7 Pitfalls That Make Your Herbs Dying After Repotting

After repotting, my basil looked a bit “down” (the container size is not appropriate, but I was playing around). However, this does not always imply that you are going to lose your herb

If you start growing your own herbs at home you surely had (or will have soon!) the need to repot your plant. However, this maneuver is more complicated than it sounds and, if you never did it before, you might end up killing your plant! In this post, I will walk you through the most common pitfalls during repotting making of you a repotting master. 

Then, why a herb might die after repotting? Herbs might die due to an excessive transplant shock due to one, or a combination, of the following pitfalls of repotting: 

  1. Not taking care of the roots;
  2. Inadequate drainage;
  3. Inadequate soil; 
  4. Not trimming;
  5. Watering straight after repotting;
  6. Exposure to full sunlight straight after repotting;
  7. Repotting an already ill plant.

Being able to understand each of this problem is very important to increases dramatically the chance of survival of your little green friend, so let’s dive in!

Seven Common Pitfalls To Avoid When Repotting Your Herb

As explained in our previous article for the case of basil, repotting is essential to give more room to a hungry and thirsty herb. Indeed, as it grows, it is natural to require more water and nutrients that can not be met through the small amount of soil of a starter container.

One of my countless supermarket potted-basil. Still healthy but needs repotting very soon as quite crowded

Repotting is prone to man pitfalls as handling, time and the container all play important roles in the survival of your herb. 

Pitfall #1 – Not taking care of the roots

When you remove the original container you should notice that the whole soil is sticking together with the roots. This happens as the roots created, over time, an intricate net that gardeners call a rootball. If this is not the case and the potting material starts to fall, then it is not moment yet for repotting and your herb should wait a bit longer. 

Example of rootball or root-bound for a potted plant (not basil in this photo but a rootball looks similar for other plants too)

During repotting do not be afraid to hit the container (if plastic) on the side in order to lose it. Others prefer to tap the rim against a little stone or the border of a table keeping the plant upside down with the stem between the fingers of the hand. In case it is a clay container you can use a knife to pass between the soil and the inner wall of the container or, in the extreme case nothing works, break the container.

It is important, once the plant is out the container, to lose the soil at the bottom and on the side of the rootball by a few gentle squeezes of the soil with your hands. This will free some roots that will be then ready to spread in the new soil that will surround them. It is also suggested to cut all those small roots that go around in a circular pattern (common in rootball) and all roots that look dead or very dry. The herb will be able to recover for such loss and it will allow a way better development.

In case your herb shows a serious rootball (when extracted from the container, there are mainly roots and no soil left) you can slice, with a sharp knife, the other layer of the rootball (I would say half a centimetre in case of a small pot for an indoor herb, no more than a ⅓ of the total roots) before repotting.

Moreover, the roots should be moist during repotting in order to increase the possibility of success and more importantly, there should not be any bad smell as this is a clear indicator of health issues (fungi).

A tip: In case the plant’s roots present wounds it is suggested to let them dry for 1 to 4 hours. This will allow the wounds to heal limiting the possibility of a pathogen to access the circulatory system of the plant where it can make significant damage.

Pitfall #2 – Create A Pebbles Layer

Another pitfall, based on outdated (and wrong) gardening knowledge is to place little stones, pieces of clay or any other similar material to create some spaces at the bottom of the container that will allow the water to drain better, even without drainage holes at the bottom of the container.

Although this might make sense, for physical reasons the opposite is in reality true. Indeed, this layer of pebbles will leave your plant with less aerated soil and so incentivizing root rot.

Check the article below if you are curios, it is definetly worth a read.

If you did the same mistake in the past by using such a layer at the bottom do not be ashamed, there are many gardeners and forum out there that claim the benefit of such a technique just based on intuition, not science.

Example of WRONG way to prepare your indoor pot – Photo by fra-NCIS from Flickr

Pitfall #3 – Inadequate Soil

This problem is pretty hard to identify beforehand (if not by testing the soil). To avoid such an issue I suggest buying the soil for your plant (for a dozen dollars you can get 30+ kgs online).  Why?

The main point here is to choose the right pH for your soil. Indeed, a too acidic (low ph if you are familiar with chemistry) soil is not suitable for your basil for instance that requires a pH higher than 6 (7,8 ideal) . For other herbs, you can easily find the ideal pH by googling it.

My best pick is by far the Foxfarm, that has given quite good results over the years. Its the price actually went down recently (check it here on Amazon).

Here another aspect that many might overlook. After placing the draining you should place the plant at the very centre of the container and surround the gaps (as the container is now larger) with the new soil but without exercising too much pressure on it. Indeed, making a too compact soil leads, as a side effect, to drastically limit the root aeration, important for the healthy growth of your herb.

