Root bound spider plant

Should You Repot Your Plant: Happy Root Bound Houseplants

The common advice when it comes to root bound houseplants is that when a houseplant roots become root bound, you should be repotting the root bound plant. In most cases, this is good advice, but for some plants, being root bound is actually how they prefer to be.

Plants That Prefer to be Root Bound

Some plants that are happier as root bound houseplants include:

  • peace lily
  • spider plant
  • African violets
  • aloe
  • umbrella tree
  • ficus
  • agapanthus
  • asparagus fern
  • spider lily
  • Christmas cactus
  • jade plant
  • snake plant
  • Boston fern

Why Some Plants do Better as Root Bound

The reasons some houseplants perform better as root bound houseplants are varied.

In some cases, like with a Boston fern or African violets, a houseplant does not transplant well and transplanting the root bound plant will be more likely to kill it then help it.

In other cases, like with the peace lily or Christmas cactus, the root bound houseplants will not produce blooms unless they are under some kind of stress. So, repotting a root bound plant like this means that although the plant will grow plenty of leaves, it will never produce the flowers that the plant is valued for.

In still other cases, like with spider plants and aloe, the root bound houseplants will not produce offshoots unless the plant is cramped. Transplanting the root bound plant will result in a large mother plant, which will have no baby plants. Being root bound signals to the plant that the environment could be threatening and it will go into overdrive to make sure that there is a next generation to survive.

Even with happier as root bound houseplants, you will need to eventually consider repotting the root bound plant if you want it to get any larger. But before transplanting root bound plant, consider if maybe the plant would be more presentable and beautiful if it stays root bound for a little longer.

Chlorophytum (Spider Plant)

Spider Plant Care Guide

Light

All the variegated Spider Plants need a bright spot in order to keep their stripes. The all green version (which has no variegation to lose) will accept a darker location although growth will be much slower. Direct sunlight should always be avoided.

Watering

Water your plant well in the growing months (Spring through to Autumn / Fall) and if you’ve put it in a bright spot, you’ll get a fast rate of growth and a good chance of Spider Babies.

Water only sparingly in Winter as growth slows down no matter what you do at this time of year and if you’ve to much water sloshing around the roots, it can cause the plant to rot.

Humidity

For Spider Plants humidity levels are not important.

Feeding

These tough plants accept occasional feeding, but for even regular growth, try and feed at least once a month using a standard houseplant fertiliser. Don’t feed newly planted Spider Babies / Pups, or the mature plants in the Winter months.

Temperature

The average warmth of a typical home is the key to good growth. You can put your plant outside in the Summer but be sure to bring it indoors before Winter arrives.

If the soil is dry your plant will survive without issue down to 5°C / 41°F. If the soil is wet or you go colder than this, some damage will likely result. Any exposure to a hard frost will totally destroy the plant over night.

Repotting

If ideal care has been provided, you’ll end up repotting a Spider Plant into a bigger pot every Spring until it reaches maturity after about 2 to 5 years. You can just use standard houseplant or garden compost. If you think you might need some help with repotting your plant be sure to check out our repotting guide.

If you’re worried your plant is too big already and you aren’t able to move it to a different location, don’t repot into a larger container and this will restrict its growth

It’s very easy and super quick to propagate new plants

Propagation

It’s very easy and super quick to propagate Spider Plants by planting up their offsets or Spider Babies. Some people also divide the plant when they repot. Below are the three Spider Babies propagation methods:

  • Method One – If the babies have been hanging on the parent plant for while and have their own roots (see photo below), you can cut them off the flowering stem and push them directly into a pot filled with moist compost.
    There is no need to use any type of rooting hormone. Water well and put in a bright (not sunny) spot. Keep moist, and within a few weeks you will notice new leaf growth.
  • Look at those roots! This Spider Baby is ready to get going

  • Method Two – If the babies are young and have no roots yet, cut them off from the flowering stem and hang them in a container of water. The leaves shouldn’t be submerged, just the root area needs to make contact with the water. In a few weeks you’ll have roots (see photo below) and you can follow the directions from Method One above.
  • They root easily in water as shown in Jon Li’s photo

  • Method Three – The methods described above are the simplest. However you can also “peg” the babies into nearby soil with them still attached to the flowering stem (and therefore the parent). Rooting should take place in a few weeks, at which point you can cut them away from the flowering stem.

Which ever method you pick, in about a month you will have something like the picture below. Spider Plants are fast growers!

Spider Plants are ridiculously easy to propagate

Speed of Growth

The Spider Plant is one of the fastest indoor growing plants you can find. Providing you give it good light levels and just the right amount of water as detailed above, then it will burst into growth and keep churning out new leaves at a very rapid pace. It’s not unusual to go from having a small cutting to a mature adult plant which is producing it’s own plantlets all within a space of less than a year.

