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Pot Bound, Roots Love to be Free. -Growing Well Newsletter

It’s that time of year – Plant sales are all the rage!!

Labor Day is behind us and everyone who gardens knows that now is the time to get some great bargains on all kinds of plants. Every nursery and garden center puts their plant material on sale and The Good Earth is no exception. Every plant not part of the fall decorating mix (mums, asters, red grasses kales and cabbages) is 20% off. This even includes fall lettuces. Here’s where we’re different though…ALL of our plants have been handled well all season, have had nutritional foliar applications as well as fertilizer applications as needed and all are strong and ready for a new home. Having said that however, ANY plant bought at the end of the season is going to have one thing in common – an overgrown and netted root system known as being “pot bound”. That condition has to be fixed if you want your new purchases to survive and thrive in your yard. Fair warning – there are quite a few details in the next few paragraphs and the reading might be a bit dry! There are pictures so that makes it a bit better 😊

Where to start…Let’s start with how plant roots actually work and go from there. Some plants have tap roots that drive into the deeper soil levels and hope to hold the plant in place, but every plant on the planet has its feeding roots in the upper layers of the soil system and most of those roots go horizontally from the stem. If you’ve seen a tree tipped out of the ground after a storm then you’ll know what I mean… Now – take that root growth direction and stick it into a pot. In almost no time, those horizontally thrusting roots hit the wall of the pot and have no choice but to circle and circle looking for room to absorb nutrition. By this time of the year, any plant growing in a pot has almost completely used up all of the soil in its pot and has created a solid mass of roots.

Many people think that just getting the plant out of its pot and into soil will solve the problem and that the roots would love to be free and would fix themselves. That doesn’t happen except for the most aggressive of root systems…and it’s best not to count on that happening anyways… In fact, one of the easiest tests to make if a plant is not performing as expected is to reach in to the center of the plant and tug gently upwards. You’d be surprised how many plants can be pulled out! Even plants that have been “planted” for three or four years can be pulled out without much trouble. Granted that different plants root at different rates, but ALL plants should have rooted enough to be resistant to a pull after 3 years! This problem is most associated with trees and shrubs, but some perennials have the problem as well. Roots don’t lie – they’re either growing or they’re not…

So, what to do if you have a pot bound plant… operate on the root system! And I do mean operate… You are injuring the plant just as a surgeon injures a patient, but the long-term outcome is MUCH better than before the injury for both the human patient AND the plant 😊

Take the plant out of the pot – cut the pot off if necessary – and take a good look at the roots. If you’re looking at tree roots, there won’t be as many at the top of the pot unless the plant is massively pot bound. Shrub and perennial roots will be netted throughout the zone. If possible, tease out the larger roots that you find along the outside of the root ball and pull them so that they are as horizontal as possible and work to keep them separated from the ball as you set the plant into the ground.

re planting plant bound potted plants

If you can’t see the larger roots or can’t free them at all then take this approach…

Step 1: Cut a bevel all around the top of the root ball. Because of the way plants are watered in their pots, the outside of the pot has slightly more soil than the center of the pot and the roots concentrate wickedly in that edge. IT MUST BE CUT OFF! Remember, plants need horizontal roots for water and nutritional uptake and you’ll get your first new roots from this top cut zone.

Step 2: Cut the “hamburger” off the bottom of the plant. My brother is the one who came up with this description when he worked for me planting perennial gardens one summer a LONG time ago…and it has worked well as a description ever since! Somehow – the “hamburger” condition is a constant and that hyper netted root mass MUST be removed. It WON’T wake up and grow new roots on its own.

Step 3: slice down the sides of the root system. Concentrate the cuts where the densest roots are – and there is almost always a denser section – ask if you want to know why! If the root system is very dense then make it a V cut. If your cut largely loosens the roots then a straight cut is sufficient.

