Repotting Cacti and Succulents
Written: March 2010
Tools you might need: Gloves, New pot, Your preferred soil mix (medium) Tongs, Tweezers, Window screen Wooden dowel(s), Hand shovel, Top dressing
A very good friend and mentor has told me countless times that every plant should be repotted every 3 years. He has been so successful in the Cactus and Succulent community, that I don’t question his logic and just follow his advice. I write this article in honor of Harvey.
There are many reasons to re pot plants. Some of the common ones are: upgrading to a nicer pot, upgrading to a bigger pot, dealing with disease/pests, diagnosing a sick or unhealthy looking plant, or you just prefer to grow your own plants in your own soil mix (medium). This article will walk you through the basic steps of transplanting.
Once you have decided which plant you want to repot, it is important that you have the proper tools to get the job done and an adequate work space.
I find it easiest to repot plants when the soil is dry. That way, you are less likely to tear the roots apart. If the plant is in a plastic pot, I squeeze the pot from side to side to loosen the soil. If the plant is in a ceramic pot, then I use a wooden dowel or thin stick to gently loosen up the soil. Depending on the type of plant (spineless vs. spined) I grab the plant by the base and gently lift it out of the pot. Pulling too hard can cause severe root damage. I grip the plant carefully around the base with tongs, tweezers or my hands depending on how much the plant can hurt me.
Over a trash bin, I carefully remove whatever soil off the roots that I can with my fingers. I always try to remove as much of the old “unknown” soil as possible. I even recommend this when re potting a plant from your own soil mix because you never know when pests can intrude. I recommend you throw out the used soil. There are many reasons why I recommend this. First, the soil could just be old and in no benefit to your plants health. Second, there could be disease/fungus/pests living in the soil that you are or are not aware of. Third, there could be granule fertilizers that you are not aware of. And finally, the most important reason (in my opinion), is that we all grow our plants in different climates and conditions and therefore should be adjusting our soil mixes to reflect those.
Once you have the soil thrown away and removed as best as you can from the plant, this is the time to inspect it and see how healthy your plant is. I look at the roots to see if there are root mealy bugs clinging to them or any types of fungus on them. I also like to check the base of the plant to see if any of it is soft or discolored which would suggest possible rot. You can also learn a lot about your plants this way. For instance, some plants in dormancy lose a lot of their feeder roots at this time, so if this is the case, then you need to be careful when you do water to not cause rot. Many, many times when I have had a plant that’s health was degrading, by repotting it and inspecting the plant I was able to distinguish the problem with the plant.
Now that your plant is clean and ready for repotting, it’s time to grab your new pot. When picking the right size pot, you want to upgrade one size or pick a pot that has a finger or two widths around the plant. Potting cacti and succulents in too big of a pot can cause many problems in the future. If there is a large hole in the bottom, I recommend a small square of screen to put over it so that when watering, the soil doesn’t run out the bottom. When I re-use a pot, I always soak/dip it in a mild sterilizing solution to kill any pests/fungus that could be on the pot.
It’s important when putting the plant in the pot that the roots hang straight down. You don’t want to ball them up on a mound of soil or arrange them so they are pointing up. I hold the plant in the center of the pot with one hand and start adding the soil with the other. If the plant has spines, then I hold it in place with tongs and if it is a real big plant or hard to handle (ex. Ferocactus) then I use 2 dowels (one on either side of the plant) and lay them on top of the pot like a bridge to support the plant. Then as I add the soil, I can adjust the plant as needed. I lightly pack the soil around the plant removing the air pockets using either my fingers or the wooden dowel.
Whether or not you use a top dressing is up to you. Top dressing can help hold the plant in place until it gets established in its new pot. Top dressing also helps retain moisture in the soil. This can be good or bad depending on your individual situation. Top dressing also is the finishing touch to stage a plant. There are many different types of top dressing that have positives and negatives to using them. I advise you talk to your local growers to find out what works best for your particular succulent.
The last step is watering--or in our case, the lack of watering. Usually, it is best to wait a week or two before watering so that any roots that you have disturbed/torn during this process can heal before they are subjected to water. Again, this is a general rule and you should ask questions if you are unsure about your particular plant.