How to Tell if a Houseplant is Pot-Bound

People who take care of houseplants long enough will eventually run into houseplants that have become pot-bound. If you give certain types of houseplants the right growing conditions, this could be a question you’re asking almost every year. Sometimes, it’s easy to tell with clear-cut signs that a houseplant is pot-bound. In other cases, the signs are more subtle. With this guide, you’ll know how to tell if your houseplant is pot-bound and what you should do about it.

Signs of a Pot-Bound Houseplant

  • Exposed, overgrown roots are one of the most obvious signs of a pot-bound houseplant. This could be roots poking out the top of the soil, or it could be roots coming out the bottom of the drainage holes. However, some plants, like orchids, have naturally exposed roots, so you need to know the type of houseplant you’re dealing with.
  • The houseplant is drying out more quickly than usual. This is a side effect of the roots breaking down the soil. Without enough soil, the water washes through the pot too quickly. Discoloration and wilted growth may be a sign of a pot-bound plant.
  • Many pot-bound houseplants are hard to remove or even stuck in their pots. In some cases, the root ball forms in a place where it can’t escape the confines of the pot. These roots may crack or deform the pot from the pressure of its new growth.

Houseplants that Like Being Pot-Bound

Several types of houseplants are known to like being pot-bound, but this is something of a myth. It’s not so much that these pot-bound houseplants like cramped conditions. Rather, it’s that these houseplants respond to these conditions in favorable ways. Simply put, being pot-bound stresses the plant. Many types of plants respond to this stress by producing new offshoots (spider plants) or flowers (peace lily) to ensure a new generation of plants. Some plants will survive the stress of being pot-bound for many years but are already stressed to the point that repotting them may do more harm than good. African Violets, for example, are very hard to transplant successfully once they’ve become pot-bound.

Pot-Bound vs. Root-Bound Plants

Root-bound plants are a closely related condition to pot-bound plants, though there are some differences. Pot-bound plants have consumed so much of the potting soil that there’s not enough growing medium left to provide enough nutrients, hold enough water, and allow the plant to continue to grow. Root-bound plants have had their roots turn in on themselves creating an increasingly dense root ball that threatens to strangle itself while also not finding enough nutrients in the growing medium. You can read more about the differences between root-bound and pot-bound plants from Nellie Neal at the Clarion Ledger.

How to Repot Houseplants

While transplanting will stress a plant, healthy plants quickly bounce back and see new growth. Even many struggling, pot-bound houseplants will quickly find their footing and again become strong, established plants. There are some basic steps to repotting houseplants, but the trickiest part is often removing the plant from its current pot. Pot-bound houseplants with extensive root growth often stubbornly cling to the pot. Learn even more about how to repot houseplants that are pot-bound.

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