Planting root bound plants

Root-bound Plants

When this happens, the plant becomes “root-bound”. The roots will try to escape out any drain holes in the pots. In some cases, they will try to slip out of the soil and over the lip of the pot. And, in nearly every situation, the roots will begin to grow in overlapping circles that follow the inner walls of the container. As roots take over the interior space of the container, little room is left for soil to hold water, which may lead to root death. Allowing root-bound plants to continue to grow in this fashion will not only stunt the plant’s growth, but also it can bring about the plant’s overall demise.

In many cases, plants grown in decorative containers should be repotted from time-to-time. How often can depend on the type and number of plants in the container. The size of the container, the environment in which it is placed, and the sort of potting medium can also impact the frequency replanting is required. Many Japanese Maples, for instance, can grow slowly and live for many years in a large pot – but watch out that the plant doesn’t break through the bottom of the container and begin rooting into the soil below. Succulents like many Sedums and Echeverias can also live for many years in the same pot — just be careful to install them into a lightweight potting soil that doesn’t get soggy. Fast spreading perennials like Phlox, Bee balm & Black-Eyed Susans, on the other hand, may rapidly multiply, filling up a small container within a single growing season. The good news – when you repot these perennials, you’ll be able to divide them to make more plants!

With a little luck and good timing, sometimes simply sticking a tree in the ground and walking away can be enough for it to survive. But knowing how to plant a tree the right way, will ensure success every time. In my book, there are 7 steps for planting success which I share below.

Suffice it to say, I’ve learned these all-important st eps mostly by trial and error. It’s always the best way to learn, especially when it comes to gardening.

Trees have been described as the lungs of the earth for good reason. Without them, there would be no life on this planet. That’s reason enough to plant as many as we can. But when you learn just how important they are for so many reasons, you begin to understand my passion for trees and why we need more.

That’s led to a lifelong crusade to encourage people to plant more trees. Or even one. So it only stands to reason how thrilled I was to team up with Lands’ End recently to encourage everyone to #PlantATree in celebration of Earth Day this year.

So whether this is your first tree planting, or you’ve planted a forest by now, we’re always learning. Knowing how to plant a tree the right way — especially now, considering such unprecedented climate conditions — will ensure your efforts will not be in vain.

To give you the whole story, check out this video we created to walk you through how to plant a tree the right way, along with the 7-steps for getting it right every time.

The Best Time to Plant a Tree

Trees (and shrubs) can be planted any time of the year that you can dig the proper planting hole. However, there are better times than others for multiple reasons.

Suffice it to say, the more time you can put between when you plant a tree, and the arrival of summer, the better. That makes fall the very best time of year to relocate trees and shrubs or plant new ones. Early spring is a popular time as well.

An easy way to know if your hole is at the right depth is to take your shovel handle and lay it across the grade. The top of the root ball or tree flare should be at or above the handle level.

How to plant a tree the right way – follow these seven important steps:

-1. Prepare the proper planting hole. When preparing any hole for planting, make it three times wider than the current root mass but never deeper than the plant was growing in its previous environment.

An even better guide with trees is to look for the flare of the trunk near the soil level. Don’t place the tree in the planting hole so deep that any part of that flare is covered with soil. The truth is, even nurseries sometimes put plants in containers too deeply. There have been many times where I’ve actually had to pull away soil to find the base of the trunk flare and true surface roots. Make a habit of checking this.

-2. Plant high. I go even one step further by placing trees and shrubs in their new environment with up to 25% of the root ball higher than the surrounding soil level. I then taper soil up to cover all the roots and add a generous layer of mulch above that. Newly disturbed soil tends to settle and shrubs and trees planted at grade can quickly settle below grade and succumb to root rot or disease.

In my book, it’s always better to plant a tree or shrub slightly high and allow the area to drain away rather than for a plant to sit in a bowl and collect excess water.

Don’t be afraid to break up the roots of a pot plant tree or plant to free them of their circular growth pattern. In fact, you must. Failure to do so now (your last chance) can doom your plant to lackluster performance at best.

-3. Inspect the roots and disturb when necessary. Once the plant is out of its container, look at the roots. If they are densely bound in a circular pattern or have started growing in the shape of the container (even slightly), break up the pattern.

It’s vitally important to stop this pattern now. The biggest mistake you can make at this point is to place a rootbound plant into the ground as is. Unless you break up the pattern, you’ve likely sentenced the plant to a slow death. At a minimum, it will likely never establish or reach a fraction of its potential.

Don’t worry about hurting the roots or losing soil as you break the roots apart or even cut some away. Better to give them a fresh start than allow the constrictive pattern to only get worse below ground. While you don’t want to be any rougher than necessary, do what you must to arrest the pattern.

I often scratch my fingers across the sides and bottom of the root mass in mild cases. In more severe situations, I’ll slice up the roots vertically with a pruning saw, hack off the bottom inch or so, and or pull apart the root mass to clearly create new opportunities for non-circular new root development.