Two tips for you:

  1. Remember to use the old soil as much as possible as it carries a healthy bacteria environment that the plant is already familiar with (I am assuming the plant did not suffer of any health issue before that can be correlated with the soil);
  2. Prepare the new soil by putting it in a bucket and stirring it a bit of water to make it moist. This has the advantage to increase the aeration of the soil and contain water for your plant to absorb

Pitfall #4 – Do not trim

As discussed in pitfall #1 is inevitable for you to cut some roots (but always less than a third of the total). This is not a massive problem as root trimming is actually beneficial and part of the process to keep any plant healthy. However, do not forget that fewer roots imply a lower capability to extract food, that in turn, is necessary to maintain and produce leaves. 

Hence, if you remove a handful of rots but not an equivalent amount of leaves the plant will be in an unbalanced situation in which the leaves are asking more nutrients than the plant can actually provide straight after repotting. As a consequence, all the leaves will receive less energy and the whole plant will suffer. 

Here another tip: If you are undecided on how much you need to trim your plant, better to exaggerate. The plant will be able to grow the missing leaves.

Pitfall #5 – Watering the plant straight after repotting

I would say that more than a pitfall this is a recommendation. Many (although not everyone) recommends avoiding watering your herb for 1-2 days after repotting in order to give time the roots to heal before sucking again in water from the soil. This is also aligned with another suggestion to water the herb the day before the repotting, so to limit the problem in the subsequent no-water days. 

Do not worry to leave for a few days your herb without water. Even in case it starts showing the first sign of underwatering (yellow and curly leaves) the plant will recover very quickly once watered again. Moreover, the original soil that came with the plan will remain moist for at least a day after repotting.

Pitfall #6 – Repotting in daylight hours

This is quite interesting. The best time for repotting is at dawn. Indeed, the plant would have 8+ hours of dark to heal without being “energetically” busy with the photosynthesis process that undergoes during the day. 

A tip here: In case you cannot repot at dawn remember to place the plant in a dark place for about 8-10 hours.

Pitfall #7 – Repotting an already ill plant 

This can be avoided by remembering that a transplant is a stressful situation for your plant. If the plant already shows signs of illnesses such as leaves dropping or leaves of yellow colour the last thing you really want to do is repotting. Indeed, this operation will probably accelerate the death of your herb as unable, due to its condition, to cope with the “transplant shock”.

A case of study: Detective

Hence, following this few guidelines you should be able to repot your plant like a pro! If so, let’s play the detective role and let’s try to identify what might have gone wrong just observing one single picture taken after an unlucky basil repotting.

Our case of study: basil picture taken after repotting

The first thing you can notice is the dark colour of the soil. The plant has been watered straight after repotting. Although many might be tempted in doing that to “help the plant” this is actually against its survival as explained in pitfall #5. Moreover, you can also notice the water at the bottom of the pot. This means that the soil has reached its capacity to retain water and the excess has flown through the drainage holes. Another proof of overwatering.

In the case of basil (my favourite house herb at the moment) as a general rule, if you are undecided how to water, I suggest going on the underwatering side than overwatering if you are unsure. That is leaving the soil slightly dry and then water it. Indeed, the plant will recover very quickly in the case suffered from a bit of underwater. However, if overwatered, this can facilitate root rot that, once there, is way harder to fight.

Another thing that you might notice from the picture is the presence of too many leaves as discussed in our pitfall #4. The plant is fighting to adapt to the new soil, so it might have less energy to spend in existing leaves. In addition, not healthy-looking leaves should be removed straight away.

Another aspect to take into account, although is not probably affecting the repotting in the short term, but might be a problem in the long term, is the size of the new pot compared with the plant. Indeed, you can notice that there are multiple basil plants in the pot in the picture (probably 3 or more).

This is because the plant from the picture comes from a supermarket pot where, for economic reasons, multiple plants are placed in the same starter pot. Hence, it is a good practice to place each individual plant in a separate pot so it will have plenty of space to grow as specified in a previous article here.

Related Questions

How long does a shock transplant last for small herb? Up to 4 days typically.

Should I repot supermarket herbs? Definitely. Supermarket herbs, for economic reasons, are sold in a small container where they are quite often overcrowded. Without repotting they will die.

Can a herb die due to transplant? Yes, especially if already suffering from other health conditions.

Further Readings

Tips to grow massive basil

The right container size for your basil

Fertilizer for basil

Best potting soil to boost growth

Coffee ground to improve your harvest

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