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How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

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How to Repot a Houseplant

When you have a plant that is very root bound and it is time to repot into a bigger pot, there is one important step that many people miss.  And if you miss this step, your plant will not benefit from the repotting. 

It may even continue to decline.  I’ve already described in detail how to repot a plant in a previous post, which I’ll direct you to shortly.

But for now, what is this critical step?  I felt that it was important enough to merit its own blog post, so here it is!

Loosening the Rootball

Loosening the rootball is a critical step in repotting a plant.  A few months ago, I had a peace lily (Spathiphyllum) that I had in a big pot and I realized that the pot was probably too big for that size plant. 

The plant was growing, but had started to decline slowly.  So I decided to take it out of its pot to check it out.

What I found was a little shocking.  No new roots had grown into the pot!  And it had been in that pot for years!  The roots stayed contained to the tight rootball, which I obviously did not loosen when I repotted.  Shame on me!

Two Ways to Loosen the Rootball

There are two ways that I would recommend to loosen the rootball:

When I can, I will take the plant out of its pot and then use my hands to gently loosen the rootball.  I’ll start at the bottom, and then work on the sides. 

Gently pry and separate the roots to loosen them up a bit.  You don’t have to go crazy, but this will go a long way in stimulating more root and plant growth once you repot.

Sometimes if you have a SUPER rootbound plant, especially plants with fine, tight and fibrous roots, it may not be possible to use your hands to loosen the rootball. 

In these cases, simply take a sharp knife and make several slashes or cuts on the sides and at the bottom of the rootball.

Don’t worry about damaging a few roots here and there.  They will recover, and your plant will be much better off! 

If you have a tight rootball and you don’t take either of the measures mentioned above, your plant might suffer the same fate of my poor Spathiphyllum that I mentioned above (which is doing great now by the way!)

How to Loosen the Rootball

I have two pictorial examples of what a loosened rootball should look like.  I used the first method described above where I used my hands to loosen the rootball.

This is a croton that was clearly in need of repotting.  Take a look at the roots coming out from the bottom of the pot.

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

Once I took the plant out of the pot, this is what it looked like.  The plant had slowly started to decline after being potbound for a while.  It was crying out for help and I kept noticing yellowing leaves. 

So I decided to stop procrastinating and took some action!  Notice the tight rootball and mass of roots.  Fortunately, it wasn’t beyond repair.

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

I held the rootball with both hands and started loosening the bottom of the rootball, and then I gently loosened the sides.  After this point, I potted it up into its new pot.

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

Here is another example with a peace lily (different from the one I mentioned above).  You can see the roots coming out of the bottom of the pot.  This is an indication that it needs a bigger pot.

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

In order to take the plant out of this pot, I took my finger and inserted it into the drainage hole and gently pressed upwards.  This helped in getting the plant out of its pot. 

In extreme cases where the plant is refusing to budge, in order to prevent any damage by trying to pull the plant out, I simply take a hammer and break the pot!  Not a big deal for clay pots since they are inexpensive. 

Or if you have a thin plastic pot, you can take some sharp pruners and simply cut the pot off.

Note the mass of healthy roots!

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

Similar to the previous Croton example, I loosened the bottom of the rootball and the sides with my hands.

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

Another thing I noticed when I took the plant out was the build up of fertilizer salts at the surface of the soil.  I simply brushed that soil out with my fingers. 

Over time, as you fertilize, you may have build up of fertilizer salts.  If too many accumulate, it may damage your plants.  One good way to help mitigate this is to occasionally flush your plants with plain water and let everything drain away.

How to Repot a Plant That Is Root Bound

So don’t forget to loosen your rootball when you repot!  Be sure to read my other blog post for further detailed information on repotting.

Please do me a favor and share this post to social media because it will help me spread the Ohio Tropics houseplant care tips to the masses! Also, check out my shop on Amazon for all your houseplant care needs:

OHIO TROPICS PLANT CARE STOREFRONT

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Chris

Friday 1st of May 2020

Can barely remember the glory of my Peace Lily, which had been maintained for maybe ten years. Now it’s stunted, eight shortened green-with-yellow-tinge leaves (half are also crispy edged). It got a bad batch of soil I think, repotted after to try to save it, but it has stayed stunted. I read your article abt watering so I can now surmise it’s been getting too dry in between. Moved to spot with morning light. Should I also downsize to smaller and plastic or glazed pot I wonder?

Thanks for the steady stream of plant reminders. :)

Raffaele

Monday 4th of May 2020

Hi Chris! Your new location for the plant should be great! Try and keep up the watering like you mentioned. If you already repotted it just leave it. Let it stay in its new, brighter location and be consistent with your watering and you will see it improve as the Spring progresses. Your plant will need a little time so let it do its thing! :-).

Diane

Sunday 15th of March 2020

Thank you for an informative post. Have several plants in need of repotting, and it was very helpful to have a “refresher course” before doing the job.

Raffaele

Tuesday 17th of March 2020

You're very welcome Diane!

Adrienne

Wednesday 12th of February 2020

I’m enjoying your emails especially on repotting orchids.. Thanks so much!!

Raffaele

Sunday 16th of February 2020

You're very welcome Adrienne! :-) . I'm glad you're enjoying my blog and the newsletters.

Leah

Thursday 13th of September 2018

Great information, thank you! If I have a particularly difficult root ball which I can't loosen, I will leave it soak in a bucket of water with a very diluted amount of Seasol for about 1/2 an hour (this is an Australian seaweed based product which is a plant 'tonic' and helps to prevent root shock. It's not a fertiliser). Epsom salts can be used as an alternative. This allows the old soil to float away, loosen up the root ball and the tonic will give the plant a boost when it's repotted.

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Tuesday 18th of September 2018

What a fantastic suggestion! Thank you for sharing! I will have to try that out someday.

Karmen

Thursday 6th of September 2018

What about trimming roots? I've seen some people doing that but how much is too much? Can trimming roots before repotting damage the plant?

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Thursday 6th of September 2018

You can definitely do a root trimming, but that is more if you want to return the plant into the same size pot. And it will not damage the plant as long as you aren't too severe with the pruning. There may be a transition period, but the plant will recover.