Plastic planting containers have slick, non-porous surfaces conducive to sliding, making plant removal relatively easy. Removing a plant isn’t hard, but it requires some thought and preparation.
You take a plant out of a plastic container by laying it on its side, smacking the outside, tilting the pot downward, and sliding the container away. Gravity causes the plant to slide out of the container and into your hand.
How you approach your plants and containers for removal depends on several factors, which I’ll explain below. I’ll also flesh out the steps mentioned so you can apply them in the most practical ways for your situation.
1. Inspect the Plant and Container
Before jumping in, you want to inspect the plant first to assess its health in its current environment. This will tell you several things about how to proceed.
Here’s what you’re looking for:
Removing the plant won’t be difficult if there’s a gap between the soil and the pot. (Though if the gap exists due to dried-out and shrunken soil pulled back from the pot wall, you must water the soil before removing the plant).
If there’s no gap, you can run a long tool around the soil’s perimeter to create one. Ensure the tool reaches all the way to the bottom.
The plant is rootbound if roots encircle the inside or outside of the container. You’ll need them moist (dried-out roots break), and you’ll need to trim them once the plant is removed if you plan to reuse the same pot.
Not all excess roots are created equal. If you’re repotting to the same or slightly larger pot size, trim any roots dangling from the drainage holes—the plant won’t miss them. If you’re letting the plant grow, cut away the pot instead of the roots.
Dry soil might make removal easier, but dry roots don’t unfurl easily for trimming or transplanting. Soak the soil and let it drain for a day before removing the plant.
The time allotted for drainage after soaking depends on the plant and pot size and how much water you use. If the soil is wet or recently watered, give it a full day (two for large plants) to drain without drying completely.
If you’re unsure how deep the soil moisture goes, stick a thin bit of bamboo down an inch (2.54 cm) into the soil. Check the level of moisture indicated by the newly-darkened stick.
Moistening the soil lubricates the container and keeps the contents intact but movable. It also helps loosen roots, making them less susceptible to breakage and undue stress.
You don’t want to move wet soil because it will fall apart. Give the soil time to drain so you can work with moist soil instead. If you haven’t watered recently, wet soil may indicate poor drainage.
Check the container’s bottom for drain holes. Drill some, if not. If there are drain holes, but you still have wet soil, it may be compacted.
Removing a sprout from a grow container for seedlings requires far less effort than up-potting a 2-inch (5 cm) tall houseplant from a 10-gallon (38 liters) pot.
Ensure that the combined weight of the container, moistened soil, and the plant is a load you can safely manage. If you don’t think you can ask someone for help.
Indoor plant supplier Plantarina made a YouTube video to help you avoid common repotting mistakes; you can watch it here:
2. Prepare Your Workspace
The next step is preparing your workspace for removing the plant from its container.
Here’s a look at what you’ll need:
An Elevated Surface (Optional)
If the potted plant is heavier or taller. You may need to elevate it to accommodate the pot’s vertical travel without bending the plant. I highly recommend elevating the container to keep tall plants off the ground.
Several options work well for elevated surfaces:
Using a potting bench may be obvious, but a tall surface can also work against you with heavier loads, so don’t use one that forces heavy loads on your arms at awkward heights. Potting benches work best for small to medium-sized plants.
Step Stool or Ladder
Shorter surfaces are good for tipping containers over, but ensure you can maintain control without tipping the ladder in the opposite direction or dropping the pot.
A Sturdy Chair
Set the pot in the seat and use the chair back as a second hand to keep the pot from sliding away when tilted. I recommend using outdoor chairs for this move—even lawn chairs can work in a pinch.
Low Outside Table
Wood outdoor coffee tables are low and sturdy, but make sure they don’t have glass in them because the pressure from the pot could crack them.
Pavers, flat stones, and bricks can stack up and give you elevation for tall or heavy containers. If you use this option, don’t stack too high, or you risk tipping the stack over and losing control of the container.
Protective Material (i.e., Tarp)
Lay protective material on the area where you’ll work. I prefer to use a tarp or to work on an easily sweepable surface to transfer spilled soil. If adding new soil to the pot, keep the used soil for composting.
