Jungle Music Palms and Cycads Nursery

GROWING CYCADS by Phil Bergman




Description of Article

This article is a pictorial guide to repotting of a cycad plant.  There is discussion of when and how to put your cycad into a larger container with photos of the sequence of removing the plant and repotting it into a bigger container. 


As many of you know, there is very little information in books and on the Internet about how to grow cycads.  If given good culture, cycads will grow and many species are actually fairly "fast" growers.  As a plant gets larger, its roots and root mass also grow.  This requires repotting the cycad into a larger container.  I am often asked "how do I do it?"  At our nursery, we repot thousands of cycads.  What this article will do is give you a series of pictures with discussion on the actual process of moving a cycad into a larger container.  I will make comments on each topic discussed below and discuss container size, cycad potting soil, things to avoid, and make general comments on cycad culture.

new seedling Encephalartos
Typical new Encephalartos seedlings without big roots

Encephalartos altensteinii too big for pot
This caudex is too big for this container

Cycad roots band container
Roots of band size cycad ready for repot
Cycas, overgrown for cit pot
A Cycas which outgrew a citrus pot
Encephalartos altensteinii 2g size
This Encephalartos is unstable in its 2 gallon pot
Broken down cycad soil
Old broken down cycad soil
Overgrown cycad in citrus pot
Overgrown cycad in citrus pot
Bulging pot from cycad root
Bulging pot from cycad roots
Damaged pot from cycad roots
Damaged pot from cycad roots
Damaged cycad pots
More examples roots damaging cycad pots
Unstable cycad
Unstable cycad in citrus pot
Cycad roots seedling
Even cycad seedlings have big roots

The general rule is that one selects the next larger size of container, but this is variable.  It might also depend on what containers are available to you.  In The West Coast, container sizes are different than in the Eastern U.S.  Out here we go by "gallon size" whereas back East the containers are measured in "inches" such as "eight inch", "ten inch", etc.  One could simply select a container that is three to six inches greater in diameter and also in depth.  You may have heard that cycads like "deep pots".  This is true.  I would take depth over diameter when selecting a container size.  This is why the citrus pot size is more popular than the 5 gallon pot.  It is more narrow, but about 3 to 6 inches deeper.  This gives the roots more room.  Above 15g size it is sometimes better to go with a 24 inch box.  This is because available pots greater than the 15g size often are no deeper than the 15g.  In fact, the typical 20g pot is the exact same depth as a 15g pot.  Note should be made that some people prefer un-glazed clay pots saying they "breathe better".  This is true and may aerate the roots better.  But, containers made from clay are much more expensive that plastic pots.  If the clay pot has an enamel coat, it will breathe no better than a plastic pot.

  Select a container 3 to 6 inches wider and deeper than the existing pot
  Try to select a new container that adds depth (taller pot) thus giving more root depth

Although there's variability in the needs between cycad genera, in general all types of cycads like a good draining soil.  What "good draining" means is that you will promptly see any added water into the pot come through the bottom holes in a matter of seconds.  If you water your plant and it takes several minutes for water to appear out of the bottom drain holes, your drainage is not optimal.  Materials that promote drainage include such items as pumice, pebbles, large Perlite, very coarse sand, coarse decomposed granite, wood chips (until they break down) and coarse peat moss.  Items that slow drainage include fine sand (20 grit as an example), clay soil, fine top soil, or any fine particulate matter.  You can use topsoil in a cycad mix, but you must "open it up" with the more coarse items or it will not drain well.  Below is a general recipe for cycad soil with comments about the mix we use at the nursery.  If you cannot find these raw materials, it is possible to use "Cactus and Succelent Mix" which is sold at many general purpose nurseries.  You might want to add about 10% topsoil to this mix if you go this way.

I might comment that there is no single, best mix.  Enthusiasts in different parts of the world are successfully growing cycads in a whole variety of mixes.  A soil for any given person may depend totally on what's available as raw materials in his area.  So, if you cannot find pumice in your area, find a good substitute such as scoria or lava rock.  Over time you will come up with a mix that works well for you.

sand Cycad Potting Soil

Cycads are very sturdy plants and are not difficult to grow.  If you live in a warmer climate, you can repot them at any time during the growing season, which is spring to fall.  If you have a greenhouse you are growing the plants in, then almost any time of year would work.  Some prefer to repot their plants in late winter or early spring, thus giving them a full growing season ahead.  If you have a significant problem like a torn container or very poor drainage, I would favor repotting immediately as opposed to waiting for a more optimal time.