Unless you can dig a hole large enough for the eventual mature root zone and amend the entire area, simply backfill with the existing native soil.

-4. Don’t amend the soil. Contrary to traditional planting methods, contemporary research indicates that you should not amend the hole with additional organic material (unless you intend to amend the entire area where roots will eventually grow). Roots growing in amended soil rarely venture into harder native soil. The long-term affect is a smaller root system, reduced growth and a less hardy plant.

Instead, simply break up the clumps in existing soil, remove the rocks and backfill. Studies show plant roots growing in only the native soil actually did a better job at establishing and expanding beyond the original hole.

I find the best and easiest way to eliminate air pockets during planting is to blast the backfilled soil with a stiff stream of water after refilling the hole about half way. Then again after all the soil has been added back.

-5. Eliminate air pockets. While you could lightly tamp or hand-pack the soil around the plant roots to ensure good soil-to-root contact, I prefer to add a stiff spray of water to the hole after backfilling half way. Not only does it provide needed moisture but the water also helps eliminate air pockets that could otherwise result in dead roots or worse (without compacting the soil too much). Finally, water again gently but thoroughly once all the soil is in place.

-6. Add mulch. Starting about two inches from the trunk (leave this area exposed), place roughly two inches of organic matter such as shredded leaves, or ground bark or nuggets around the plant, at least out to the drip line. Further is better. Mulch helps retain much-needed moisture and helps keep roots cooler near the surface—a very important requirement for newly installed plants.

Perhaps the most important step during the planting process is to keep up with the watering until your plant is fully established. That can take longer than you think. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation on automatic times makes this an easy process.

-7. Water Properly Until Established. The most important job you will have after planting is to keep plants and trees well watered until established. This can take weeks to months, to even a year or more in some cases. But don’t worry. You can put this part of the process on auto-pilot. (I’ll tell you how below.)

The key to proper watering and establishment is slow and deep irrigation. It’s not practical to do that by hand. The only way to establish trees properly through irrigation is with soaker hoses or drip irrigation.

The slow and deep irrigation allows the soil around the roots to saturate, so the roots have time to absorb the moisture, while avoiding excess runoff. Short, manual blasts of water from an overhead hose or sprinkler system simply don’t come close to providing the same effectiveness for water delivery.

I water newly planted trees every day for about the first week. For the next two weeks, I ease off to about every other day. Then gradually ease back from there.

However, there’s a fine line between watering enough and watering too much—especially with large trees that arrive with root balls wrapped in burlap. These trees have lost all their feeder roots when dug from the ground. Providing adequate water is critical to their survival and establishment.

That said, I’ve killed more than one tree like this by overwatering. Even if you prepare a large planting hole, when drainage is poor, the root ball may be sitting in water and literally drown. There’s no easy way to know how wet the soil is deeper into the planting hole.

The best advice I can offer is to pay close attention to how the tree responds (and all your plants for that matter). While it’s common for them to lose up to half their leaves to transplant stress (a normal part of the process), more can indicate a potential problem.

If you sense the tree is responding poorly, and you are watering consistently, you’re likely over-watering. If the leaves are turning brown, drying up, and falling off, and the soil appears dry, water more.

To add to the challenge, soil that appears dry at the top may be very wet a few inches down. And the opposite is true as well. All the more reason it is important to apply your detective skills based on observation and knowing how much or little you’ve been watering.

In the first few weeks, soil that is moist but not soggy is your target range. And depending on what you’re using to deliver the water will affect how long you need irrigate per session. So there’s no simple answer.

Put Watering on Auto-pilot

One of the best time-savers you can find to lighten the load and put your irrigation duties on auto-pilot is to use soaker hoses and/or drip irrigation combined with portable battery-operated timers. I cannot stress the importance and time-saving benefits enough!


If you plant to fertilize, I don’t suggest doing so until you know your trees or shrubs have taken to their new environment through successful establishment.

All energy should be concentrated on root development first. Adopt the walk-before-you-run approach. But even then, I still like to play it safe by using a slow-release, non-burning organic fertilizer that won’t over-tax my plants.

While all the above steps are essential, your active engagement in monitoring newly planted trees for signs of distress over time will be the ultimate deciding factor in your tree planting success. Make any necessary adjustments in real-time, and you can likely reverse a potentially downward spiral into a tree that will live a happy and very long life.

Please join me this Earth Day and let’s all #PlantATree.

How to Repot a Houseplant

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When you have a plant that is very root bound and it is time to repot into a bigger pot, there is one important step that many people miss. And if you miss this step, your plant will not benefit from the repotting.

It may even continue to decline. I’ve already described in detail how to repot a plant in a previous post, which I’ll direct you to shortly.

But for now, what is this critical step? I felt that it was important enough to merit its own blog post, so here it is!