Containers for Soil
You want to keep dirt transport times and distances short, so put everything you need within arms’ reach. Grab sturdy containers (such as a bucket) for new and used soil. Keep them handy as you work to reduce spillage caused by moving loose dirt around.
Gloves are optional, but using them saves clean up time, especially if you encounter exceptionally sticky substances like sap. It also saves water and your hands—I’ve accumulated more cuts and scrapes from thornless bushes than thorned ones, especially gardening in drier climates.
Any pruning tools should be free of stuck-on debris and rust. Rusted tools facilitate botched cuts and diseases that sicken or kill your plants. Clean, sharp tools also perform far better, and you’ll appreciate the superior results.
3. Tip the Container Onto Its Side
Tipping the container onto its side helps you to dislodge the potting medium from the interior wall, aiding in the plant’s removal. (It also serves as an intermediate step for heavier plants that cannot be removed by flipping them upside down.)
Tempting though it may be, you also don’t want to pull the plant up by its base, even if you grasp it close to the soil, even if it’s a small plant.
There are three reasons why:
- Removing rootbound plants often requires greater force. The greater force applied the wrong way or to the wrong area will damage the plant.
- Plants small enough to transfer this way may not survive the force—it could kill them.
- The soil weight pulling downward against the force of the upward pull can damage root structures, which can introduce disease and root rot.
Don’t let a top-heavy plant hang unsupported off elevated surfaces when you tip the container. Doing so may result in broken stems, or the plant may become partially uprooted.
To tip the container over, grasp the rim on your dominant side with your dominant hand. With your other hand, loosely cradle the plant as you tilt the pot. Shorter plants won’t need much help, but top-heavy plants can buckle under the strain without adequate support.
Slowly tilt the container until it’s resting on its side. Heavier containers can crack under the soil’s weight, so slowly allow the pot to settle. If the pot appears to stretch to a breaking point, you’ll need to elevate it and refrain from setting it on its side.
If your pot is susceptible to breaking and too heavy to elevate, you’ll need another person to help. For the remaining steps, one of you will hold the pot while the other holds the plant.
4. Roll, Squeeze, and Smack the Container
Rolling and striking the container is for completely dislodging stubborn plants from their containers by manipulating the container’s structure to create gaps.
Plastic pots of all thicknesses possess high malleability and transfer force well. So, the open-handed smacking of thicker, more rigid pots will shift the soil to create an air gap. For small pots, a couple of moderate squeezes should do the trick.
Pots made of thinner plastics are far easier to squeeze. Suppose you remove plants from the black plastic grow pots in garden centers and nurseries. In that case, you can squeeze them one-handed (with the pot bottom seated in the palm of your hand) to help eject them.
Some plastic containers are small enough to fit in one hand. If you can apply sufficient pressure using your hand to squeeze the container, then do so; however, for larger or thicker pots, lay the pot on its side and push down with a flat hand.
Use one or both of these methods around the entire pot perimeter while slowly rolling the pot on its side. For square containers, roll to one side at a time. When you roll the container, maintain its position in front of you. In other words, don’t roll it out and away; just rotate it in place.
In addition to hitting the pot’s sides, you can also hit its base on the bottom to encourage the soil block to shift toward the pot rim. Mind the soil surface and plant as you do this—too much enthusiasm could send the plant flying. Several short, open-handed slaps should do.
When performing this step, keep in mind the following precautions:
- If you notice soil shaking out of the container at too high a rate, the pot may not need the extra force, and you can proceed to step five.
- Don’t use sharp, thin, or heavy instruments for the hitting, which can damage or break the container.
- Pressing too hard on the sides can break the pot and cause the soil block to cave in, so only press enough to manipulate the plastic. If you hear cracking, stop pressing and stick with slaps from the bottom.
5. Cradle the Soil in Your Hand
Careful handling throughout this process is crucial when it comes to preserving the integrity of the plant and its roots. This step will give you better handling and control, resulting in less mess and easier removal.
