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Do Boston Ferns Like To Be Root Bound? (+When To Repot)

If you are looking for a plant that remains evergreen throughout the year, even with minimal care, a healthy Boston fern would be an ideal indoor and outdoor plant. But one common issue is that they become rootbound.

Boston ferns prefer to be slightly rootbound because shallow roots make it difficult for the plant to fetch nutrients. But if your Boston fern is extremely rootbound, and the roots are tangled around the pot’s surface, then you need to repot it as soon as possible to avoid the consequences. 

In this article, I will explain how you can deal with a rootbound Boston fern. So, keep reading.

Boston fern root bound and poor drainage

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Do Boston ferns like to be in a small pot?

Boston ferns prefer small containers over large ones, as the large ones make it difficult for them to fetch nutrients.

The balls or root nodules formed on Boston fern due to small containers and being rootbound aren’t harmful.

Those nodules signify every plant’s natural adaptability to changing or unfavorable situations.

These ball-like structures on the roots are an extension of them.

They mainly help the plant fetch or store moisture and nutrients present in the soil.

Generally, these plants become rootbound, develop nodes between late summer and autumn, and store water for dormant periods.

But being too rootbound has its side effects.

Some are listed below:

  • Developing roots will run out of space and form clusters within that limited space.
  • If it remains rootbound for too long, the stress created within the roots can kill the plant. 
  • The plant will have stunted growth.
  • The roots will start displacing the soil and come out of the soil and pot.

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How do I know if my Boston fern is rootbound?

Boston fern turning yellow

Identifying a rootbound plant from above the soil is difficult, as it will simply look like a dehydrated, underwatered plant.

The other significant symptoms of rootbound Boston fern are:

  • Wilting leaves
  • Yellow and brown leaves, especially on the lower region of the plant
  • Dehydrated plant
  • Stunted growth
  • Roots coming out of the drainage holes
  • Sometimes, the roots may also show up above the soil.

The only way to confirm that the plant is root bound is you need to look at its roots.

And to check the roots, you need to carefully take your indoor plant out of the pot.

Also, at this point, you can identify if the plant is severely rootbound or slightly rootbound.

Plants that are severely rootbound will take much effort and pressure to come out of the container, while plants that are not too badly rootbound will come out easily.

It isn’t easy to take out the plant if the pot is made of clay or ceramic, but containers made of flexible materials like plastic are convenient.

One can easily squeeze it and take the plant out.

Sometimes, you may not have any other option than breaking the pot. 

Once you have successfully removed the Boston fern from its container, thoroughly examine its roots.

You can easily fix the rootbound plant if you notice roots wrapped around the soil and only small nodules are formed.

If the plant has formed clusters of roots and lots of roots around the soil, it is in an advanced rootbound stage.

And in cases of a severe rootbound state, very little soil is visible between the roots, and the roots have formed a solid structure. 

To cure a rootbound plant, you have only a few options.

  • The best option you could choose among many is to repot the plant into a new bigger pot.
  • Or we can prune the roots carefully, divide the plant and again repot in the same container without any damage.
  • As Boston fern likes to be a little root bound, you can simply leave it until it reaches an advanced stage.

Different stages of a rootbound Boston fern

There are mainly three basic stages of rootbound in any plant.

The categorization is made based on the seriousness of the condition.

First stage Second stage Third stage
Under this stage, the plant’s roots will start wrapping around each other and get tangled. Detangling them and saving the plant in this stage is very easy. Just shifting the plant to a bigger pot will save it. The roots get thicker and tangled strongly. They also form clusters or balls known as root balls. Repotting is required in this condition, but one should act early. This is the severe stage in which treating the plant is difficult. Clusters form all over the soil, and very little soil is visible. Shift the plant immediately to a bigger pot and take proper care.
Different stages of a rootbound Boston fern,

When should I repot my Boston fern? 

Boston ferns grow depending on the species and also weather conditions.

They actively mature during spring and summer, and during winters, they rest.

If the plant is not growing actively and roots are pushing through the soil, rootbound can be a cause.

Repotting it to a larger pot is always preferred in case of severe rootbound.

You can also repot their Boston fern to protect them from issues like:

  • Moderate to severe root bound (as Boston ferns like to stay rootbound, during the initial stage repotting is not recommended)
  • Overuse of fertilizers as they damage the soil composition
  • To provide nutrients to the soil by changing the composition of potting mix. 

