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When Houseplants Get Pot Bound

Q. Mike: I have a Jade Tree and Pony-tail Palm that are both around 15-20 years old and very root bound. They've needed transplanting for the past five years or so, and are beginning to show the telltale signs, like smaller leaves. Both of the plants are really beautiful, and have a lot of sentimental value for me—so I want them to continue to thrive. But they are also both really large and I don't want to transfer them up to even bigger pots. Do you have any suggestions as to what I can do with them?

I've considered pruning back the Jade Tree and its roots (bonsai style) so it can go back into its current pot, and pruning the top and roots of the six foot tall Pony-tail Palm. But its "bulb" is close to touching the sides of its container, so I guess I really have to find a bigger pot for the palm. I imagine you're pretty busy, but if you have any suggestions, I'd sure like to hear them. And don't worry, even if you can't get back to me, I'll still remain a fan.

    ---Don in Washington, DC
A. Hey, thanks for understanding, Don. But I HAVE to answer some questions on the show (I can't duck and weave forever), and luckily, yours is one of the most commonly asked ones we receive. So we'll be helping out a lot of people with your answer. Or killing a lot of houseplants.

Now, your jade plant—one of the most popular indoor succulents (plants that come from dry climes and store lots of water in their fleshy leaves)—and the Pony Tail (which is not a true palm, but a member of the agave family, like the plant that's used to make Tequilla) both prefer to be pot bound, notes Eric Leavitt, supervisor of gardeners in the collections department at the U. S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. So he suggests you first consider that your small leaves may be due to lack of light or too little food during the growing season. You do note that the plants look great, and I fear that you might be gearing up to seize defeat from the jaws of victory here.

But Eric adds that excessive watering—especially during the dormant winter season—can make the top growth of jade plants a bit unruly, with leaves so big and fleshy that the branches struggle to support them. And you can safely prune this plant now. So water it, remove up to one-quarter of the growth, then water it again, but don't feed it. And don't water it again for six weeks. Yes, that last part frightens me as well, but Eric explains that these plants are really low water users, and you greatly increase the risk of disease when you keep their soil overly moist after pruning.

Go very light on water in future winters; Eric says he only waters his jades once or twice all winter long. (I've heard the same advice from many successful jade growers.) Then feed the plant a couple of times in the summer (during its most active growth stage) with a gentle organic food designed for houseplants and future leaves should better fit the symmetry of the plant.

And although he doesn't think your jade needs a true root pruning, Eric adds that the time has come to replace all of the soil mix in its pot. So when repotting time arrives in Spring, remove the plant from its pot and replace the old mix with a fresh combination of soil-free mix and some compost. As you do this, examine the roots carefully, removing only dead or damaged ones. You should be able to keep using the same size pot without trimming any healthy roots.

Oh and I'll add two things. 1): if you have pebbles or pot shards or other stuff down in the bottom of the pot to {quote} "facilitate drainage", throw that junk away and add more soil-free mix and compost; houseplants want as much 'root room' down there as possible. And 2): Try and root the branches you remove or some of their individual 'leaves' to make new jade plants to give to friends. Or to replace the one you just killed.

Now, your 'pony-tail palm' really doesn't care about being root bound, stresses Eric. "The big bulb at the base of mine has long outgrown its pot, almost looks like it's lifting itself out of the container, and the plant is fine," he notes. So leave that one's hindquarters alone.

Which brings us to the really frightening part. Many houseplant experts, including Eric, say that you can 'top' this specific plant; that is, cut off the growing tip, go a month without sleep, and then watch as new branches sprout below the cut. But be warned that it will certainly not be a good-looking plant for a couple of years afterwards. And the very thought gives me and several other people at the USBG—including the Director, Holly Shimizu—a bad case of the heebie-jeebies. So if the top of the plant isn't bouncing off your ceilings, I'd strongly consider doing nothing.

...Because, as they used to say on the old "Mission Impossible" TV show: "If any of your houseplants are captured or killed, the Secretary of Agriculture will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This radio show will self-destruct in two minutes. Good luck, Jim!"

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