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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:

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Christina

Saturday 12th of September 2020

Ahhh haha repotted! REPOTTED

Raffaele

Monday 14th of September 2020

Hahahahaha

Christina

Saturday 12th of September 2020

I meant reported, not reported... Autocorrect...

Raffaele

Monday 14th of September 2020

That is one of the most frustrating autocorrects LOL. Happens to me all the time!

Christina

Saturday 12th of September 2020

Uh oh I just reported a snake plant yesterday that was exploding through the plastic container it came in. It wasn't draining, so I thought I should repot it. I did not break up the root ball because it has a big bulb and I was afraid of damaging it. Should I dump it out and break it up and rerepot?

Raffaele

Monday 14th of September 2020

As long as the roots were not really tightly wrapped around in circles, you should be OK.

Pradipta Kumar Bhuyan

Thursday 27th of August 2020

Hi Raffaele, Your above article will help me in repotting of my Epiphylum Oxypetallum in near future.Very nicely explained . I want to know when to repot my Epiphylum Oxypetallum plant.It is in that small pot(8") since 4 years.

Susan Belisle

Sunday 16th of August 2020

This makes my life easiest knowing what to be looking for and what to do with the plant When I am able to diagnose the problem

Raffaele

Sunday 16th of August 2020

Glad to help!

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