How to spruce up a sad container plant

Image of a plant in a small container

You go into your aunt’s backyard, and there, in the corner, you find the saddest looking plant you’ve ever seen. The soil is 90% root, it’s dry and dull, and the plant looks like it’s led a sad life. What do you need to do?

Change the soil

If the soil looks dry and dull and is mostly root, it’s probably long overdue for a change. Dig out the plant, trying to disturb the roots as little as possible, and gently work the soil free from the roots. Trim them a little so the plant isn’t root bound and puts out some new growth. Now, if a plant is root bound, it is usually advisable to get a pot a size bigger. However, if you’ve trimmed the roots quite a bit, or if you don’t have a bigger pot at hand, you can use the same pot after a quick wash. Fill it in with topsoil and compost, and re-pot the plant.

Trim the plant

If the plant’s been ignored for a while and in poor soil, its growth might be stunted or unhealthy. Cut off dead or unhealthy branches, and trim leggy branches. If possible, try not to cut off more than 30% of the plant, and absolutely do not cut more than 50% of it, as it may not be able to bounce back. If you need to do it in instalments, first get rid of the deceased branches, then the leggy ones, then dead branches, and finally pinch off healthy branches to promote new growth. Remember the 30% rule!

Mulch, fertilise, water

Lay down a thick mulch of compost or rotten manure, to hold in moisture, and provide some extra food. Don’t use dead leaves for mulch, because as they rot, they pull Nitrogen from the soil, thus robbing your plant of nutrients when it needs them. Give the plant some liquid fertilizer (for a few weeks), as the nutrients in compost may not be immediately available to the plant. Make sure you dilute the fertilizer as instructed. Water the plant deeply, and let the soil dry before watering again.

Give it sun or shade as required

Look up the plant’s requirements online, and put it in a sunny spot or a shady spot, according to its requirements. If its leaves are drooping due to dryness, you might want to keep it in the shade until they perk up a bit. Also, if the plant’s always been in the shade, but is a sun-loving species, introduce it to direct sunlight by degrees so as to not overwhelm it. Put it in a partly sunny spot where it only gets sun for an hour, and slowly move to a sunnier spot over many weeks.

Monitor and make amendments

Now, you’ve changed the plant’s soil, trimmed its roots, trimmed its branches, and given it food and light. That’s all great, but it’s a major change. The plant might need some time to adjust to it, and perhaps even find the change overwhelming. Monitor the plant closely, looking in every few days to check its progress, and make changes as required. You may need to feed it more or less, or change its location, if it looks troubled. Which brings us to the last point…

Replace the plant if required

Plants, even perennials, have a lifespan. They may sometimes live for longer or shorter, but sometimes, a plant simply can’t be saved. If your plant looks really bedraggled even after the TLC and you’re afraid it’s dying, you can make a last effort at preserving it by taking cuttings from it. Or, if the plant has seeds which look healthy, you can try growing new plants from seed – although that’s a slower process, and the result is less likely to be true to form.

5 thoughts on “How to spruce up a sad container plant

  1. I have a question, it’s some what related. I have a potted Aloe plant on my front porch. I went to water it this week….. and all of a sudden it was covered in ants. There must be thousands in the soil. Do you have any tricks to deal with this or is my best bet just removing the soil and replacing it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whew, that’s a lot of ants! They can be gotten rid of, but firstly, no method is fail-proof, and secondly, most methods involve killing them – which’ll be a grisly sight. I think the most convenient thing would be to take the pot as far as possible from your home, and then change the soil. Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon powder on the fresh soil surface (and on the bottom of the pot, outside), to make sure they don’t return. All the best!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome! If you’re using it to get rid of the ants, however, make sure to sprinkle it around your doors and windows as well, or they might decide to move from pot to kitchen!

        Liked by 1 person

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