Loosening the Rootball

Loosening the rootball is a critical step in repotting a plant. A few months ago, I had a peace lily (Spathiphyllum) that I had in a big pot and I realized that the pot was probably too big for that size plant.

The plant was growing, but had started to decline slowly. So I decided to take it out of its pot to check it out.

What I found was a little shocking. No new roots had grown into the pot! And it had been in that pot for years! The roots stayed contained to the tight rootball, which I obviously did not loosen when I repotted. Shame on me!

Two Ways to Loosen the Rootball

There are two ways that I would recommend to loosen the rootball:

When I can, I will take the plant out of its pot and then use my hands to gently loosen the rootball. I’ll start at the bottom, and then work on the sides.

Gently pry and separate the roots to loosen them up a bit. You don’t have to go crazy, but this will go a long way in stimulating more root and plant growth once you repot.

Sometimes if you have a SUPER rootbound plant, especially plants with fine, tight and fibrous roots, it may not be possible to use your hands to loosen the rootball.

In these cases, simply take a sharp knife and make several slashes or cuts on the sides and at the bottom of the rootball.

Don’t worry about damaging a few roots here and there. They will recover, and your plant will be much better off!

If you have a tight rootball and you don’t take either of the measures mentioned above, your plant might suffer the same fate of my poor Spathiphyllum that I mentioned above (which is doing great now by the way!)

How to Loosen the Rootball

I have two pictorial examples of what a loosened rootball should look like. I used the first method described above where I used my hands to loosen the rootball.

This is a croton that was clearly in need of repotting. Take a look at the roots coming out from the bottom of the pot.

Once I took the plant out of the pot, this is what it looked like. The plant had slowly started to decline after being potbound for a while. It was crying out for help and I kept noticing yellowing leaves.

So I decided to stop procrastinating and took some action! Notice the tight rootball and mass of roots. Fortunately, it wasn’t beyond repair.

I held the rootball with both hands and started loosening the bottom of the rootball, and then I gently loosened the sides. After this point, I potted it up into its new pot.

Here is another example with a peace lily (different from the one I mentioned above). You can see the roots coming out of the bottom of the pot. This is an indication that it needs a bigger pot.

In order to take the plant out of this pot, I took my finger and inserted it into the drainage hole and gently pressed upwards. This helped in getting the plant out of its pot.

In extreme cases where the plant is refusing to budge, in order to prevent any damage by trying to pull the plant out, I simply take a hammer and break the pot! Not a big deal for clay pots since they are inexpensive.

Or if you have a thin plastic pot, you can take some sharp pruners and simply cut the pot off.

Note the mass of healthy roots!

Similar to the previous Croton example, I loosened the bottom of the rootball and the sides with my hands.

Another thing I noticed when I took the plant out was the build up of fertilizer salts at the surface of the soil. I simply brushed that soil out with my fingers.

Over time, as you fertilize, you may have build up of fertilizer salts. If too many accumulate, it may damage your plants. One good way to help mitigate this is to occasionally flush your plants with plain water and let everything drain away.

So don’t forget to loosen your rootball when you repot! For further detailed information on repotting, click HERE to read my blog post on repotting plants.

Houseplant Repotting 101

Spilled dirt is inevitable while repotting, so place newspaper or a plastic sheet under your old and new containers to catch the mess, or complete the project outside. Here’s all you’ll need:

  • A new container
  • Potting soil formulated for container plants
  • Scissors or a knife
  • A small piece of paper towel or a coffee filter
  • Transplant shock reducer, such as Pennington® Ultragreen® Plant Starter with B1

Once you have your supplies, follow these steps:

  1. Water your plant to soften the soil.
  2. Cover the new container’s drainage holes with your paper towel or coffee filter. This prevents soil from leaking out of the holes whenever the plant is watered.
  3. Add an inch or two of potting soil to the new container.
  4. While keeping your hand on the plant’s stem for support, tip the old container over until the plant slides free. If the plant doesn’t slip right out, gently tap the sides and bottom of container against a hard surface to loosen the root ball. Don’t yank or twist the plant.
  5. Inspect the plant’s root ball. Healthy roots are white, unblemished, odorless and not mushy.2
  6. Cut away any roots that look moldy or black, and any exceptionally long. Tease apart matted roots with your fingers, or use the knife or scissors to slice into them. Gently fluff the roots if coiled or wrapped into an overly tight ball.
  7. Set your plant into its new container. Add potting soil to the bottom of the planter until the base of the plant is one-half inch from the container’s lip. This will prevent water from overflowing when watering.
  8. Pour potting soil around the plant’s root ball, filling in any gaps. Be careful not to bury the stem of the plant or any of its leaves. Gently press the soil down with your fingers, but don’t compact it too tightly, or water won’t be able to easily penetrate the soil.
  9. Dilute the transplant shock reducer as per label directions, and then water your plant with the mixture.
  10. Top off the soil if it settles excessively after watering.
  11. Protect your plant from intense sunlight, and hold off fertilizing for a few weeks. Once that time has passed, encourage new growth with Alaska® All Purpose Dry Fertilizer NPK 6-4-6, which releases nitrogen slowly to nourish your plant over time.

