Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
September, 2004
Regional Report

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The remains of a now-deceased, root-bound shrub make for riveting show-and-tell.

Pining Little Mugo

The mugo pine in question didn't linger and wane; instead it died outright over the course of about two weeks. Until then, it seemed to be fine, a compact, dwarf shrub with healthy if somewhat slow growth. In retrospect, maybe the growth was a little too compact, although I had ascribed that to my breaking off a portion of each new growth tip or candle in the spring. Someone else planted the shrub several years ago, and honestly it seemed okay. Until it just up and died.

I found this perplexing. The symptoms were peculiar. I did vaguely notice it turning a slightly different color -- a paler, washed-out version of its normal, deep, piney green. There was no obvious sign of pest or disease, no breakage, no root damage, no changes to the growing environment. It just looked "off," the way children do when they are "coming down with something." In this case, the something was terminal, and one morning on my way to the mailbox I saw that it was definitely dead.

What happened? Sadly, the detective work did not require specialized skills worthy of a crime scene investigator. I quickly discovered the cause of death by examining the physical evidence. When I tried to remove it from the garden, it came out with just one good tug!

This poor plant had never rooted right. The roots had grown around and around in a circle, never penetrating the surrounding soil. The plant strangled itself.

This could have been prevented had the roots been untangled and spread outward at planting time, or if they had been cut to eliminate their circular growth pattern at that time. This seemingly vicious and counterproductive attack on precious roots at planting time is critical to long-term health. There is no second chance.

So-called root-bound or pot-bound plants often show vague symptoms in the landscape, either failing to grow and sulking, or looking stressed or stunted, perhaps discoloring or defoliating in mid-season.

Many nurseries are offering plants on clearance sale right now, and fall is a great time for planting. But if a plant you purchase has encircling roots, deal with them now, or one day it may curl up its toes like my little mugo pine.

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