Step 4: Use your fingers as if you were playing an instrument and “walk” them through as much of the root system as you can engage with. Then set the plant into the soil and settle it with your hands wiggling as much of the soil into and around the roots as possible. Your hands are your BEST asset for this stage.

Step 5: Water in well and welcome the plants to your yard.

Now – a word about soil amendments when planting…

If you’re creating an entirely new bed and are prepping all of the soil then no worries. Get your plants settled in and watered and go from there.

If you’re digging holes for new plants in existing soil then there are some details you need to be aware of…

  • The hole should be WIDER than the root ball by at least half again.

  • The hole should be NO DEEPER than the depth of the root ball. Plants get heavier as they grow and can sink deeper in to the soil as they age. This is especially critical if you are planting trees. The flare of a tree NEEDS to be at grade level and slightly higher is better than slightly lower.

  • Fill the hole with water before planting and see how long it takes for the water to go down. That will tell you a lot about how much water is going to be needed to establish the plant. If conditions warrant, you can use soap and molasses in the water to open the lower soil to water. Ask us for details…

  • Place the plant in to the middle of the hole and back fill ½ way up the ball with the EXISTING soil – NO AMENDMENTS!!!! Remember to walk your fingers through the roots to establish good contact… Now – why no amendments?? The plant has to learn how to grow in its new home and can’t do that if another “pot” is created inside the soil…In a natural setting, there is NO nutritional value added BELOW a root system – no fairies are adding active materials deep in to the soil system. EVERYTHING in the natural world is based on top-down feeding – whatever drops on to the ground eventually gets drawn down into the soil and becomes nutritional support for the plants.

  • Once you have the soil settled in half way, THEN you can add amendments to the top 3” of the soil in the hole (remember that horizontal root growth mentioned at the beginning? This is where it comes in to play!). Whatever you add has to be NO MORE than half of the mix. The other half of the mix is existing soil. There are all kinds of ideas on what to add in to that top 3” and we’re happy to go through the options with you at the store. It largely depends on what actual plants you are working with.

  • Remember to mulch your new planting with whatever materials work best for you – the plants don’t care as long as their roots are protected and the soil is covered 😊

A couple of quick reminders – cover crop seeds are available right now. We have a very interesting selection – and the staff is happy to walk you through what each can do for you. You can check out how well they can work with a new lawn seeding by checking out the grass strip in front of the store. It’s only 4 weeks old and has been mowed once already.

And that brings up the two workshops scheduled for September… REMEMBER to call the store to reserve your space!

Now for the descriptions of the workshops


Fall is THE time to rehab a lawn. Cool nights, warm days – just what a grass seed wants to thrive. Overseeding, reseeding, fertilizing are the tools needed to bring your lawn to life. Many lawns fight with compaction, lack of soil depth and poor-quality seed. We have a wide range of top-quality Jonathan Green grass seed and all of the fertilizers and other amendments needed to help green up any yard. Join us on 9/16, 1-2:30pm as we walk everyone through how to rehab a lawn. Call the store, 978-632-0991 – to reserve your space (space is limited!) $15.00

Fall Mineral Mixing

If you have a yard or garden then you probably know that gardens don’t always perform the way they’re supposed to. Most soils are damaged and are non-functional or intermittently functional. Poor nutrient cycling is inherent in how these damaged soils operate, but fall is THE time to fix this! Join us for a mineral mixing day at the store on 9/30, 1-2:30pm as we walk everyone through how to mix different minerals together to wake up and strengthen soil systems. Call the store, 978-632-0991 – to reserve your space (space is limited!) $15.00 plus the cost of the minerals you take with you.

And HEADS UP!!!!! The fall bulbs (with some fun species you probably won’t know) are due in by the third week of September – when it’s the RIGHT time to plant them. And – so is the garlic! 3 kinds plus some locally grown (that’s actually pretty good!). And plenty for everyone! Fall is THE time for work in the yard – enjoy!!

- The Good Earth

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