Repotting in good-looking, stylish containers is a simple process that can greatly increase your chances of growing healthy houseplants.

Pennington® with design is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc. Ultragreen and Alaska are registered trademarks of Central Garden & Pet Company.


  1. Heather Rhodes, “Signs of a Root Bound Plant,” Gardening Know How
  2. Matt Kostelnick, “Plant Doctor: The Root of the Problem,” Ambius

Naturally, cannabis always grows in the ground, allowing it fully spread its roots as it pleases. However, this is not always practical, and if you live in a particularly cold area of the world, or in a place where discretion is key, you often have to grow indoors using containers. Whilst growing cannabis in containers has its own advantages, it also puts your cannabis at risk of becoming root bound, so it is important to recognize the signs, and learn how to both prevent and fix it.

What Is Root Bound?

To put it simply, it means that the roots of your cannabis have outgrown the space of the container. The roots become “bound” as they run out of room to grow, and are constrained by the walls of your container. Even cannabis plants grown outdoors can become root bound if planted near a few impervious barriers – such as walls, pipes, or concrete.

Looking For The Symptoms – Assessing If Your Plants Are Root Bound

The following symptoms are all signs that your cannabis could potentially be root bound:

  • Wilting
  • Stretching
  • Stunted growth
  • Easy to overfeed and burn, even with low nutrient mixes.
  • Requires watering more often than normal
  • Slower and smaller bud growth than usual
  • The plant container is warping, or being pushed out of shape (in the most severe cases).

If any of your cannabis plants are displaying these symptoms, and you fear that they may be root bound, the only way to truly tell is to take a look at the roots – which means you will have to remove your cannabis from its container – or check through holes from below, if possible.

Removing The Plant From Its Container

There are a couple of ways you can go about this, depending on how severely root bound your cannabis is. Whichever method you chose, make sure to be careful with your plant, and have a safe grip on it – you don’t want it to fall to the floor and become damaged when the container comes away.

The first thing to try is to simply see if your plant will come away from the container. To do this, carefully take a hold of the stem of your plant at its base – placing your hand flat on the top of the soil, with the stem in between your fingers can be a good way to do this. Turn the plant upside-down (in an area with plenty of room, so you don’t hit anything with it), and see if the container can be pulled off. If your cannabis is not badly root bound, it should come away pretty easily.

If you can’t simply pull the container off, try squeezing around it to loosen it up. If this doesn’t work, or if the container is made of a hard material, you can try taking a long thin knife and using its back edge to work your way around the edges of the container. Take great care here, as you want to cause as minimal damage as possible to the roots until you know what the situation is. Should your plant be so severely root bound that even the knife won’t work, or if you simply don’t want to try it, then the only option left in to break the container.

Checking The Roots

Now that you have your cannabis out of its container, take a look at the root ball. The roots should be running a tight circle around the shape of the container. Try digging your fingers into the outer layers in order to loosen them up.

In a worst case scenario, you will find that the root ball is too tight and developed to simply loosen them by hand. In this situation you can prune the roots to break the circular growth. Note, when you do this, you only want to be cutting the thin thread roots, not the thick tap roots. Cutting a tap root can have serious consequences on the health of your plant. To do so, take a sharp knife and make 2 or 3 incisions into the outside of the root ball. These incisions should cut from top to bottom, evenly spaced around it. This will help break the circular pattern of growth, and allow the roots to grow outwards when replanted.


Now that your roots can grow outwards, it is time to replant in a container that has adequate room for expanded root growth. Fill your container with soil, dig a hole in it, and settle the root ball within – ensuring that you do not cover the top of the root ball in a thick layer of soil. It is important not to compact the soil too tightly, as this could prevent root penetration. A good way to ensure your soil is properly settled is to water it as you are adding layers. It’s also a good opportunity to add in any root boosting/stimulating feeds you may have.

If you didn’t use any root stimulator, then feed your replanted cannabis with a weak fertiliser solution. Your cannabis is going to be quite sensitive for a few days, so it is also wise to turn down the intensity of your lights when growing indoors, or move your plants out of direct sunlight when growing outdoors. Cannabis can take anywhere between 1 day to 2 weeks to fully settle in, you will know it is time to return to normal lighting when you start seeing new growth aboveground.

The Best Solution Is Prevention

Although we have outlined how to deal with a root bound plant, the best way is to prevent it from ever happening in the first place. Ensure that the container you choose is big enough to accommodate your cannabis from the start, that way you will never have to worry with dealing with a root bound plant.

Root Bound

Root-bound plants often wilt quickly. It is not uncommon for a root-bound plant to start to suffer from yellowing or dead foliage. It may also exhibit stunted growth. Often, the sheer force of the plant’s root system pushing outwards as it grows might deform the pot as it attempts to spread its roots out of the container’s confines.