Height / Spread

The maximum height and spread of most Spider Plants is around 30cm / 12in. If they have cascading stems (see below) this will add significant length to the plants appearance.

Flowers

Mature plants will produce a rapidly growing flowering stem on which small white flowers appear. The flowers are quite small and don’t have a strong scent. They last for a few weeks before fading and then Spider Babies form where the flowers were a week or so later.

Are Spider Plants Poisonous?

No Spider plants are not toxic so they’re very safe to have around people, cats or dogs.

Anything else?

If you have a large enough hanging basket you can plant several babies together to create a future cascading waterfall of babies! (see picture in the article or image four in the gallery, each basket has two fully mature and independent plants). Very effective in a conservatory or anywhere where you have height such as the top of cupboards, or wall shelves.

Mature Spider Plants with a cascading waterfall of Spider Babies

Caring for Spider Plants Summary

  1. Moderate Light Levels An adaptable houseplant that will grow well in both light shade or brightly lit spaces.

  2. Moderate Watering They can go for long periods without water but growth and overall health will suffer. Try to water at least once a week in Summer. Less often in Winter.

  3. Moderate Temperature Pick rooms in your home to grow your plant in that are warm.

  4. Feeding Provide feed to the soil once every month. No need to feed during periods of no growth, for example during Winter.

  • Avoid harsh direct sunlight which can scorch the leaves.

Spider Plant Problems

It’s pretty difficult to kill Spider Plants so while it rarely just dies on you, your plant may get a few ugly side effects if you’re not treating it quite right.

Spider Plant has leaves with brown tips

This is normally caused by excessively hot air (i.e. if it’s above a hot radiator) or from underfeeding. You should aim to feed it at least once a month during the growing seasons. Once the ends go brown they stay brown, so nip the tips off with a pair of scissors.

Weak / Splitting Leaves

In general, all plants which are grown outside tend to be stronger and sturdier than those grown indoors. Quite simply they’ve “toughened up” and become acclimatised to cooler temperatures and the increased air movement (wind) that exists outside. Some houseplants, and in particular Spider plants, seems to suffer long term when grown in “perfect” indoor conditions. This means they’re nice and happy with lovely warm temperatures and little air movement all the time.

In our experience we’ve found that in these perfect indoor conditions young plants grow really fast and robustly for about 6 months to a year. Then when they get to a decent size and produce their first flowering stem the plant seems to get sluggish and the leaves can be weak or even split lengthways. It’s like they’ve given up.

To fix this, once the risk of cold snaps have passed, we do something horrible to them and put them outdoors for two or three weeks in late Spring or Early Summer and this helps massively. The leaves and stems thicken and have increased waxiness. This restores the plant to a robust looking beauty. If you can’t put your plants outside then try relocating them next to an open windows for several hours a day.

Leaves with brown streaks (normally in Winter)

This is a watering fault. You don’t need to water as frequently in Winter as the plant is hardly growing at this time of the year.

Leaves curl with spots of brown / yellowing and leaf fall

In the growing months this is caused by too little water. It usually means you have allowed the soil to completely dry out and then left it like that for another few weeks.

Spider Plant has very pale droopy leaves

Again caused by too little water with too much sunlight. Try to water your plant more often, or if that’s not possible move it to a a spot with less light.

No Spider Babies

Quite likely this is because your Spider Plant is too young. Flowers and therefore babies, only appear on more mature plants, it also needs to be in a reasonably sized pot. If the plant has never been repotted from the tiny pot in which you originally received it, then it’s time for a size upgrade. Remember – Thriving not Surviving.

About the Author

Tom Knight

Over the last 20 years Tom has successfully owned hundreds of houseplants and is always happy to share knowledge and lend his horticulture skills to those in need. He is the main content writer for the Ourhouseplants Team.

Also on Ourhouseplants.com

(Article / Gallery) Photo credit of the Spider Plant rooting in a water vase – Jon Li

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Repotting Pot-Bound House Plants

November 7, 2019 6:22 pmPot-bound root systems can no longer access adequate water and fertilizer.

There is no shame in harboring a pot-bound plant. It can happen to anyone because pot- or root-bound specimens come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and situations. The geranium or aloe that spent a luxurious summer vacation on the back porch may be bursting out of their containers. The bargain spider plant, purchased from the garden center at the end of the growing season, may be yearning to break free of its nursery pot. Established house plants, apparently thriving in large or small containers are longing for a little elbow room, even if they can’t say so.

Identifying Pot-Bound Plants

If a plant is growing poorly, and its soil dries out quickly despite regular watering, chances it’s root-bound.