To cradle the soil, place your open hand flat onto the soil with the plant stem sticking up between your two middle fingers (or whichever grip works best).
Keep your hand spread out so it supports the soil’s surface as much as possible. This will distribute the soil’s weight evenly when you tilt downward in the next step.
If foliage makes the trunk or stems inaccessible, gently cradle the base of the plant close to the soil using your hand and forearm.
6. Tilt the Container Downward
Rather than grasping the plant’s stem (which can crush fragile parts) and pulling (which can break stems and roots), we will let gravity separate the plant from its container.
If space permits, position a bucket or other dirt-catching device underneath where you’ll remove the plant so that loose soil can spill into it.
If the container is on an elevated edge, use it for support. If not, you may need to wrap your arm around the pot to give it enough lift.
Make sure you maintain control of the plant and pot in this step. Otherwise, the pot may slide off the edge before you’re ready.
Tilt the pot downward, keeping your hand on the soil, going only as low as needed for gravity to work. In many cases, the pot doesn’t need to dip very far to achieve the desired result.
Do this slowly, allowing time for shifting and moving, to avoid the plant sliding out too fast. The total weight of the potted plant in moistened soil will transfer to your hand, so working slowly also gives you time to better anticipate this shift.
7. Lift the Container Away
Having separated the container from the soil, the light plastic container should lift with minimal effort. Since we aren’t grasping the plant stem or trunk, we won’t pull the plant out. Instead, we will simply lift the container away.
When you lift away the container, you want to do so as cleanly and slowly as possible, especially if you’re trying to preserve the soil block. This way, you don’t knock any dirt loose.
Don’t let the container hang or sag on the soil block—keep the soil weight resting downward on your hand. Let the elevated surface or your other hand steady the container’s weight.
Lift the container away cleanly. Don’t shake or wriggle it, which risks breaking the root ball or tossing soil around. The plant undergoes mild shock during transplant, so you want to minimize the number of stressful events throughout the entire process.
If the container doesn’t lift away, check to see if any remaining roots are causing the trouble. Run a long tool around the soil’s perimeter and repeat step four.
8. Inspect the Soil, Roots, and Container
Once you’ve removed the pot, you must examine the plant’s soil and roots before repotting or up-potting it. If anything is awry in the plant or its environment, fixing it now can save you trouble later.
You’ll want to pay attention to several elements:
At this stage, the soil should be moist from the watering. Most plants dislike tightly compacted soil because it drains poorly, so take the time to break up hard clumps.
Alternatively, you can clean the existing, unsuitable soil and prepare the plant for fresh, new soil. Ideally, you’ll want to use a moisture meter to make sure the soil is sufficiently hydrated.
Potted plants should sit a half inch (1.3 cm) or so below the pot rim. If you’ve had to remove soil or are up-potting, you’ll need to add soil to the bottom of the container to guarantee the proper planting depth.
However, different plant species have varying requirements when it comes to soil level, so make sure to do your research beforehand.
If you have a rootbound plant, it will be obvious that the roots are too long because they encircle the pot’s perimeter, never finding enough soil. Trim the roots down to one-third of the original length.
However, make sure not to take off too much, as you still want the plant to be able to access the necessary nutrients in the soil.
Since root rot kills the sections of an infected root, you’ll need to trim any dead or dying roots before repotting.
Root rot in potted plants is caused by oversaturation of the soil due to one or all of the following reasons:
- Overwatering can mean the frequency or amount per application. Write down plant-specific watering needs to ensure your plants don’t get too much (or too little).
- Dense, hard soil precludes sufficient aeration and water drainage. Water then soaks and kills the roots.
- Well-draining potting media in a poor-draining pot leads to the oversaturation of the roots.
If the container has an irreparable crack or another flaw that compromises structural integrity, recycle it and house your plant in an intact container. Cracked containers provide inconsistent support and can crack further under stress from the swelling soil and growing roots.
At this point, your plant is ready for repotting. I hope you enjoyed this post and learned how to easily and cleanly remove plants from plastic containers.