Succulents in pots, particularly mixed arrangements look amazing and many succulents can live in the same pot for a long period. But, as usual, it is not all straightforward.
Some succulents do better in pots than others, some need to be repotted often and some will be quite happy in the same pot for a few years.
Below I will explain the reasons why succulents may have to be repotted, demonstrate how to repot succulents and look at some FAQ’s around repotting succulents. All the information is based on my personal experience as an owner of a succulent nursery. Repotting is what I do day in, day out.
Why do succulents need to be re-potted?
Maximum amount of offsets
To stop leaves dying/ falling off
To stop discoloration (black or brown)
When a succulent is given fresh potting mix and a bigger pot it will start growing. The roots will expand and new leaves and branches will form. The rate of growth depends on the particular species and time of year.
Succulents such as those in the Sedum genus are one of the fastest growers. Once they get a bigger pot new shoots can be noticed in a few days. Repotting has the same effect on most succulents and will always trigger some fresh growth unless the plant is deeply dormant (usually in winter) or if the plant has already reached its maximum size. Some succulents are naturally small and no matter how much space they have, once they reach their limit, they are unlikely to grow bigger.
Maximum amount of offsets
Succulents are likely to produce more offsets when they have plenty of room and lots of nutrients available to power this extra growth. Rootbound succulents will probably not grow as many offsets as plants in bigger pots.
Re-potted succulents are not only much bigger but they grow many, many more pups, which is quite important as we need these to propagate a new generation of plants. Succulents that have been re-potted and those that I have just not had time to give a bigger home to is quite astounding.
Repotted succulents are not only much bigger but they grow many, many more pups, which is quite important as we need these to propagate a new generation of plants.
But it is not everyone’s intention to grow pups in order to propagate. They can be left intact with the mother plant and this will allow it to spread or grow into a clumps. In this case it is still better the succulents is re-potted as the clumps will grow bigger and will look less stressed.
To stop leaves dying/ falling off
When succulents are left in small pots and become rootbound their bottom leaves will start falling off. Some succulents will adapt and grow almost like a bonsai while others can suffer and even die.
I often purposefully leave some species of succulent in small pots to become rootbound as they can grow very colourful and attractive. Almost all succulents will start losing leaves when rootbound. Many can still live in a small pot, without being re-potted for years.
But it is very important to be cautious as there are quite a few succulents that will not put up with small pots and can develop other stress signs or die, in extreme cases.
To stop discoloration (black or brown)
One of the other signs of succulents suffering when not re-potted is developing tiny black or brown spots. These usually appear on the bottom leaves and while they will stop appearing on new growth once the succulent is re-potted, they will never disappear, and the plant will have to grow out of them.
These spots can look like a dusting of ash or they can be a more prominent black/brown dots. This kind of discoloration happens most often in rapidly growing succulents or in succulents that dislike being rootbound.
How to repot succulents?
Squeeze the pot a bit to loosen the potting mix and roots
While holding the plant gently start turning pot upside down
If the stalk is sturdy, slowly pull the plant away from the pot by the stalk
Check for mealy bugs on roots and remove dead leaves.
Put fresh potting mix at the bottom of the new, bigger pot
Place the succulent in and fill out the sides, patting down
Succulents are incredibly easy to repot and will not show any adverse effects even if quite a few roots are lost in the process. When a succulent is very rootbound quite a few roots will have to be sacrificed in order to get it out of the pot.
In terracotta or concrete pots, the roots can often grow into the walls making it almost impossible to pry the whole root-ball out. Running a cutlery knife along the edge of the pot can help release the roots. Some will be cut, but a succulent will not mind this too much.
Plastic pots are much easier to get plants out of as they can be squeezed, which will loosen the roots and potting mix, making it easier for the whole root-ball to come out. Turning the pot on its side or upside down (while holding the plant so it doesn’t fall out) should help as well.
Succulents that have a good, sturdy stalk can be pulled from the pot too, though there is always a risk of the stalk snapping if it isn’t strong enough. This is not an end of the world though as the plant can be re-potted as a cutting and the root part is likely to regrow new leaves.
After the plant is out of its pot it is a very good idea to check for root mealy bugs. A tell-tale sign are white marks inside the pots and little white bugs on the roots. If any mealy bugs are found, they will need to be killed. To read more about mealy bugs and treatments, you may want to see this article.
Dead and dried out leaves should also be pulled off as another type of mealy bug likes to hide and lay eggs in the dead foliage.
Once the succulent is nicely cleaned out it is ready for its new home. Put enough fresh succulent potting mix at the bottom of the new pot so when the plant is placed in, the last roots before the stalk are a couple of centimetres under the edge of the pot. You don’t want the potting mix to mound higher than the edge as when it is time to water, the heaped up potting mix will wash away, exposing the roots. It is always a good idea to leave some space from the rim so water can easily seep in without overflowing the pot along with the potting mix.
Now put the succulent in the centre of the pot and fill in the sides with one hand while holding the plant in place with the other. Compact the potting mix slightly until it is in line with the current level, just where the stalk starts growing roots. All roots should be covered by the potting mix.
How to repot succulent arrangements?
Arrangements can be a bit tricky to repot, but not impossible. If the whole arrangement is rootbound a cutlery knife run along the inside of the pot can help release the succulents. Once out they can be repotted together or pulled apart and repotted separately.
