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How to Transplant Houseplants into a Larger Pot

Ways to transplant houseplants in larger pot.

I compare plants outgrowing their pots to times when I try to wear clothing that feels tighter than it used to. If I imagine how I feel when I can’t fit into what I’m wearing, I can have more empathy for plants that may need a bigger pot to “wear.”

How do I transplant a plant from one pot to another?

Preliminary Step: Gather the Supplies

You need a pot no more than one-third larger than the size of your plant’s root ball. A new bag of potting soil and a trimmer to prune the roots also helps.

1. Put Soil on Bottom of New Pot (Now or Later)

Woman gardener putting soil in a pot.

You can put the soil on the bottom of your new pot right away. Otherwise, you can choose to wait until after you’ve taken steps to “Determine Pot Size,” an explanation of which is to follow. Either way, about two inches from the bottom of your chosen transplant container would provide enough soil to retain moisture for your plant to “drink” when it needs it.

Determine Pot Size Before Adding Soil 

You could wait to put the soil on the bottom of your new pot if you’d like to place your plant in it and extend the roots out the drainage holes to see where to cut them. Then, take the plant back out and put the dirt back in. See section “Trim The Roots” for two different ways to measure how long the roots should be in the new pot.

Of course, you also could use a tape measure or ruler to see how tall the plant is compared to the height of the new pot. No matter how you choose to make sure your plant has enough room, leave two inches for the bottom soil before you transplant.

2. Moisten the Plant in the Original Pot

This step did surprise me. I wouldn’t have thought of moistening the plant in the original pot before transplanting it. It makes for a messier job, but watering the plant in the current container before moving it to the new one was what Shelley Wigglesworth of New England Today suggests.

Shelley doesn’t mention putting only part of the soil in before putting the plant in. I don’t know how she expects to put the roots in a pot that is already full of dirt. That’s why I suggest putting a little on the bottom before you add the plant.

3. Remove Plant from Original Pot

Woman gardener removing plant from original pot for transplanting.

If it’s a plastic pot, you might have to squeeze its sides to loosen the dirt. This technique doesn’t work so well with ceramic or glass pots though. Perhaps take a fork and use it as a miniature rake to pull the dirt loose. Either way, it will most likely appear like a mold of the pot unless the dirt is loose enough.

4. Shake Soil from Roots

First, shake the soil as hard as you can without breaking the plant stem from the root ball. Then, gently tug at the roots to loosen them.

You might not dislodge all the soil but removing most of it will help you tell how low to submerge the plant into the new pot. It also will allow you to add new and old soil not packed so tightly that it doesn’t allow for decent water flow.

5. Untangle the Roots

When untangling the roots, don’t pull on them too hard. You don’t want to break them off from the stem if you can help it, even if you do plan to trim them.

One way to loosen some root ends is to work at them with your thumb and index finger in opposite circular motions. Work as far up to below the root ball as possible without cutting into the core where the stems and trunk of your plants meet.

6. Trim the Roots

Woman gardener trimming small plant root.

You could trim out the excess while the plant is still in the old pot or measure the roots in the new pot. Either way would work. Just make sure you trim the roots short enough.

If Trimming in the Old Pot

Cut off the roots you see dangling through the drainage holes. Try to be gentle, but don’t worry too much about hurting the roots because they do regenerate fast. Shears made especially for plants might work the best, but you can also use the sharpest scissors you have.

I don’t think a dull trimmer will work. I know. I tried that a couple of times. Make sure the blades you cut with are sharp. You also would fray the root ends if you use dull cutting tools.

In any case, you can cut all the extra “stuff” below the root ball. If you have untangled the loose roots enough to make the cuts, the plant should fit well into the new pot.

If Trimming in the New Pot

If you haven’t put any dirt in the new pot yet, you could set the plant into it. If roots are too long, guide them gently through the drainage holes until the top of the roots sit about an inch below the new pot’s rim.

Then, trim off the extra up to where they first exit the drainage hole. Afterward, you might want to cut off an inch or two extra from that point to accommodate for the dirt you put in the bottom.

7. Confirm Plant Fitting in New Pot

Woman gardener transplanting plant in a pot.

If you see any roots, that indicates that the plant might not have room to grow in the pot where you placed it. Unfortunately, this would require finding a bigger pot, which can seem like a hassle.

One thing, by the way, you can do to avoid this from happening is measure the plant before buying a new pot. That may seem obvious, but don’t feel bad if you didn’t think to prepare for a proper pot fitting.

