A note on names: In scientific circles, Snake Plants are now considered part of the Dracaena genus, and the name Sansevieria has been retired. However, many people still know these plants by their former name, so we’ll sometimes refer to them as Sansevierias. We have an article on the subject here.
Snake Plants don’t make a lot of demands on their owners, which is one reason they’re such popular houseplants. However, you do need to upgrade their living spaces every so often. When your Sansevieria outgrows its container, its health and growth will suffer until you repot it. We’ll review how you can tell that it’s time to transplant your Snake Plant to a larger pot.
The first sign your Snake Plant needs a transfer is that its growth slows down or stops. When the roots fill up the pot and can no longer expand, the plant can’t support new foliage. As the container gets more crowded, your Snake Plant will lose access to water and nutrients, and you’ll see more alarming signs like wilting, yellowing, or browning.
Since these plants don’t grow very fast, you can usually avoid this problem by repotting yours every 3-4 years. When you do, you’ll want to use a fast-draining succulent soil and increase the volume of the pot by around 20%. This should give it plenty of room to expand at the slow and steady pace it prefers.
Does a Snake Plant Like to be Root Bound?
The main reason to switch a plant into a bigger pot is because the roots eventually fill all the available space and start to clump up into a big, tangled mess. This condition is called being root bound or pot bound.
When you pull a severely pot bound plant out of its container, the root system is tightly compressed into the shape of the pot, with lots of roots wrapping around the outside of the mass. When they’re packed this close, the roots block each other’s access to water, oxygen, and nutrients. In the long run, this can be deadly to your plant.
So why do so many online guides claim that Snake Plants “like to be root bound”? This is an attempt to prevent two common errors among novice houseplant growers: overwatering and overpotting. When the soil is constantly drenched, it suffocates the roots of potted plants and causes them to rot. This is even more likely in an oversized pot – the more soil there is, the longer it takes to dry out.
A root bound plant has a bit of resistance to overwatering because its expanding root mass has crowded out and absorbed most of the soil in its pot. There’s very little left to get soggy and smother the roots.
But letting your Snake Plant’s roots get cramped is a poor fix for overwatering. You can accomplish the same thing by simply letting the soil dry out between waterings. The right kind of potting mix – chunky, airy, and fast-draining – will also make a big difference.
The bottom line: while Snake Plants can tolerate being mildly root bound, they don’t like it. You’re better off repotting yours when it starts to fill up its pot
Here are the 5 main indicators that you need to repot your Snake Plant.
Number 1: It’s Been a Few Years
You can sidestep the problem of a root bound Snake Plant by repotting yours on a regular basis. If you can transplant it before it starts to get stressed out, you’ll allow it to keep growing at its usual steady pace.
Luckily for you, Sansevierias grow quite slowly. They come from rocky, drought-prone environments, so they are quite conservative. After you put your Snake Plant in a new pot, you can usually wait 3-5 years before moving it again.
That timeframe will vary depending on how much energy the plant is receiving. Snake Plants can survive in pretty low light, but they’ll grow even more slowly than usual. If you have your Sansevieria in a dimly lit room, it probably only needs repotting every 5-7 years or so.
Number 2: The Pot Won’t Hold Water
One telltale sign of a root bound plant is that water seems to drain through the pot at lightning speed. Fast-draining soil is a good thing for succulents, but even the coarse potting mixes that Snake Plants love soak up at least a little bit of moisture. If it seems like water starts flowing out of the bottom of the pot practically as soon as you start pouring it in, you probably have a root bound Sansevieria.
This happens because the roots have filled the pot so thoroughly that there’s little room for soil. All that’s left are inorganic materials like perlite – which also happen to be the least water-retentive parts of the mix.
Number 3: Your Plant’s Growth is Stunted
When your Snake Plant’s roots have no room to expand, the leaves can’t grow either. The root system is the infrastructure that supports the above-ground growth. If your plant can’t increase its capacity to take up water and nutrients, it can’t create new foliage.
This isn’t always easy to spot, since these plants aren’t fast growers even at the best of times. However, a Sansevieria with adequate lighting, water, and nutrition should create at least some new growth during the spring and summer. If yours seems to be stuck at its current size, or it’s producing small and misshapen leaves, you may want to check whether its roots have enough breathing room.
Number 4: The Leaves are Wilting or Discolored
As your Snake Plant gets more pot bound, its problems get more urgent. The encircling outer roots begin to constrict the others, choking off the flow of moisture, minerals, and oxygen to the rest of the plant.
This produces the classic symptoms of a dehydrated and malnourished plant. The leaves begin to wrinkle, curl, and droop. Watering won’t revive them, because not enough liquid can make it up from the soil. As the tissues die off, the foliage begins to turn pale yellow or crispy and brown.
Crowded roots are far from the only thing that can cause these symptoms; they may also be due to an excess or a shortage of water, fertilizer, or sunlight. But if those problems aren’t present, there’s a good chance your Sansevieria is ready for a bigger home.
Number 5: Your Snake Plant is Escaping
Sometimes a Snake Plant doesn’t wait around for you to notice that it needs repotting. It starts trying to bust loose all on its own.
If you’re keeping the plant in a ceramic or terra cotta pot, you may come home one day to find that the container has cracked open from the pressure of expanding roots. This is especially common when a Snake Plant produces “pups” – new shoots emerging from root structures that have extended away from the main mass of the plant.
Some people like to keep Snake Plants in plastic pots for this very reason. The walls will flex and bulge instead of breaking, providing an obvious visual cue that your plant is attempting a jailbreak.
Your Snake Plant might also try to escape through the top or the bottom of its pot, sending roots poking up from the soil or out of the drainage holes at the bottom. All of these are indicators that it’s run out of room.
Repotting a Root Bound Snake Plant
When the time comes to transplant your Sansevieria to a bigger pot, you don’t want to go overboard. Size up by about 20%, or go with a pot that’s 2 inches wider in diameter.
For the potting mix, pick something intended for cacti and other succulents. If you’re the DIY type, you can make a pretty great Snake Plant blend by combining:
- 2 parts pumice or coarse perlite
- 1 part pine bark
- 1 part coconut coir or peat moss
This type of soilless blend contains very few decomposed organic materials. That’s good for drainage, but it means you’ll have to add some fertilizer to give your Snake Plant the nutrients it needs. You can mix in some slow-release pellets, or just add liquid fertilizer to your Sansevieria’s water once a month or so.
Before you set a pot bound Snake Plant into its new container, you should spread the roots out gently with your fingers. This will encourage them to grow out instead of staying in a clump after the move. Work slowly and patiently to avoid causing unnecessary strain. Moisten your soil mix just a little bit before adding it to the pot, and don’t pack it too tightly around your Snake Plant’s roots.
After transplanting your Snake Plant, it will need a month or two to settle in. Be very careful to avoid overwatering during this time, and don’t add any liquid fertilizer. You should also keep your plant out of direct sunlight through this transitional period.
Now that you know what to look for, you should have no trouble identifying a Snake Plant that needs repotting. Try to get ahead of the curve and upgrade your plant’s pot every few years to let it grow with minimal disruption. The better you get to know your Snake Plant, the easier this will be.