Spring is here. More than a little bit even. It’s time for fresh starts. You may be in the middle of a Mardi Gras reset, perhaps you are rearranging your furniture or cleaning out the closet. It is a perfect time to reinvigorate your life and its support systems. As above, so below; as within, so without. No, this is not about to be a piece on the law of attraction, unless we are talking about attracting healthy microbiomes full of oxygen, nutrients, and bacteria into your plants’ lives. Because now is as good a time as any, and a better time than most, to add fresh soil to your potted plants.
Why is now a good time to freshen up your soil game? Mostly because this is a transitional time of year when plants tend to put out new growth the most and the fastest due to changes in temperature and daylight, so giving them a solid boost makes more sense now than ever. Why are you repotting? Because your soil is dying, if not dead. It is an inevitable reality when soil lives apart from the wider world. Your pot is a spaceship running low on oxygen and protein bars and your plant is the cosmonaut at the edge of reality, knowing it will never see home again if ground control doesn’t figure something out fast. Fresh soil circulates air better, retains water better, and feeds your roots effectively with life and vitamins (if you are using the right soil). In a more natural, connected environment, less specific controls and changes would be necessary, but the closed system of a pot needs to be optimized however and whenever possible.
Potted plants should be repotted every year or two. All of them. This doesn’t mean a new pot, it just means renewed soil in an old pot. Some should be up-potted, meaning they need to be put in bigger pots, while others just need new soil. If, when removing your plant from its pot, most of the soil comes out with the plant, remaining in the shape of the pot it is in, then your plant is very ready for an up-potting. If the soil is still relatively loose, then you can keep on keeping on with the pot you’ve got. Either way, you’re going to need to get some new soil, and you’re going to want nice soil, but probably you won’t need that much soil. Unless you have a lot of plants.
The right soil is a high-quality potting soil that has a little bit of organic fertilizer and some probiotics in it. An OK soil is just any potting soil, hopefully without inorganic fertilizer in it. The wrong soil is anything that is not potting soil. If you are DIY AF, you can make potting soil yourself, but you’re probably still going to have to buy some of the components to do so, like sphagnum moss, peat moss, coir (coconut fibre), perlite, vermiculite, and so on.
You’re also going to need an extra pot, a pretty big one; a garbage bag will suffice if you don’t have one. I find repotting plants is easiest to do all at once. Empty your pots into your extra container, cradling the base of your plant as you shake the soil out. Be careful but don’t be precious; unless your plant is already as good as dead, it can handle a bit of rough play. Also, don’t worry about your plant’s roots being exposed. I mean, don’t do all this under the noonday glare of direct sun, but a few minutes of exposure to sunlight won’t hurt. Also, to this end, you don’t need to totally remove all of the soil from your plant to repot it. Just remove the soil that easily falls off when you start shaking the plant—that is as much needs to come off.
You don’t have to get rid of your old soil! You will find it is probably very chunky and dry and grayish, but just add about one part new potting soil to two parts of your old potting soil, and then mix it up real nice, breaking up the old soil so that it is approximately the same texture as the new.
Now you are ready to repot. Maybe not emotionally, but physically, absolutely. Put a base layer of soil in your pot, enough so that if you were to set your plant’s roots on top of it, the top of the plant’s soil would be level with the pot’s rim. Now do just that. Hold your plant with one hand and place it in the center of the pot filled with the new soil mix so that the base is at the rim, and start shoveling dirt around the plant with your other hand. As you do so, compact the soil just enough to hold the plant in place, but no more. With time, the soil will compact itself plenty, and you want it to hold as much space and air in its nooks and crannies for as long as possible. To this end, again, fill your pots to the tippy top.
If you’ve got some sort of additional fertilizer, now is a great time to add it. I always choose granular fertilizer over liquid, and organic always and forever, but, you know, work with what you’ve got. Sprinkle fertilizer on top of your freshly potted soil rather than mixing it into the soil so that more of it finds its way to your plant’s roots with time.
Finally, water gently, but plentifully. The lighter the water falls on your soil, the better, but you want to water until water is falling from the pot’s holes.
Up-potting is much the same process except that often your plant will be rootbound upon being pulled from its old pot, as its roots have grown into and used up all the soil available to them. In this case, don’t worry about removing all of the dirt from it. That said, you will want to loosen up its roots significantly, unbinding it, as it were. Just get your fingers in there and tear gently along the outer edges, making sure there are some loose ends from the bottom and the sides of your soil mass so that they will be able to reach their tendrils into the fresh new world being introduced to their outer bounds.
These potting methods are viable for all plants large or small, indoor or outdoor, utilitarian or beautiful, or any other potted plant dichotomy you want to throw into the mix. Put this universal routine into your plant practice once, twice, or thrice every year and you will have happy plant babies that lust for life at least that long. If you’re lucky.
illustrations by Rachel Speck