Nancy Brachey

Give your houseplants some more room

This variegated pothos looks good but will benefit from repotting that will allow further growth through the summer and autumn
This variegated pothos looks good but will benefit from repotting that will allow further growth through the summer and autumn Observer file photo

On these hotter than hot days, it is easy for gardeners to descend into a blue funk. Down there, it seems we will never lift a trowel again. Yet, there is hope – without waiting for the temperature to drop – and it is close as your houseplants.

Whether on table tops, desks, windowsills or the floor, houseplants tend to grow rapidly in spring, producing both an abundance of fresh foliage and new roots. This good growth means the plants are probably ready for moving to a larger pot, and almost certainly so if they have not been moved up for a couple of years.

One sign that repotting is certainly required is roots growing out of the holes in the bottom of the pot. But you don’t have to wait for that.

Find a spot in the house or a cool place on the porch or deck, spread some newspaper and tip the pot on its side. A root-bound plant will require some gentle tugging to remove. You may even have to loosen it along the sides with a long bladed knife or trowel. As it gets looser, ease it out gently.

Once out of the pot, look over the root ball. You may see an abundance of roots wound tightly around the root ball. This is a clear sign that the plant is past time for a move to a bigger pot. Even if it isn’t root-bound, if you see a lot of roots around the outside of the root ball, a move is wise if it has not been done for a couple of years.

Choose a pot 2 inches wider than the current one and buy fresh potting soil.

Once all of this is on the newspaper, use the trowel to pull away some of the tightly wound roots circling the sides and bottom. Do this gently. The purpose is to encourage root growth into the new soil. Don’t fret that you are hurting the plant. Shake the plant so that some of the old soil falls away

Put a small rock or shard of clay over the hole or holes in the bottom of the pot to prevent soil washing out. Then place a layer of new potting soil. Then set the root ball so that the top is an inch or so from the top of the rim if the pot is 6 inches or wider, a half-inch for smaller pots.

Then slowly place potting soil into the pot, allowing it to gently fall into the bottom of the pot along the sides. Shake it as you go to encourage the soil to settle well into the pot.

Once you have filled the pot, water it gently. This will sink the soil further and you will probably have to add more to reach the top of the root ball.

Make sure the plant is vertical. Look for any broken or damaged branches or leaves to snip off and put your plant back in the same spot it had before the move up to a larger pot. Give the plant a month or so to settle in before adding any fertilizer. Some of the modern potting soils contain slow-release fertilizer, and that’s great.

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. Why are the tips of my Boston ferns turning brown? They looked great a few weeks ago.

A. The most likely reason is the low humidity in an air-conditioned home or office. The lowered humidity makes it comfortable for you, but the plants don’t like it so much. Set your ferns on a shallow tray or plastic or clay pot saucer. Make a layer of pebbles and keep this moist so that humidity rises to the plant. Don’t let the plant actually sit in water. You can also use a spray mister on the plant to raise the humidity level. Snip off the brown tips. Keep the plant watered.