It is quite inevitable to lose a few roots while repotting arrangements, but as mentioned above, this isn’t a big deal. Succulents will quickly replace lost roots and they will survive even if the majority of roots are knocked off.
What happens if I don’t repot succulents?
Succulents that are no repotted every other year will become rootbound and stressed. Depending on the species, succulents can start losing leaves, develop marks, grow thicker stem and leaves and in general, grow very slow.
As mentioned above, for many succulents, staying in the same pot for many years will not be that bad and they can look quite stunning. Succulents that can deal with being rootbound and stressed will likely grow a thick stem, the leaves will grow tightly together and will be thick, but smaller.
The bottom leaves will almost definitely fall off. Growth will slow right down and the plant may stop producing pups or any new branches. It is also likely to display colours not typical for its species and at times when they would usually be green. To learn more about why succulents gain or lose colour, see this article.
On the other side of the spectrum are succulents that really dislike being in the same pot for a long time. They too will lose leaves and start growing thicker stem and their remaining leaves, but they may also start developing ugly stress marks. They can be small dark dusting of tiny dots or bigger black marks. They are also likely to eventually die altogether.
Small leaved sedums or rapidly growing plants will be the ones that can die even after a year of being in the same pot, especially if heatwaves hit in summer. Their delicate roots can literally cook in a small pot when rootbound.
Do succulents outgrow their pots?
Whether a succulent outgrows their pot will depend on the size of pot and species of succulent. Some succulents naturally grow small and so will never outgrow a big pot, but others grow more rapidly and can outgrow a pot in no time.
Small plants in big pots can take time to outgrow the pot. The seasons will also play a role as many succulents grow fast in spring and summer and can outgrow their current pot and fill it with roots very fast.
Many small growing succulents will not outgrow their pots for years, however it is still beneficial to repot them every year, even if the pot has not been upgraded to a bigger size. The reason for repotting in such cases is that fresh potting mix will bring new nutrients and you will also have a chance to see the roots. Succulents that have not been re-potted for a while tend to attract root mealy bugs but they can only be seen when a plant is removed from a pot.
Bigger growing succulents, especially plants such as Sedum, large growing Echeveria and spreading Garptopetalum, Graptosedum and Sedeveria will almost always outgrow their pot and will benefit rom repotting once every year. However, many of these succulents, especially the genera mentioned here, also grow well rootbound and while they will lose a lot of their bottom leaves and stop growing, they will still look nice. The trick is to know your plants and look for signs of severe stress.
Do succulents like to be crowded?
No plant, not even a succulent likes to be crowded. However, succulents will tolerate being crowded more than other plants but will not grow very big or produce many offsets.
As explained above some succulents fair better being rootbound and ‘crowded’ than others, so much will depend on the actual species. When succulents are crowded, they will slow their growth, lose bottom leaves and grow thicker leaves and stems. But succulents that do not tolerate having little space can easily die.
Do I need to repot succulents after buying?
If a succulent is not re-potted immediately after buying, nothing bad will happen. Succulents can stay in the same pot for a few weeks, even months. It may, however, be beneficial to repot them within a couple of weeks of buying, especially if the roots are coming out of drainage hole or the leaves are falling off.
It is very likely the succulent you have bought at the nursery has got a few weeks or months left in the pot it came in. If the plant is bought in winter, it can easily go the whole 3 months without much care.
If the newly bought succulent is showing signs of being rootbound, is growing pups or has outgrown its pot by a fair bit it may be a good idea to start looking for a bigger home.
Should I water succulents after repotting?
There is no harm in watering freshly repotted succulents in most cases. The potting mix should be well draining, specially made for succulents and the pot should have drainage holes in order to avoid soggy environment and any adverse reaction to overwatering.
If the potting mix is of good quality, the pot has holes and the succulent is in plenty of light and fresh air then watering should not be too much of an issue. Yes, there are succulents that do not like wet feet (see here for a full article on watering succulents), but the majority will be fine and may even need to be watered frequently if the weather is particularly dry.
Having said that if the succulent’s roots are extremely soggy before repotting than it would be best to wait a couple of days for it to dry out. Also, some nurseries grow their plants in plastic polytunnels and to save them watering all the time they use moss instead of succulent potting mix.
This can become a problem when the plants go to their new homes and are watered more than they are used to and are no longer in their cozy, climate controlled environment. If you’ve re-potted a succulent that is in a potting medium (usually moss) that stays very wet for a long time, it can be a good idea to watch the watering until the plant establishes in its new pot and even try and get as much of the moss off the roots as possible. There is a possibility that the moss can rot your succulent when it rains too much.
How do I look after succulents that have not been repotted for a long time?
Succulents that are rootbound will need a bit of extra care to stay alive. They are likely to need much more water and will need to be kept out of direct sunlight or under shade-cloth during heatwaves in summer.
In the cooler month rootbound succulents can and should be exposed to the sun, it is just the hot sun of the summer that can really damage them. They will need plenty of light, but other stress factors like strong, direct UV should be avoided as they are already stressed from being rootbound.
To recap, in general it is always best to repot succulents once they start outgrowing their pot. Although many succulents will live without being re-potted they will grow slow and some may even die.