The Q&A Archives: Care for root-bound plants

Question: Last year at a nursery I purchased some root bound shrubs in containers on sale, but they didn't survive the winter. Is there anything I can do to root bound shrubs in the future to ensure a successful transplant? E.T. Richardson Springfield, PA

Answer: With a root bound shrub, it's important to loosen the root ball, says Chuck Flinn, forester with Musser Forest, a grower of containerized trees and shrubs in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Remove the plant from the container, and with your hands or a pair of pruning shears, untangle the roots. If a major root has completely encircled the pot, prune off at least a quarter of it and pull out that portion of the root. A circling root might strangle other roots as it enlarges over the years; pruning prevents that tendency and helps stimulate new root growth. Loosening the root ball also provides better contact between the roots and the soil. Without this treatment there's a danger that the roots would tend to stay in the old root ball, Flinn explains. Root bound shrubs that require root pruning before transplanting are best planted in spring to early summer. Well grown containerized plants can be transplanted safely anytime of year that you can dig the ground, adds Flinn. It's crucial to water all new plants at least once a week for their first year. Apply a small amount of liquid fertilizer when you transplant, to help stimulate root growth. And mulch the plants three to four inches deep to conserve moisture.

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