run out of space, its new pot generally should be 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter than the original, allowing more room to grow without requiring excessive amounts of soil and water.

    That might be less of an issue for outdoor potted plants that receive rainfall, but while some plants need more root space than others, it’s typically best not to surround a potted plant with a lot more soil than it needs.

    Plastic pots are lighter and easier to move, but are likelier to tip over. Terracotta and other ceramic pots offer some advantages over plastic, but they are heavy, breakable, and absorb moisture, so they may require more watering than plastic pots.

    Whichever material you choose, be sure your pot has drainage holes to help reduce disease risk.

  2. Choose a Good Potting Medium

    various different potting soils and dirt in glass containers outside next to garden tool

    Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

    Look for a potting medium that’s well-suited to your plant. Houseplants grown for their foliage or flowers often need loamier, humus-rich soil, for example, while cacti and succulents need less humus and more sand.

    Many types of potting mixes can work well for potted fruits and vegetables, although it’s worth researching your specific plant, since some are more particular about pH levels, water retention, or other factors. 

    In general, potted plants need a growing medium that’s porous enough to let air reach the roots, but is also able to retain water and nutrients for the plant’s sustenance.

    It’s often better to avoid products labeled as “potting soil,” according to the University of Maryland Extension Service, since these tend to be too dense for adequate aeration. If you do buy actual soil, you may want to add perlite or vermiculite to help loosen it a bit. Otherwise, look for an artificial potting mix with peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite, and possibly slow-release fertilizer, although you can also just add fertilizer later.

    Another option is to make your own potting medium at home, using a mixture of roughly half organic ingredients (like peat moss, compost, or rice hulls) and half inorganic ingredients (like perlite, builder’s sand, vermiculite, or pumice).

  3. Water the Plant in Its Original Pot

    blue metal watering can waters striped houseplant on bamboo mat

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    Keep your plant well-hydrated prior to repotting. Try to provide its typical water supply in the day(s) leading up to the move, then give it one more drink about an hour before you repot it.

    This step might help your plant handle the stress of repotting, and it can result in less brittle, more pliable roots, which make the repotting process easier for everyone.

  4. Prepare the New Pot

    gardener prepares new pot for houseplant by adding fresh potting soil with tiny trowel

    Iryna Khabliuk / Getty Images

    If you’re reusing a pot that previously held another plant, make sure to clean it well before using it again.

    Depending on the plant, the pot, and your preferences, you may want to add something at the bottom of your new pot to prevent potting mix from leaking through the drainage holes.

    This is not always necessary, but if you’re worried about it, you can add shards of broken clay or terracotta to the bottom. Don’t add small rocks or gravel, though, since that doesn’t help with drainage and takes us space that could otherwise be used by the roots. Some gardeners use a paper towel or coffee filters.

  5. Add Some Potting Medium to the New Pot

    hands add fresh potting soil to striped houseplant for repotting

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    Pour a little potting mix into the new pot. Add enough to cover the bottom and provide a cushion, but remember to leave space not just for your plant’s roots, but also for some additional potting mix to cover them at the surface.

    Visualize how big the root ball will be inside the pot, and try to keep the top of the root ball 1 or 2 inches below the rim.

  6. Remove the Plant From Its Old Pot

    two hands lift root bound plant and soil out of small container

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    There are different techniques for removing a plant from its pot, and some may work better than others depending on variables like the type of pot, the type of plant, or the condition of the roots and soil.

    It’s often easier to remove a plant from a plastic pot, since the more flexible material lets you gently squeeze, pinch, or roll from the outside to separate the soil and roots from the pot’s interior walls. You can achieve the same result with ceramic pots, however, by gently knocking the pot against a hard surface, or by turning the pot upside-down and patting or slapping the bottom with your hand.

    In any case, remember this is already a big ordeal for your plant, so try to be as gentle as possible. Turn the pot upside-down slowly, with one hand ready to catch the mass of roots and soil when it comes out. (Some plants slide out easily, while others may need to be gently pulled, wiggled, and coaxed).

    Once you’ve removed the plant, put down the old pot and carefully turn the plant upright in your hands, cradling it by the root ball.

  7. Perform a Quick Health Check on the Roots

    close-up shot of hands gently trimming tiny plant roots with small scissors

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    While still holding the unpotted plant, examine the condition of its roots. Don’t worry if they’re a little matted or root-bound—you’re already in the process of addressing that problem by moving your plant to a bigger pot.

    If you do see a lot of matted or clumped roots around the exterior of the root ball, though, it might be worth gently teasing them apart with your fingers. If that seems impossible, you can try loosening the clump by trimming a few roots with scissors or a knife, then untangling the rest by hand.

    For some plants, it could also be helpful to trim away clumps of roots at the top of the root ball, along with any other brown, dead-looking roots.

  8. Place Your Plant in Its New Pot

    two hands add handfuls of potting soil to small plant in new pot

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    Carefully lower the root ball into the new pot, setting it atop the layer of potting mix you’ve already poured onto the bottom.

    Sprinkle in more potting mix around the sides of the root ball, gently patting it in to reduce air pockets, but without compacting it too much.

    In general, the aboveground parts of the plant—leaves, flowers, and fruit—should not be in contact with the soil or potting mix once transplanting is complete.

  9. Water the Plant

    blue watering can sprinkles water on striped houseplant after repotting

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    Your plant has been through a lot at this point. Give it plenty of water once you’ve finished repotting, but then wait until the soil has dried at the surface before you water again.

  10. Choose a Good Spot for Your Repotted Plant

    repotted houseplant is watered with blue watering can next to other houseplants

    Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

    You have now repotted your plant, but that isn’t the end of the story. The plant may need time to overcome the stress of repotting and to adjust to its new home.

    Check on it regularly, looking for signs of transplant shock, like wilting or falling leaves. Provide the right amount of water, and place it somewhere with optimal sunlight, temperature, and airflow. You could even try reading bedtime stories to your plant.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why is repotting plants important?

    Repotting plants is important to make sure they have room to grow and are kept in fresh soil that's full of nutrients.

  • When should you repot a plant?

    Repotting is stressful for plants, so wait until the plant shows signs that it needs repotting: overgrowing its current pot, roots coming out the bottom, or yellowing or loss of leaves. On average, houseplants should be repotted every 12 to 18 months.

  • What should you expect after repotting a plant?

    Don't be alarmed if your plant goes into shock after repotting. Wilting is normal, so avoid the urge to water it more, which could make the problem worse. Typically, small houseplants get over the shock of transplanting in a few weeks.

  • Do plants grow bigger in bigger pots?

    Studies have shown that doubling the size of the pot makes plants more than 40% bigger.

  • Should you remove old soil when repotting?

    You should always remove old soil when repotting a plant. After a while, soil loses all the nutrients that a plant needs to survive, so fresh soil is crucial to its health.

View Article Sources
  1. Society for Experimental Biology. "Want bigger plants? Get to the root of the matter." ScienceDaily. 1 July 2012.