Also read: Where Should I Place My Boston Fern? (Ideal Location+Tips)

How to save a rootbound Boston fern?

The best option to save a rootbound Boston fern is by repotting it into a larger pot.

  • At least a week before, start watering your Boston fern because moist soil makes the repotting process easy. Even if the roots are severely overgrown, moist soil will allow smooth movement when taking the plant out. 
  • The new pot you choose should be 3-5 cm wider than the previous one. Remember never to plant your Boston fern in a big pot because they have shallow roots, and the extra soil will retain moisture, increasing the risk of root rot.
  • Fill the new pot up to 6 cm with freshly prepared potting soil.
  • Then carefully hold the fern, tilt the pot and slightly guide the plant into the container.
  • Firmly place the plant in the new pot and slightly push the root nodes into the soil up to 2 cm. 
  • If necessary, shake the pot to adjust the soil in the bottom of the pot.
  • Plant the Boston fern properly, as too much pressure can damage roots or increase stress. You should plant the newly potted plant at the same depth as the previous plant.
  • To remove excessive air pockets, tap the pot.
  • Then water your plant thoroughly.
  • As the plant is still under shock or stress, place the pot under bright indirect light, and take proper care.
  • After a few days, resume the daily schedule. 

After repotting your plant, take proper care for a few weeks until it again starts to show new growth.



How to choose the correct pot for Boston fern?

Boston fern pot types

You can choose a pot for their Boston fern by considering three categories – size compared to the plant, drainage holes, and material.

Choose a pot with a diameter at least 1-2 inches wider than the diameter of your plant’s root structure.

The pot you choose should have a proper drainage system to drain excess moisture, but it shouldn’t be too big as it can drain out soil with water while watering.

A drainage hole is a crucial part of choosing a pot. 

Choose pots made of terracotta or ceramic, mud, clay, wooden containers, and sometimes hard breathable fibers.

These types of pots allow a good flow of air through tiny holes.

Roots need a good flow of air to allow the plant to breathe and also keep them fresh.

Roots can experience stress if they fail to get enough airflow. 

Also read: What Kind Of Pot Is Best For a Boston Fern? (Size, Material & More)

What happens when Boston fern is planted in a small pot? 

The main problem that arises when we plant a pot in a smaller pot is that it restricts the growth of that plant.

For any plant, soil provides the main source of minerals and nutrients.

When we plant our plants in smaller pots, the nutrients become limited. 

The plant gets fewer nutrients to mature, but the roots are multiplying. 

When the roots multiply, they have to accommodate themselves within the limited space, so they tangle up or create circular structures around the roots, or roots peep through drainage holes and on top of the soil. 

Especially plants like Boston fern have shallow roots, like small pots or rootbound while growing.

But extreme root bound will damage the roots, restricting their growth.

Roots can get suffocated in the soil.

Sometimes, they can also get packed due to the shortage of free space for spreading out. 

Small pots can also trip over due to imbalance.

The extra weight the pot bears (overgrown fern and roots) is often too much, and the plant will look unorganized and untidy.

A pot that is too small compared to the plant will also lack moisture as the soil in the pot is less than the plant.

Soil also holds moisture for the plant.

If the soil can’t hold enough moisture needed for the plant to grow, it will become dehydrated quickly. 

Pot size is a crucial part to look at before choosing a pot. 

Final Words

Boston fern is among indoor plants that prefer to stay rootbound because of its shallow roots. Being rootbound protects it from getting over soggy soil while they can still enjoy moist soil.

Small pots are ideal when houseplant gardeners are growing baby ferns. Eventually, to avoid severe root bound, one should take steps.

One can understand rootbound by examining the roots and gently pulling them out. If the roots indicate a severe rootbound condition, repot as soon as possible.

The best time to repot a Boston fern is during spring. As the plant actively grows at that time, repotting will not affect your plant much.

Also, one can repot it once in six to seven months. Never repot any plant when it hits dormancy because they will not focus on growth, and the plant may die. 


Reference: University of FloridaThe University of Arkansas DivisionTexas A&M University SystemThe University of GeorgiaUniversity of New HampshireWikipediaThe Royal Horticultural Society.