How can you tell that a seemingly healthy plant needs a bit of TLC in the form of a larger pot and some root pruning? Tip the container on its side. If you see white roots emerging from the bottom drainage holes, your plant is pot-bound. If the plant’s soil dries out quickly, despite regular watering, chances are the roots need discipline. Does water pool on the soil surface and stay there? Tightly wound roots are probably preventing moisture absorption.

When plants are pot-bound, roots that should be growing outward from the bottom and sides of the plant are forced to grow in a circular fashion, following the shape of the container. Those roots will eventually form a tight mass that will overwhelm the pot, potting medium, and eventually strangle the plant. As the situation gradually worsens, the signs of ill health—leaf drop, minimal new growth, and a general failure to thrive—begin to show.

What to Do

The roots of a pot-bound plant have no place to go and begin growing in a circular fashion.

There are several steps to removing a pot-bound plant from the pot. Some plants may be tough to remove and others easier.

  1. Check the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot, and cut clear any roots that may be growing through. You may even try to push up through the holes to help loosen the plant from the pot.
  2. Get a grip on the plant—literally. Tip the pot on its side, firmly grip the very base of the plant, and pull it out of the container. The tightly constricted soil-root ball should come out in one piece, but not always.
  3. If clinging roots keep the plant in place. Run the blade of a garden or butter knife around the edge of the pot to loosen the plant. If the pot if plastic, you can also firmly wack the pot on all sides to loosen roots. Plastic nursery pots can also be cut off, if the roots are wedged into pot crevices and refuse to budge.

Once you have liberated the root ball, take a look. Pot-bound plants will have a dense network of white or brownish roots encircling the outside, which retain the shape of the pot. If you see any black or foul-smelling roots, trim them away immediately.

Freeing Pot Bound Plants

Don’t worry about tearing apart the roots of a pot-bound plant. The plant will be happier in the end.

The next step is to free the roots, so they can begin the process of healthy growth. This is when fear sets in for many plant lovers who worry that meddling with roots is the kiss of death for a beloved plant. In truth, freeing up roots is essential for plant health in this situation. Some roots will be lost in the process but new will quickly grow.

The remedy for a pot-bound situation depends on the degree of root entanglement. With some plants, especially smaller ones, gently teasing the roots apart with your fingers may be all that is needed. In more severe cases, where the root ball appears to have more roots than soil, more serious measures will be necessary.

For serious cases, use a garden knife or other sharp implement to make three or four vertical cuts on the outside of the remaining root ball, and then tease the roots apart with your fingers. If the root ball is deep, you may also cut away the bottom quarter of the root ball. Both options disrupt circular root growth and enable fresh, healthy roots to emerge.

Container Selection and Preparation

These aloe plants have been cured of their root-bound condition, divided, and upgraded.

Once you have relieved a plant’s root-bound situation, it is time to repot. This is much easier and less stressful than teasing the roots and/or doing root pruning.

Choose a container with a diameter that is at least 2 inches wider than the old pot. Make sure it is clean and has sufficient drainage holes in the bottom. Keep soil from falling through the holes by lining the bottom of the new container with a coffee filter or piece of window screen cut to fit. For years, garden pundits suggested adding a layer of gravel to the bottoms of plant containers, but this is not necessary.

For indoor or outdoor containers

To give the newly liberated plant a good start, choose a potting medium like Fafard Professional Potting Mix for indoor plants or Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed for indoor/outdoor potted plants. Pour enough potting mix in the bottom of the container so that the top of the plant’s root ball is about 1 to 2 inches below the container’s rim. Center the plant in the pot and fill around the sides with additional potting mix, tamping down the mix as you go. Water thoroughly until water runs through the drainage holes.

As long as you provide new, larger living quarters for the plant, root loosening efforts will stimulate new, strong root growth. In the case of some house plants, like spider plant, you may be able to divide your specimen when you treat its pot-bound condition. In this situation, follow the directions above, but split the plant into two or more pieces (each section should have roots). Repot in separate containers and keep or give away the new plant divisions.

Aftercare

Once the plant’s roots have been freed, repot them into larger containers.

Sometimes a newly repotted plant will show some signs of transplant shock, losing some leaves or looking a bit droopy. Don’t worry, and above all, don’t kill the plant with kindness by overwatering. Position the plant in the appropriate light situation (check plant tags or ask our garden experts if you are not sure), and water when the top inch or two of the potting medium feels dry. New root growth will start in a short time and the plant should rebound nicely.

In the end, liberating pot-bound plants is a beneficial exercise for both gardeners and plants. As with all things, practice makes perfect, but remember that it is hard to go completely wrong, and plants are generally quite forgiving. Giving your favorite specimens a little elbow room will ensure more years of vibrant leaves, blooms, and growth.

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About Elisabeth Ginsburg

Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

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