As spring nears, houseplants can get unruly

No matter that winter winds and snow still come and go in much of the country. The sun’s earlier rising and higher climb into the sky let us know that spring is on the way. Even houseplants indoors feel the changing season.

Take a closer look at the stems of your houseplants. Any young, new leaves? Swelling buds? Inside their pots, roots might likewise be awakening. All of this makes today, tomorrow, or sometime soon a good time for repotting and pruning.


The most obvious reason to prune a houseplant’s stems is to keep the plant manageable. For example, growing in the ground in a tropical climate, branches of weeping fig, a familiar houseplant, will reach skyward and spread as high and wide as a sugar maple’s. Indoors, at the very least, your ceilings limit the desired height of a houseplant. For looks, you might want to keep the plant smaller, perhaps much, much smaller.

When pruning the stems of a houseplant, the goal is to reduce its size without giving it a hacked-back look. For a plant with many stems, such as a weeping fig, a few severe cuts usually gives better results than many small cuts. Trace one of the tallest stems down to its origin, and cut it off right there. Perhaps do this with another tall stem too.

After one or more drastic cuts have lowered the plant, go back over the plant to make some smaller cuts. Cut back any dead or diseased stems, and any that look gawky or out of place.

There are houseplants, such as dracaena and ponytail palm, that naturally sport only one or very few stems. These rarely need pruning; when they do, it’s because they’ve finally grown too tall. Lop back the stem to lower than the final desired height. New growth will appear near the cut, perhaps even a couple of new stems. If you want to keep the plant single-stemmed, remove all but one of the emerging stems.


Pruning the stems of a houseplant is just the first step. After a few years, depending on how fast a plant grows, roots will fill a pot until they have no room left to grow. Roots attempting to escape out the drainage hole of a pot is one indication of overcrowding.

More telling is to have a look at the root ball itself. Slide the root ball out of the pot.

If it’s a large plant, the easiest way to do this is to first tip the pot on its side. Are the roots cramped together and circling around and around the outside edge of the root ball?

If the roots are overcrowded, you could just move the plant to a larger pot. Of course, then it will grow even bigger, which may or may not be your wish.


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