While maybe not the first question that crosses a plant parent’s mind, many novice gardeners concerned about their leafy, green friends’ well-being might wonder if it is cruel to keep plants in pots. This question usually crops up when a plant isn’t doing so well. Still, the good news is that generally, it’s not the pot itself stressing the plant but rather several other factors that plant parents can quickly alleviate.
Keeping plants in pots is not cruel, and as long as the plant’s needs are being met, many plants can lead perfectly healthy lives in a pot. But since water, light, and nutrient requirements vary from plant to plant, it is crucial to understand your potted plants’ unique needs.
This article will explain why it is totally okay to keep plants in pots and what steps you can take as a plant parent to ensure your plant is getting the best possible care in a container.
Can Plants Feel Cruelty?
Before we dive deeper into keeping plants in pots, it is crucial to address the nature of the word “cruelty” and whether or not someone can be cruel to a plant. The word cruelty implies that some measure of emotional or physical pain is involved in human-plant interaction.
While emotional harm is vital to recognize, it is harder to quantify, so we will focus on physical cruelty and harm and whether or not plants can feel pain.
Since the 1970s, there have been numerous studies on the topic of plant sentience and pain, some more scientific than others. However, a 2014 study by the University of Missouri did reveal that plants can sense vibrations and emit defensive chemicals in response. This is particularly useful when a plant is defending itself from a pest invasion.
Interestingly, further research also determined that these signals can be transmitted to other plants, warning them of an incoming scourge.
With all of this in mind, researchers do not believe that plants can feel pain the same way that organisms with nervous systems can. However, that’s not to say that negative situations don’t affect plants.
Our most significant indicator of whether or not a plant is doing alright is in the plant’s stress responses which show up in many different ways.
While plants can’t feel pain the same way we can, they respond to less-than-ideal conditions. Like in people, this is referred to as a stress response.
Plant stress manifests in several different ways, including:
- Yellowing leaves
- Wilting or non-existent bloom
- Dropping leaves
- Generally dull appearance
Why Keep Plants in Containers
Given a choice between keeping a plant in a container versus planting a plant in the ground, container gardening actually takes more effort and can subject the plant to more stress.
Overall, container planting is more challenging than placing a plant directly into the ground. Plants that live exclusively in pots need more frequent watering and fertilizing and are less tolerant of environmental changes.
However, there are many reasons why someone would want to keep their plant in a pot—the main reason being indoor gardening. For that reason alone, we will focus more on indoor plant conditions but know that any of these factors can apply to plants kept in outdoor pots as well.
How to Minimize Plant Stress in a New Plant
One of the best ways to set your plant up for future success is to minimize stress when you first get the plant.
Often, when we buy plants at a gardening center, grocery store, or big box store, the plant has already been through a number of stressful conditions to get there.
Examples of stressful conditions include:
- Removal from ideal growing conditions in the nursery
- Improper storage (poor lighting, humidity, and temperatures)
- Inconsistent watering schedules
The best way to combat the above stresses is to leave the plant alone. Ensure the plant is placed in a location with ideal lighting and watered appropriately, but don’t do anything to the plant for at least the first week.
In fact, for indoor plants, it’s recommended to leave the plant in its original pot for several months up to a year to allow the plant to adjust and grow strong enough to handle the additional stress of being moved into a bigger pot or repotted.
Activities like fertilizing, repotting, or pruning should only be done when you’re sure that your new plant has fully recovered from the stress of being removed from the nursery, transported, and stored.
Container Care and Potting Considerations
As mentioned earlier, plants living in a container are more likely to get stressed than ground-planted ones.
If you notice any signs of stress, you should consider whether or not the plant needs to be planted into a bigger pot or repotted.
However, one of the easiest ways to tell if your plant has some issues is by looking at it. Does it look the same or worse than when you first got it?
If your plant has spent six months in the same pot, it might be time for a container upgrade. A plant generally needs a new container or soil if it starts to outgrow its pot.
A good indicator of whether or not a plant is outgrowing its container is if roots are coming out of the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. These dangling roots mean that the plant has run out of room in the container for new growth, and it is seeking out more space.
Another indicator of a plant being root bound is if it isn’t blooming. Check out my other article to learn more: 7 Reasons Why Your Potted Flowers Aren’t Blooming
One method to keep a plant healthy while living in a pot is to pot up a plant. This means putting the plant into a bigger pot but not doing anything else other than adding soil. This is best done in spring when the plant is in active growth and has a better chance of recovery from the move.
When choosing a new container for your plant, look for a pot that isn’t more than 20% larger. Once you have picked out your larger pot, fill it with a thin layer of new container soil.
You can remove some soil from your plant’s roots, but since you want to encourage the plant to grow into its larger pot, you don’t need to trim any of the roots unless you see some damage or dead roots. These roots are usually dried up, wilted, or darker in color.
Once you’ve taken care of the roots and the old soil, place your plant into the new pot and fill the rest of the pot with fresh soil. Add a bit of water and fertilize to complete the process.
Repotting a plant is much different than potting up and is only recommended if you intend to keep your plant in the same size pot for at least a year.
The repotting process is relatively demanding since not only are you removing as much of the existing soil from the plant’s roots, but you are also pruning the plant’s roots and shoots.
When repotting a plant, it is advisable to remove old, damaged roots through pruning to encourage new root growth.
Only new root growths can absorb nutrients and water at maximum efficiency, and when a plant runs out of room to grow these new roots, it will eventually spell out lousy health for the plant.
In addition to trimming back the old roots, you must carefully wash as much of the soil off of the root system as possible. Removing the old dirt allows you to repot the plant in a batch of fresh potting soil.
Repotting a plant is stressful for the plant, so only repot your plant when it absolutely needs it, such as when there’s visible root rot. If you are unsure that a plant can handle the stress of repotting, it’s best to observe it for a while to determine the best approach.
From a purely scientific standpoint, it is not cruel to keep plants in pots. However, it is essential to note that plants kept in pots are subject to more stress than plants planted in the ground outside.
Knowing the signs of stress and understanding some of the unique needs of potted plants helps keep your plants stress-free and healthy.