Below you will see a series of photographs taken while we repotted an Encephalartos.  I'll make comments in the left column.  Note that during this procedure, great care is taken not to damage the plant or its roots.  If you were to see root rot during this transplant procedure, it would be well advised for you to handle it at this time by surgically removing any rotten roots or stem.  Or, if you mistreat the plant and do break or tear major roots, trim them box proximally to where the damage is and treat the cut root surface with fungicide powder.


This shows the cycad that
we have chosen to repot
You can see that the caudex
is very large for this citrus
pot container
You can also imagine how
this plant might be unstable
in its container
One first grasps the caudex
firmly with one hand.  You
will be holding the plant with
this hand when you remove
the plant from the container
With the plant's caudex being
firmly held, one tips up the end
of the container, holding the
plant in place and observing
for any movement of the root
One would then continue inverting
the container until it is upside
down.  Typically, if well established,
the plant will start to slide out
of its pot
Note that the root ball slid out
of the container intact.  Be aware
that sometimes this loose cycad
mix may fall away.  If happens,
just hold onto the plant and
continue with the repot.  You'll
be adding new mix to stabilize
the plant in the new container.
Shown is a well rooted, tight
root ball that hasn't fallen
apart.  When it's this well
rooted, one can hold the plant
and root ball as shown. 
Unfortunately, sometimes
you are not this lucky.
Here new cycad potting soil
is being added to the container
that will be this cycad's new
pot.  You must measure
the height of the removed root
ball above so you know how
much soil to add to the bottom
of the pot before putting the
plant into this new pot.  Don't
forget to leave room for holding
water above the soil.
One would now place the cycad
into the pot with new mix at the
bottom of the container.  The
plant must be held firmly,
suspending it in space.  You add
soil around the roots as you
hold the plant.  Make sure you
are properly situating the
suspended plant so the final
soil lever is optimal.
Note how two hands are now holding
the plant.  As you add soil, the force
of the soil could knock the plant
out of your hands.  Having a helper
add the soil is required, especially
with larger plants.
Cycad mix is being carefully added
to the pot, pouring it down the
sides away from the root ball.
The plant is still being suspended
in air with two hands.   When there's
enough soil below the root ball, the
plant will hold itself in place.
Additional soil has been added
so the plant is now stabilized
and no longer needs to be held.
At this point one must start to
firmly pack in the potting soil.
You can use your hands to do
this or sometimes we'll use the
handle of a hammer or a thick
blunt piece of wood.
Extra potting soil is added
because, after you pack it in,
the top soil lever will drop.  If
your soil level is too low after
packing, merely top off the
container with additioonal soil. 
The cycad mix is being packed
down into the pot
For larger containers, you can
use your fists to pack in the
soil.  Cycad mixes do compress
somewhat, but not as much as
palm soils.  It also depends on
how tightly the mix was added
while filling the pot.  But, in
general, expect the level to drop
several inches with packing.
The finished product with
the new cycad in a 15g
container.  You must now
water the plant.  If you want,
you can add some slow release
fertilizer or bloodmeal to the
top of the soil.  The average
repotted cycad is probably
good in the new container for
at least three to five years. 

Cycads are not difficult to repot.  It can be done any time during the growing season.  One must be careful to protect the roots while transplanting.  A potting soil with good drainage is very important.  Choose a pot that is both wider and deeper than the existing pot.  The pictorial guide above shows you just how to do this.  We've found that repotted cycads often throw much nicer and bigger leaves within six months of being repotted.   


Thank you for reading this article.  Feedback always appreciated.  Check elsewhere at this site for over 4000 photographs and  50 articles on palms and cycads.

Phil Bergman


Jungle Music Palms and Cycads

Nursery: 450 Oceanview Ave, Encinitas, CA 92024

Phone: 619 291 4605

Email: phil.bergman@junglemusic.net






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Last modified: January 30, 2012

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