Clay, ceramic, or glass pots frequently break under the pressure from a root-bound plant. A severely root-bound plant will form a mass of roots and contain very little soil when removed from the container. A root-bound plant will need to be transplanted outdoors in the garden, replanted in a larger container, or have some of its root mass pruned away. Some root-bound plants can also be divided and planted in more than one container.

To avoid root-bound plants in a container garden, some growers opt for fabric containers, or Air Pots, both of which allow a plant’s root zone to breathe. As roots are exposed to air, they are air-pruned, rather than risk being bound by the container’s impermeable wall. Another way to avoid root-bound plants is to transplant often.

First off, don’t buy root bound plants. It’s just a bad business, trouble and tears. In general, you should always try to buy the youngest plants you can find. They are healthier than plants which have spent more time in a pot, and will quickly grow to match the size of older, more expensive–and more likely than not–root bound plants.

How do you know if the plant is root bound? Look at the bottom of the pot and see if roots are poking out the bottom. This is a bad sign. Don’t be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check its condition. If you see more roots than soil, this is a bad thing. If you’re buying fruiting or flowering seedlings, look for the ones which have not yet flowered, even though the ones which have flowered are cuter and may look like they have more promise. They’d don’t. They’re flowering or fruiting out of desperation to spread their seed before they expire in their pot prisons.

But sometimes we end up with a root bound plant. This week, in a fit of madness which doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect, Erik and I broke our own rules, doing two things we never do: We 1) bought a couple of plants at The Home Despot and 2) we bought these plants in gallon-sized pots. The plants had already put up flowers. And yes, of course they were root bound. Extraordinarily so. They were living in dense pots made of their own roots.

As I tried to resuscitate and plant these babies, I realized that I should post this technique on the blog, in case it might be helpful to others. Forgive the photos. Erik wasn’t around to help me take them, and the battery on the camera was flashing red, but I needed to get those plants in the ground as quickly as possible. I only had time for a couple of bad shots.

How to Save Root Bound Plants

First off, I’ve found that root bound plants are often dehydrated plants, because the pots are mostly full of roots, making the soil hard and water repellent. If this is so, it helps to give the plants a good soaking before you un-pot them by placing them in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Method A) Mildly root bound plants can be helped along by gently massaging the root ball with your hands just before planting to loosen the roots and open the ball if it has become hard-packed. If there are any big, long roots circling the root ball, trim those short. You can do a similar thing with a hose to open up the soil and loosen the root ball.

Method B) If your plant is extremely root bound, as mine were today, you’ll find you can’t simply work the roots apart with your fingers because they’ve formed a sort of impervious mat or pseudo-pot of themselves. In this case, you have to be ruthless. Get yourself a sharp knife and make long vertical cuts down the sides of the root ball–how many depends on the size of plant, and what you think is best, but I find I usually make 3 to 5 cuts. These cuts do violence to the roots, but will allow new root growth at the cut sites, giving the plant a chance to spread its roots out in your garden’s soil, instead of trying to live within its own, self-made prison.

In these extremes cases, there is also usually a thick mat of tangled roots at the bottom of the root ball, pressed into the exact shape of the pot bottom. I tear this layer off. Then I put my thumbs up the middle of the root ball and stretch it open just a little if necessary, gently, to make sure the center is soft and not rock hard or densely tangled.

Get your plants in the ground as soon as you can after these operations. If possible, work in the shade, or in the early morning or evening, so the plants don’t spend much time with their tortured root balls exposed to the midday sun. Water well, and maybe top dress the new plantings with a handful of worm castings, or water with worm casting tea, or some other kind of plant pick-me up, to apologize to them for all of the rough handling.

It is very important to watch your plants closely after transplanting. They are like critical care patients until they begin to grow new roots. Until that time, you’ll likely have to water them more frequently than a normal plant, because their root structure is all messed up. If the sun is strong, provide them with some shade. Also consider mulching to slow down water loss. Baby them as much as you can.

No plant wants to be handled this way but with luck and care, the plant might do well afterward. The only alternative is planting it root bound, and no root bound plant can thrive. As in its pot, it will be hard to water, and it will live a short, sad life, always sickly and constrained, if it makes it at all.

As a caveat, I know of a few types of plant which can’t abide any fooling with their roots at all, like bougainvillea, for one, but if you buy a root bound plant, or allow one of your own seedlings to get that way, you really don’t have much of choice, or much to lose, so give it a try.

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It’s easy to spot problems in your houseplants when they are visible in the leaves or flowers. What about potential issues that are going on under the soil, with the roots?

Don’t forget to take care of your plants even when you can’t see what’s going on. In particular, we’re talking about when a plant outgrows its container, and how to fix a root bound plant.

What Is “Root Bound”?

