Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Rootbound Plants

"Suburban plant junk" is one of my stock phrases. It aptly characterizes most residential neighborhood landscapes. I picked it up from Judith Larner Lowry, author of Gardening with a Wild Heart: restoring California's native landscapes at home.

To the discerning eye most woody plants in Californian suburbia look somewhat unhealthy -- and so they are. Most began life in containers. I believe almost all of them -- before ever being planted out in the landscape -- were seriously compromised by that initial container confinement.

It has long been my custom, whenever I dig up a dead or unwanted plant, to take some time to study its root system, especially near the crown. Almost invariably its original container confinement has left its lasting mark -- revealing itself as a prime cause of poor health or death. I highly recommend conducting a post-mortem inspection of the roots on every dead or "dud" plant! Crippling container confinement is often in evidence!

Getting overgrown at the 2" or 4" container stage compromises a plant for life. Sometimes the critical confinement is the gallon or 5 gallon stage. Not uncommonly, I suspect, a plant's root system is compromised, slightly or severely, at every stage of its containerized existence!

A plant's severely kinked or tightly twisted roots impinge upon themselves as they grow. They self-strangulate -- when thus a significant portion of the root system is "cut off" from the exchange of sap, stunting or death ensues. Sometimes a small twisting root girdles a major root; or two or more major roots girdle each other; or the whole root system may simply twist so tightly as to preclude its expansion in girth beyond a certain point. Common outcomes are less than optimum vigor, early decline or death. A compromised specimen often grows just so large and then stalls, permanently stunted.

Some plants with twisted roots yield a twisted top, as if to balance what lies below. When aerial portions of a plant display poor conformation, the roots are often worse! Woody plants should taper out into the ground all around the crown. Lack of taper on one side indicates a girdling root, often evident even in gallon or five gallon specimens.

Some naive growers assume a plant's root system will "straighten itself out". Not so, especially for woody species. "As the twig is bent, so it grows" is true for roots, too.

For many species, an extensive well-formed root system is the prime mechanism of drought tolerance -- an impossible outcome for crippled root structures. Root-crippled plants require more irrigation. It may not be possible to wean root-crippled specimens of even normally quite drought-tolerant species off of irrigation.

The aerial portions of a plant may look acceptable even though its roots are largely dead. Not uncommonly people pick up small plants at a discount outlet, not realizing that most of the roots died from poor care while awaiting sale. Hint: fine roots that are brown inside and out are usually a bad sign! Savvy buyers often inspect the roots.

A lot of plants get off to a slow start in the landscape because they are in poor condition at the time of planting. Cripped to begin with, many will never attain optimum growth or health.

8 Comments:

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Nate West said...

So if virtually all 1 gallon 5 gallon and 15 gallon plants have damaged roots. How do we come up with a better alterative from getting plants from a nursery to their final home?

 
At 12:24 AM, Blogger Jeffrey Caldwell said...

Grow your own plants from seed sown where the plants are to grow. Or grow your own in containers, exercising your own quality control, or transplant self-sown seedlings from garden or wild settings. When you buy plants -- as most of us must -- exercise due diligence -- check them out and seek out and support better growers. Watch out for danger signs mentioned in the article, particularly woody crown bases with no taper!

 
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