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Don't repot that plant!

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by Will Creed on October 01, 2005 08:07 AM
As many of you know, I frequently comment (preach?) on the problems associated with unnecessary repotting and have often stated that this is the single most common cause of plant problems.

I want to share a recent e-mail I received because it is an excellent example of the kinds of problems that occur following repotting. It is just one of many similar e-mails I have received.

"I have recently taken on about 15 plants we received recently for my grandma's funeral. The plants were doing very well until my very sweet but apparently not so good with plants mother came to visit. She convinced me to repot several of them, and they've been going down hill since then.

"I had what I think was an English Ivy that has already died. I have another type of Ivy that is almost dead. It's very droopy and all the new buds turned brown and shriveled up. I think they are too wet. We used Scott's potting soil, but it just seems to hold the water forever. When I test to see if the plants need watered I usually stick my finger down in the soil about an inch to see if the soil is moist. This morning I decided to go down a little deeper because the soil felt dry, but some of the leaves are yellow. When I go down about two inches the soil feels like a chewy brownie. That’s the best way for me to describe it. It's very sticky and compact. It's very wet, and I don't see how it will ever dry.

"Also, in the soil of one of the plants I found two very tiny bugs. I'm pretty sure they were either dark red or black, but the crawled into the soil before I could be sure. I also now have quite a few gnats in the house around the plants which I think came in with some apples the other day."

Note that the plants were fine until they were repotted. The repotting led to inadvertent overwatering (all that added soil retained moisture for too long) and root rot. The potting soil that she used was too heavy (dense) and lacks the porosity that a good peat-based soilless potting mix has. The fungus gnats were most likely introduced with the potting soil that she used to repot, not the apples.

Repotting can introduce a lot of problems if not done properly. That means waiting until the plant is very, very potbound. It means using a pot only one size larger. It means using a potting mix that is appropriate for the plant and that is sterile and pest-free. Repotting should not be done willy-nilly and without considerable understanding.
by afgreyparrot on October 01, 2005 09:24 AM
What about plants like this???
Where there are several different plants in the same container?
[dunno]
I got several baskets like this recently when I was in the hospital.
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Do I separate them or just leave them in the baskets they came in?

Cindy Faye

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Buckle up! It makes it harder for the aliens to suck you out of your car!
by Will Creed on October 01, 2005 10:40 AM
Hi Cindy!

In the past I recommended separating the plants in these dish or basket gardens because they have varying light or watering requirements.

However, I have had some recent success in keeping these incompatible species together by providing bright indircet light and watering well when the surface of the soil is dry, typically about once per week.

But if you prefer to have them as separate plants, that's OK too. But be sure to put each plant in a small pot so they are not overpotted. And, of course, use good potting mix.

Sorry, I haven't made it to the Banter Bar recently so I am not up to speed on your latest hospitalization. I would have sent flowers, but I am saving up for your funeral! No! I am JUST KIDDING!!!
by RumBum on October 04, 2005 03:34 AM
Okay, then when do you recommend re-potting? Please give signs and symptoms that a plant may need to be repotted, vs when to suspect there is another problem. Thanks!
by Will Creed on October 04, 2005 04:24 AM
Good question, RumDum!

The only reliable indicators of repotting are either inspecting the rootball or observing that the plant's soil gets dried out after a thorough watering in less than 3 days.

If you pull the plant out of its pot and you see that the entire rootball is surrounded by roots and very little soil can be seen, then repotting is probably a good idea.

When the soil to roots ratio has diminished to the point that there is not enough soil to retain moisture for the rots for at least 3 days, then repotting may be a good idea.

The soil in a potted plant serves only three purposes and one of them is not essential. The essential purposes are to support the plant so it doesn't fall over and to soak up and release water to the roots. The third purpose is to provide nutrients, although the addition of fertilizer can serve as a substitute for the soil in accomplishing this. So as long as there is enough soil to hold up the plant and to soak up a 3-day supply of water, then more soil and a larger pot is unnecessary. If the soil is depleted of essential nutrients (this rarely happens), then a complete fertilizer added to the water will take care of it.

Symptoms that are NOT good indicators of repotting are:

*Roots coming out of drainage holes. It is quite common for a few roots to wander out of a drainage hole even when there is plenty of soil. You need to lok further and inspect the condition of the rootball.

*The plant looks too big for the pot. This is a very subjective judgment that is not reliable. Certain plant species have small root systems relative to their stem and leaf size. Many cane-type plants fit into this category. Vining plants can grow very long while staying in a small pot. Bonsai plants are another example of plants that are kept in very small pots relative to their size.

*Yellow leaves and brown tips. These are general symptoms that have multiple causes, including improper light, improper water, improper soil pH, and the presence of pests. A small pot is an unlikley cause of yellow leaves and brown tips.

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