Even though you never see it, there is a lot of growth going on inside that pot. And eventually, the roots are going to run out of space to grow properly. As they come up against the inside surfaces of the container, they start to grow in a circular direction in the only way they can.

This is where the problem comes in. Once the roots start that pattern of growing around in a circle, even transplanting to a bigger pot won’t be of much help. The roots will continue that same behavior, no matter how much extra space they have. In other words, they stay all cramped up in an unhealthy ball no matter how big of a container they move into.

Why It’s a Problem

You have to remember that the soil in the pot isn’t just an anchor to keep your plant standing upright. There is a lot going on under the surface of your potting soil, and bound up roots will be detrimental to the plant.

For one thing, a container that is filled up with roots isn’t going to have enough dirt in it to hold a sufficient amount of water for the plant. You will continue to water as usual, yet the water will flow much faster through the pot, leaving the plant high and dry almost immediately.

Another aspect of this is that there are also a lot fewer nutrients in a pot full of roots. This leads to a malnourished plant that will not thrive. There needs to be more soil.

How to Tell If a Plant Is Root Bound

It’s not an easy problem to notice because there aren’t a lot of obvious signs that a plant is outgrowing a container or getting root bound.

One clear symptom is that you start to see roots growing out of the drainage holes in the bottom of your container. Besides that, most plants will give the same symptoms of under-watering, with yellowing or wilting leaves.

Does your plant look disproportionately large for the container? That can be another sign that it’s getting crowded inside the pot. Lighter weight plastic pots can even start to be misshapen as the force of the growing roots pushes out from the inside.

If you suspect that your plant needs a bigger home, the only real test is to get a little dirty and remove it from the pot to see the roots directly. Are they taking up more space in the pot than the soil, or clearly circling around in search of more room? Time to get a bigger container and move your plant.

How to Transplant

The only solution for fixing a root bound plant is to move it to a larger container to give the roots proper space to grow and unfurl. If you’ve caught your plant before the roots are seriously bound up, you can just repot and let the plant stretch out into the new space on its own. But as we mentioned earlier, a root bound plant will need a little more care to fix the problem.

You’ll need a larger pot, and one that is big enough to last a while so you’re not having to do this chore too often. If your plant space is getting crowded and you just can’t find a spot for a huge container, you may need to consider splitting the plant into two instead. You will also need a bag of potting soil. Having some newspaper or a drop cloth can also be helpful so you don’t make a mess all over the room.

In the new pot, add a layer of fresh soil that is deep enough so that when the root ball is set inside, the top of it is about an inch below the rim of the pot (you need to allow room for water). Spread your fingers over the surface of the soil in the existing pot, and brace it while you flip the pot upside down. Ideally, the it should slide out into your hand while doing no damage to the plant. If the roots are seriously protruding from the drainage holes, you will have to trim them first to set the plant free.

Now set the root ball in the center of the new pot, and double-check that you are leaving that gap of space at the top. For a heavily bound-up plant, you will need to loosen up the matted roots to encourage the plant to grow outward again to use the new soil in the pot. Gently pull them apart, and even do a little snipping to encourage fresh new roots to start growing.

With the plant sitting in the middle of the new container, pour fresh soil in to fill the space, gently patting it down as you go. Give the plant a thorough watering, and add more soil if necessary (the water can make fresh soil settle downward). That’s all there is to it.

Preventing Root Binding

There is nothing you can do to slow down your plant’s growth to keep it comfortable in the same small container indefinitely. The key is to get the plant moved to a larger pot before it fully outgrows the original container.

Take regular peeks at the drainage holes to look for protruding roots, or just assume that a larger pot is necessary every year or so rather than waiting for problems to show themselves.

Soil Improvements

While we are talking about containers and root health, it can be helpful to know more about fertilizer options to ensure that your houseplants are getting all the nutrients they need. Which type of fertilizer will depend on the type of plant you are dealing with.

Is it mainly a green plant, that you grow for the foliage rather than the flowers? Then you want to keep a higher nitrogen formula around for them. If you prefer a natural option, find a product made with seaweed emulsions or blood meal for this. Flowering or fruiting plants? Add something with more phosphorus instead, and keep the nitrogen a little lower. Bone meal and fish emulsions are good.

In either case, a commercial formula will be labeled with 3 numbers, known as its N-P-K rating. The first number is nitrogen (higher for the green plants) and the second one is phosphorus (choose higher for flowers).

Indoor or Out?

We’ve mainly been talking about root bound plants from an indoor or houseplant perspective because that is the most common situation that leads to pot bound plants. The truth is, it can happen to your outside plants as well, given the right circumstances. Obviously, the first possibility is any outdoor container plants, in which case, you handle them like any root bound houseplant.

But roots can get bound up against underground obstacles you aren’t aware of. Large rocks, a foundation, pipes or pretty much anything else can be under your garden bed that you don’t know about, restricting the root growth of your outdoor plants.

