Repotting a root bound plant.

How Can I Remove My Root-bound Plant Without Damaging It?

How Can I Remove My Root-bound Plant Without Damaging It?

Have you noticed that your beloved houseplant is struggling to thrive despite your best efforts? It might be root-bound, a common issue for potted plants, causing various health and development problems. However, the good news is that you can save your root-bound plants with timely repotting and some extra tender loving care.

Circling root system of a succulent.

What Does Root-bound Mean?

Root-bound, or pot-bound, plants are those whose root systems have become too crowded within their containers. As the roots continue to grow, they become tangled and compacted, making it challenging for the plant to access essential nutrients, water, oxygen and space for sustained healthy growth and development.

The issue with removing a root-bound plant comes about when its roots have either burrowed into the walls of the pot or down through the drainage holes to seek more space. If this occurs, the roots are essentially anchoring the plant to the pot making it tricky to remove without damaging the stem or roots in the process. Another issue that occurs with overcrowded and tangled roots is increased mass. This may mean that the root ball can no longer physically fit through the opening of the pot.

What About Plants That Prefer To Be Root-bound?

A plant that prefers a snug pot enjoys being slightly root-bound. This reduces the amount of nutrients, water, and oxygen intake to contain overall growth, and is ideal for areas that have limited growing space such as indoors or small balconies. For some species, this condition stimulates flowering and fruiting. However, there is a fine line between reducing efficiency and stopping it altogether. Signs of an unhealthy root-bound plant include:

  • Stunted or severely slowed growth.
  • Sparse or small new foliage development.
  • Yellowing leaves.
  • A limp or weakened overall appearance.
  • The pot is cracking, especially around the opening and drainage holes.
  • Water drainage issues due to compacted soil.
  • Soil drying out quickly after watering.
  • Roots pushing the plant out of the pot or poking through the topsoil.
The expanding roots of a potted plant have caused the pot to break.

Repotting A Root-bound Plant

Materials You'll Need:
  • New, appropriately sized pot with drainage holes.
  • Fresh potting soil packed with suitable nutrients and minerals.
  • Pruning shears or scissors.
  • A trowel or gardening spade.
  • A container or basin for soaking the root ball (optional).

Choose the Right Pot: Select a new pot that is around 5-7cm larger than the current one. Always research your specific plant for pot size recommendations. If you are an excessive waterer, the new pot should also have drainage holes to prevent waterlogging.

Prepare Fresh Soil: Ensure that you have new high-quality potting soil ready for your repotting task. This will provide your plant with the nutrients it needs to heal and thrive from any damage that may occur.

Water the Plant: It's a good idea to water your plant a day or two before repotting. A well-hydrated plant will handle the transplanting process more easily.

Gently Remove the Plant: Carefully slide the root-bound plant out of its current pot. You may need to tap the sides of the pot. The vibrations should loosen the roots and soil. If the plant is in a nursery pot, you should also be able to gently squeeze the sides. 

Inspect the Roots: Once you've removed the plant, examine the root ball. If you see roots circling tightly around the soil gently untangle and spread them out. This will promote a healthier growing pattern. If the roots are particularly stubborn, use pruning shears or scissors to trim away some of the excess roots. Make clean cuts and avoid removing too much. Do not hack, tear, or rip the roots away from the pot.

Add Fresh Soil: Place a thick layer of fresh potting soil in the bottom of the new pot and allow the roots to spread down into the soil. This also supports the root ball as the plant adjusts to its new home.

Repot Your Plant: Gently position the root-bound plant in the centre of the new pot. Fill in the sides with fresh soil, ensuring that the plant is at the same depth as it was in the previous pot. Pat the soil down gently to secure the plant.

Water Thoroughly: After repotting, give your plant a good soak. This will help the soil settle and provide moisture to the root system.

Maintenance: Continue to care for your plant as usual, paying particular attention to its growth and the consistency of the soil. 

Help, The Plant Won’t Come Out of The Pot!

If your plant is refusing to budge from the pot, do not tug on the stem as this can cause even further damage that may not be easily rectified. Here are some solutions that may be able to assist:

  • Use a thin stick or trowel to carefully slide between the root ball and the pot to release the roots' grip.
  • If the root ball is too large to fit through the opening of the pot, consider dividing it. Use a sharp, clean knife or shears to cut the roots into sections before removing the plant. Ensure that each section has some foliage attached. You can then plant these into individual, smaller pots or plant them together again in a larger container.
  • If the pot is in no way sentimental or fragile like a nursery pot, consider breaking or cutting it away. Use a small mallet or pruning shears, and wear protective gloves and glasses if needed. Be cautious and work slowly by gently peeling away the roots from the pot pieces.
  • If the roots are stuck to the pot's drainage hole, try wiggling the plant gently or using a chopstick or wooden stick to dislodge it from the hole.
  • Water the plant thoroughly and wait for a few hours. The moist soil will be easier to work with than compacted dry soil.
  • If all else fails, submerge the entire pot into a container of water. This will separate the soil, baring the roots and making it easier to see where the problems are inside the pot. Empty the soil-filled water into your garden rather than down the drain as dense clumps may cause blockages. 
  • Lastly, don’t be afraid to seek advice from a professional horticulturist or your local nursery for more plant-specific solutions.
Split nursery pot makes it easier to remove a root bound plant.

Won’t Cutting the Roots Away from The Pot Harm My Plant?

When cutting away portions of a root ball, it's essential to exercise caution and avoid excessive removal to prevent harm to the plant. The extent to which you can trim the root ball without harming the plant can vary depending on the plant species, its overall health, and the severity of root binding.

  • Trimming must be done cleanly with sharp scissors or pruning shears
  • Only cut away the roots that are preventing the removal of the plant from the pot.
  • Once the plant has safely been removed, then you can assess its health and trim the small, circling thread roots to contain and slow down growth if needed. These are the paler, hair-like roots surrounding the thicker tap roots.
  • If possible, avoid cutting the tap roots, and only cut one or two at most. These are the plant's main sources of water and nutrient absorption and cannot survive without them. 
  • If these roots are cut, be mindful that the plant may take longer to recover and be significantly weakened because of this. Be extra vigilant for signs of stress along with pests and disease for the next few months. 
  • If you are unable to remove the plant from the pot without cutting away a significant number of tap roots or over a third of the overall root ball, consider propagating the plant instead.

Understanding the signs of root-bound plants and knowing how to properly repot them is essential for the health and vitality of your green companions. A root-bound plant can experience stunted growth, reduced nutrient uptake, and even a decline in overall health. However, by recognizing the symptoms, selecting the right-sized pot, and following the correct repotting techniques, you can provide your plants with a new lease on life and promote a healthy environment where their roots can thrive and flourish.

Keen to read more? Check out our blog on sun-loving plants