Q: During the holiday season I tend to ignore most of my houseplants. I want to start re-potting a couple that really need it but need to know if it’s too early. Should I go ahead and start? – I.P., Albuquerque
A: Although it seems a bit early in the year, you could go ahead and begin your houseplant tending season.
I’m one of the happiest people in the Northern Hemisphere on Dec. 21 since that means the earth starts its annual re-tilt back to the light and if you’ve noticed it is starting to get lighter earlier in the day and twilight sticks around a bit longer in the afternoon. So as the daylight lengthens, yes, you can get your houseplants ready for the coming growing season.
If your houseplants were put into exile to make room for holiday decorating it’s time to at least bring them back out into population. Set them where they were before, all the while taking stock of the plants themselves. Has it been two or more years since any of them have been re-potted? Do you notice any dust accumulations on the leaf surfaces? See anything that looks like webs? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then for sure it’s time to tend your plants.
First things first. It isn’t always best to re-pot into a larger pot. Most houseplants prefer living in the pot they are in. They usually just need fresh soil to offer the water holding capability and nutrients they need in order to thrive. Now that’s not to say you should never re-pot into a larger pot. Just don’t go from let’s say an 8-inch pot to a mammoth 14-inch pot. Too much extra space in the pot and the plant will get lost. It’ll focus on filling the pot with roots while neglecting the above ground growth. So rule of thumb is advance pot size by no more than 2 inches at a time. Then soil. The fresher the soil the better. Potting soil that has lived stacked up or stored at the retailer for a while could harbor pests and molds that you don’t want to incorporate into your world. Search out the freshest soil you can. Then remember to choose the proper soil. Potting soil comes in so many variations nowadays that it can sometimes be daunting getting just what you need. Also do not use “garden soil” for re-potting houseplants. As the name suggests, it’s created to use outdoors in the garden. Trust me, it’s not made for pots. You’d burn your plants to a crisp by using garden soil in a pot. You want “potting” soil.
Next, get the plants ready. Un-pot them and gently remove as much of the exhausted soil as possible from the root mass. When doing this snip away and yucky, squishy or broken root cleanly off the plant. Since most of the soil is off, you can get the plant to a sink and give it a through washing. By bathing the plants, you remove accumulated dust, and, if they exist, any pests that are clogging up the plants pores. There are very few things prettier than a freshly washed re-potted houseplant. They seem to sing with excitement being all fresh. Don’t forget to wash the pots and any shards kept in the bottom of the pot while you’re at it. Use warm, soapy water, being sure to rinse them well before you re-pot.
OK, you’ve got clean pots, fresh soil, clean and tidied plants – so plant. Rearrange the shards to keep the soil in the pot. Set a layer of soil on top of them to cement them in place. Then set your plant. Spread the roots out a bit or create a cone of soil to sit the plant on and then continue to refill with the soil. Be sure to tamp the soil down firmly around and amongst the roots while refilling the pots. Be sure to keep the plant set at the same level it was living in, too. Planted deeper is usually not a good thing. Once you’ve gotten everyone re-potted, set the pot in the sink or on a larger saucer and slowly water to allow all the soil become wet. I like the sink so there isn’t any chance of overfill while the soil is soaking up and settling in the pot. If the soil settles a lot be ready to add more soil so the roots are kept sufficiently buried and the plant is more stable. After an hour or two of soaking, set the houseplant back on its saucer where it lived and be ready to enjoy another year of healthy, well-tended houseplants that grace your surroundings. It is sometimes a lot of work re-potting properly but well worth it in the long run. Happy Digging In!
Need tips on growing your garden? Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send your garden-related questions to Digging In, Rio West, P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, NM 87103.