When this happens, you will have to either dig up the plants and remove the obstacle, if it is something movable (like a big stone). Otherwise, you will need to find a new location altogether that has more space for the roots of your plants to grow.

As you can see, dealing with good root health in houseplants can be more in-depth than you may have though. So take good care of your indoor garden and make sure to move your plants before they burst from their pots.

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71shares How to Fix a Root Bound Plant (When It’s Outgrown Its Container) was last modified: March 26th, 2019 by The Practical Planter

Saving Root Bound Tree

Hi Baby(jn)! Stopped by the nursery today — bought a bag of their Top Pot mix and asked what I could tell someone who didn’t live nearby, to do. The nursery is owned by a couple and today I talked with the woman, Nancy. She said Top Pot is made of more or less equal amounts of ground sphagnum peat moss, fine pumice, and fine perlite, plus a smaller amount (about a third as much by volume) of (quartz) sand, and a much smaller amount of untreated charcoal. And that you could use more sand (they don’t use more because the bags would be too heavy!), and the charcoal is optional. You can buy most of those ingredients in small to medium bags, at nurseries/garden centers/some hardware stores. The charcoal you may have trouble getting in small enough packages to be worth it, but Nancy said it was not mandatory! Do not use aquarium or other filtering charcoal, and for sure do not break up any briquettes! Also your hardware may only have large bags of sand meant for adding to cement (to make concrete) — a reason to go to a nursery or garden center — you can look for uncolored play sand (NOT kinetic sand haha), or go to a beach and scoop up a couple gallon ziplocs. If you collect your own you might want to swish it with water in a pail or dishpan, let it settle, and pour off the clear-ish water from the top, repeat until truly clear. That’s to wash out any dead stuff! Also pick out any larger gravel. So, like, a quart (or a big gulp cup!) of each of the first three ingredients, half that much sand (or up to the same amount if you got a lot), and a (measuring) cup or less of charcoal. Mix well with a trowel or wooden spoon or something. You are probably going to have some or all of the ingredients left over. If you were lucky enough to get about equal size bags (of the four main ingredients), you could mix them all up and save as future potting mix! Normally, you would re-pot a plant that was moist or recently watered, but considering you WANT to get rid of old dirt, you probably want to "operate" on fairly dry roots. You tell this by how much/little the pot weighs! After removing as much of the old dirt as you can (without tearing too many healthy roots), re-pot with your mix as I think I said in earlier post. After doing that, submerge the pot up to just over the soil line (you’ll have to hold it or weight it to keep it from turning on its side) in UNSOFTENED water, until the bubbles stop coming up. This is necessary because dry peat moss HATES to get wet! It repels water, so you will have to do this anytime your plant gets TRULY dry. OTOH, too much water is not good either because the roots need oxygen. So don’t leave it too long submerged, and if you put it in a dish, check back and dump any significant water so it’s not sitting with "wet feet". Practice hefting the pot to tell how moist it is, or stick your finger one inch down in the dirt is another method — when it’s DRY that deep, they say to water (submerging not necessary if damp below that). Save some of your mix to fill in any divots that form after you have watered from the top a few times, caused by the mix sifting down into pockets around the roots. So because there is no fresh organic matter in this mixture (intentionally), you WILL have to feed your plants. I would be comfortable recommending this one: DR-EARTH-16-oz-Liquid-Solution-3-3-3-All-Purpose-Fertilizer which you should be able to find somewhere in person and not pay the shipping (!) on over a pound of liquid. At 3-3-3, it is dilute enough you can follow the instructions and ignore what I said about half-strength or less. The only thing about this Dr.Earth is that it contains "nutrients for helpful soil organisms" that won’t be present in your mix, and probably not too many in your distressed plants as they are. If you want to "follow" me, I think we can then personal-message each other, and I would sent you a small amount of another Dr.Earth product, that would inoculate your pots with good organisms! I forgot to ask Nancy about root pruning so here are a couple links: Search on root pruning houseplants This looks like a good one with after-care! Wow, it’s late! I’ll sign off now. Let me know if more questions.

Garden Fundamentals – become a better gardener

In my last post I described the right way to plant a tree or shrub. If you follow that process you will have success most of the time. Today, I’d like to look at a new method for planting trees that involves washing roots before planting.

Science does not stand still. Tree researchers are continually looking at ways to improve the planting process and in recent years a new way of handling the tree roots has come to light. It goes against everything that makes common sense, but it does seem to work. I have used the new method for a couple of years now on over 50 trees and I am quite happy with the results. Researchers have been testing the process for a much longer time.

Washing Roots Before Planting Trees

Root Ball Problems

Before I describe the new way method of washing roots, it is instructive to look at current issues with root balls. Only then will you understand why washing roots works.

Girdled Tree Roots

Most trees start out as liners. These are small seedlings, grown in very small pots. The growers produce thousands of liners of the same type of tree. It is the only way to make the process efficient.

