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House Plant First Aid: How to Repot, Rescue, or Revive Your Plants

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Plants are an affordable way to add color and life to any indoor space. They may also help reduce your stress levels and improve your mood. With options you can hang from the ceiling, add to a tabletop, or tuck into a corner, they’re also endlessly versatile. 

But unlike decor, house plants are living objects and need regular attention and care. It can take a while to learn how to tell when your plant needs to be repotted or pruned, or when a supposedly “dead” plant is actually just in need of water. Whether you're a long-time plant parent or developing your green thumb, we’ll walk you through a few key tips to give your plants a pick-me-up when they’re in need of some tender loving care.

For tips on picking the right plants for your space, check out our blog on How to Keep Indoor Plants Alive and Thriving.
In This Article:
  1. When to Repot a Plant
  2. How to Repot a Plant
  3. How to Bring a Plant Back to Life
  4. The Bottom Line

1. When to Repot a Plant

Some plants just need some fresh soil now and then, but others may need to be moved into a bigger pot — especially if they’re visibly outgrowing their current planter. This is especially true if you've bought a supermarket or big box store plant, which usually comes in a grower's pot and needs to be moved to a more permanent home at some point.

Repotting a plant may seem daunting, and we get it: There’s a legitimate risk of shocking (and killing) your plant if you put it in a new pot that’s drastically bigger than the original. While you may feel some anxiety repotting a plant for the first time, it's actually a pretty easy thing to do. Here are some signs that your plant may need a new home:

  • If the roots are growing out of the drainage hole of the pot, your plant needs to move to a larger pot.
  • If the plant has become top-heavy, the roots need more room to grow.
  • If the plant is growing slowly or stopped growing altogether, it may need to be repotted.

How Often to Repot a Plant

The general rule on repotting houseplants is to do it every 12 to 18 months. It’s best to repot in the spring or early summer, when your plant is actively growing.

2. How to Repot a Plant

Once you’ve determined that your plant is ready to be repotted, just follow these steps.

1. Choose the Right Planter

Choose a pot that's only slightly larger than its current pot (no more than one or two inches larger in diameter). If you go too big, the plant will put all of its energy into growing a new root system to fill all that space. There’s also a greater risk of overwatering and root rot, which can quickly kill your plant.

You’ll also want to think carefully about the material of your pot. Clay pots like terracotta, which are porous, are more breathable and can help prevent overwatering, while plastic pots will lock in moisture for longer. In general, terracotta and fiberglass are some of the best materials to promote proper ventilation and moisture conditions for your plants. Make sure there are drainage holes to prevent waterlogged soil.

2. Get the Right Soil

Selecting the right soil for your indoor plant is critical to its long-term health. We recommend selecting a well-draining soil mix that includes a blend of peat moss and perlite, which is suitable for most indoor plants. If you’re a succulent or cacti enthusiast, you may want to search for a soil mix specific to those plants.

3. Transfer Your Plant

The day before you transfer your plant to its new pot, give it a light watering to help relax the roots and reduce your plant’s stress response. On the day of the transfer, clean your new pot with a bit of water and fill about a third of the way with fresh soil. Use a tool like a chopstick or butter knife to help loosen the soil from the edges of the original pot, being careful not to damage the roots of your plant. Lift the plant out gently and set it in the new pot. Fill up the rest of the pot with soil and press down gently to remove large air gaps, but avoid compacting the soil too much, which can suffocate the roots. Then water your plant and let it drain!

3. How to Bring a Plant Back to Life

Whether you’ve recently repotted a plant or neglected to water it, your plant may show signs that it needs a bit of attention. The good news is that most plants are resilient creatures, even when you don't give them the very best care. In fact, sometimes all it takes is moving a plant to a happier location to see it thrive and grow. Try these specific tips for helping your houseplant come back from challenges.

Overwatering

Overwatering is one of the most difficult challenges for a plant to overcome. If your plant has brown or yellow leaves but the soil is still damp, you may be giving it too much water. Try these tips to rescue it:

  • Stop watering it.
  • Move it to a lower-light location so it doesn't dry out so quickly while it's recovering.
  • Repot the plant with fresh soil.
  • Trim away damaged or dead leaves and branches.

Underwatering

If your plant is looking droopy and dry, the leaves are getting crispy, or the soil is pale and pulling away from the edges of the pot, you may not be giving your plant enough water. The easiest thing to do in this scenario is put your plant in the bathtub, turn on the shower until the soil is completely soaked through, turn off the water,  and let it stand in the tub for 1-2 hours undisturbed. Once your plant is perked up, resume a regular watering schedule. You can use a plant care app to remind you, if you’re prone to forgetting. 

Pale Color or No Flowers

Move the plant to a sunnier spot. If you don't have a sunnier window, try adding artificial plant lights to supplement natural light. Make the move in stages — you don't want to go from low light to full sun all at once. Your plant needs time to adapt to the change.

Burnt Leaves

Move plants away from the window, or to one side so they're not in direct sunlight. Or, filter the light by putting up a sheer curtain or window blinds.

Dead Leaves

Leaves that are crispy and brown — whether burnt or from underwatering — may need to be removed altogether. You can usually gently pull them off with your fingers, but if there’s still resistance, use a pair of scissors or shears to trim them off.

Holes in Leaves

Even indoor plants can get holes in their leaves. While you may first suspect that it’s due to a disease (like a fungus) or pests, your plant may just need TLC in the form of water or a new spot in your home. If you notice freshly chewed edges or small eggs on your plants, however, you may need to apply a fungicide or insect repellent.

4. The Bottom Line

Plants are more than decorative accents — though they certainly liven up the place. Living with live plants can help with your stress levels, improve air quality, and bring nature into your life, but it may take some time to learn how to recognize when your plant needs help. Once you know how to keep indoor plants alive and give them the conditions to help them thrive, you may feel empowered to turn your home into a green oasis.

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