Hopefully, you didn’t spend too much money on it though. A new one doesn’t have to cost much though, so don’t worry too much if you chose the wrong size the first time.

8. Fill New Pot with Rest of Soil

Here’s the reason why I think you should not place all the dirt in the new plant pot all at once. It’s because the plant roots need to contact the soil when you place the plant into it. The extra soil underneath the roots will help retain water from the root’s bottom, from where the water travels.

The soil surface above the roots will provide a reservoir of moisture that your plant needs too. The plant doesn’t necessarily use the water all at once. That’s why.

9. Place Plant in Pot and Moisten Soil Surface

Woman gardener planting houseplant in larger pot.

Don’t over water your plants because that’s what can expedite root rotting. It also may kill your plant just as fast as if you wouldn’t give it enough water. However, the topsoil you put over the roots can use a bit of water.

How do I know I need to transplant a plant?

Roots Shooting Outside of Pot

A rooting aloe vera plant.

I’ve noticed this with some plants we used to have in our household. The roots don’t have any place else to go except out the drainage holes in a pot. They also might come out of the top of the pots, and you’ll see the roots submerging from beneath the top dirt layer. Eventually, you’ll notice more roots where the soil used to cover them.

Evidence of Rotting

The plant will hold too much water instead of dry out in some cases. If this happens, the roots can rot because mold, fungi or other diseases might grow on the roots and in the soil. Signs of blackness on any exposed roots may indicate rotting. If the overall plant doesn’t look as healthy as it used to, a disease may have caused it.

Soil Dries More Frequently (Soil Almost Always Dry)

Not all plants react the same way when in too small of a pot. In some cases, the soil dries faster because the water is passing through the drain holes instead of being absorbed by the plants. At least the roots have taken in the water but having more dirt will hold some of the moisture you give to the plant.

Yellowing and Fallen Leaves

Woman's hand holding a yellowish plant leaves.

A plant that doesn’t mature properly will eventually start to die. You need to save it before all the yellow leaves turn brown and fall off, and the stem starts to drain empty of all its fluids. Now, this doesn’t mean that a plant should never lose its leaves, but excessive leaf shedding means you should transplant it as soon as possible. The same applies to yellowing.

“It’s impossible to keep all those leaves healthy when your plant is overcrowded and the roots aren’t able to get enough nutrients to the plant to support it,” reports Well & Good’s Tehrene Firman.  This advice that Firman shared originally came from Master Gardener Julie Bawden-Davis.

Plants Leaning or Tipping Over

If a plant either has already tipped over or is about to fall, that could indicate the need for repotting. In this case, the roots have become too heavy and probably out of balance inside the container. It’s time to make the plant relocation as soon as possible.

Pots Crack or Bulge

A houseplant in a cracked pot.

Most instances of cracks in pots happen because of the cold weather and freezing water expansion when a plant is left outside. This usually happens to clay pots. However, that’s not the only reason for damaged pots. It sometimes also happens when the roots become too heavy and have to force their way somewhere.

What happens if I don’t transplant a plant?

A drought succulent plant in a pot.

It might not grow to its full maturity, and it may not take in the nutrients it needs the way it should. Water doesn’t always absorb correctly in plants that are in too small of a pot. For some plants, you might end up watering them too much, and for others, they might end up not receiving enough water.

How big of a pot does my plant need?

Make sure the plant pot you choose is not too big or too small. I recommend that the roots should sit about one inch below the topsoil surface, and the top of the dirt should be about an inch below the pot’s rim. The total plant size shouldn’t measure more than two-thirds of the pot, however.

How do I transplant spider plants?

Gardener transplanting spider plant in a pot.

First, cut off the plant sections that have spawned their roots. You can continue to grow the roots in water for a while if you want. Then, use a similar principle you had with the other plants you transplanted. Make sure you have about an inch of room below the rim of your pot.

It’s best not to leave the new baby sections of your spider plant (spiderettes) in the water for more than about two weeks. After this, think about placing them in a pot with some lightweight potting soil mix.

Do transplanted plants need fertilizer?

It depends on the plants. You may not need to for spider plant transfers. However, other plants may require it. If you do, however, make sure you don’t add the fertilizer until after six weeks of residing in the new pot. This tip, along with not adding too much fertilizer, will prevent you from burning out your plant.

How much dirt do I need for my plant transplant?

You need enough to cover the top of the root system. Keeping dirt on hand after the re-potting could come in handy, just in case you water it and some dirt washes away and the roots show. For smaller plants, one bag of dirt should be fine. Trees and bushes require quite a bit more dirt.