Liners are then sold to other nurseries, who usually put them into a larger pots or into the ground and grow them for several years until they get bigger. Plants in pots are moved into larger pots as they grow. During this time they move from wholesale nurseries to retail nurseries.

If the process is done correctly, the root ball will never get root bound. But in today’s busy world it is much more likely that the roots become root bound and start circling the inside of the pot. It costs nurseries too much time and money to fix the problem, so they just stick them into a bigger pot, hoping things will work out.

It is quite possible that the tree you buy is not root bound, but inside of the root structure there exists an old root bound clump of circulating roots. If you follow the standard planting technique you will never know that you have a problem.

Is it a problem? Not while the tree is small, but as it grows it can become a big problem. As the roots expand in size they strangle each other and this can lead to the death of the tree.

Girdled tree roots

The picture above shows a tree that was root bound when it was planted. It died a couple of years later with this root system. The roots continued to grow in a circular pattern and never really entered the native soil. It never developed a proper root system. This was OK for a short while, but as the top of the tree got larger, the roots could not keep up and the tree died. This type of problem can be corrected at planting time if the roots are washed so that you can see the problem.

For a more detailed look at the problems created by girdling roots have a look at ref 1.

Root Ball Planted Too Deep

Each time the tree is moved from a pot to a larger pot, it is important that the tree is planted at the right height. That takes extra time and costs extra money. Many nurseries just don’t bother getting it right. They need a high level of productivity so they just plop the small root ball into a bigger pot, and fill it with soil.

It is not really a big deal. The tree does not spend much time in the pot and being planted too deep will not harm it too much in this short period of time. The real problem comes when you get it home and you follow the advice of most people, and plant the tree at the same height as it was in the pot. If you do this there is a chance the tree will die in future years because it will be planted too deep.

Keeping Soil On The Root Ball

Almost all the advice you read, or get from friends or the nursery will advise you not to disturb the soil around the roots. This makes perfect sense. As soon as you disturb the soil around the roots you will also damage the roots. The fine root hairs break very easily – you can’t help but damage the roots.

However, you also don’t want to leave the root ball in the soil the nursery used. It is important to get the roots into your native soil so they can start growing in your soil. I will explain why in another post. Bottom line, you want to get rid of the soil around the roots.

This is a big dilemma. Remove the soil and damage the roots, which is not good for the tree or don’t damage the roots and leave the soil, which is not good for the tree.

Washing Roots

The solution to all of the above problems is to wash all or most of the soil off the roots so that you can see existing problems. If there is a problem, fix it before planting the tree. Everything else about planting a tree is the same as described in my last post, Planting Trees the Right Way.

Remove the tree from the pot or burlap wrapping. Place it in a tub or wheelbarrow that is big enough to accommodate the whole root ball. Take a hose, turn it on high and start spraying the root ball. Knock off all of the potting material. As the wheelbarrow fills with water, try gently shaking the tree in the water. Use your fingers to remove potting material. You want to remove all or most of the soil from around the roots.

If the roots are root bound this process can take several minutes – take the time needed to do the job correctly.

Correcting Root Problems

With all of the soil removed, you can now clearly see what the roots are doing. You can also see the root flare where the upper roots leave the trunk. The root flare determines the new planting height.

If you see circulating roots, it is a good idea to cut them so that they are no longer circulating. This will seem drastic but it is important. Having fewer straight roots is better than having a lot of circulating roots.

Washing Roots – Does Science Agree?

One of the great things about science is that the so-called ‘accepted’ information is able to change. This is especially true of new discoveries.

Washing roots on trees is new science. Some scientists say this is best for trees. But other scientists don’t agree. A great source of information about gardening comes from a group called The Garden Professors. They have both a blog – The Garden Professors Blog, and a Facebook page – The Garden Professors.

The professors don’t agree on this topic. For more on this see their blog post about washing tree roots.

I have been washing roots on trees for a couple of years now. On some trees washing did not make much difference. The trees had been grown properly and were not root bound – there was no problem to fix. In other cases I found one or more problems and washing roots allowed me to fix the problems. The trees recovered quite well after washing and I currently use the technique on all trees and shrubs.

One of my pine trees that had been in the ground for about 5 years died this spring. This was planted using the old technique where I just removed the plant from the pot and placed it into the ground – soil and all. This was before I started washing roots. When I removed the tree, the roots looked just like the above picture – roots going around in circles. In 5 years very few roots had left the original hole in which it was planted. The tree simply out grew the poor root system.

There is one additional piece of advice. Since the process of washing roots does damage the roots, it becomes even more important to water the tree well for the first year. It is also very important to keep it mulched which keeps the roots cool and prevents loss of water from the soil.

Tree Death by Strangulation

Ever wonder why you should remove burlap, string and wire baskets?

Best Time to Plant Trees

This is discussed in the post, Best Time to Plant Trees

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