Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
October, 2008
Regional Report

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Rootbound shrubs like this azalea need roots loosened -- opened up to air, soil nutrients, and water -- for healthy growth.

Tease My Roots

Imagine your feet bound, restricted to one or two pairs of plastic shoes -- from tentative toddler steps to teenage growth spurt. Ouch! Tight fit.

Picture the typical nursery-grown shrubs and trees whose roots weave 'round and 'round each other from their first days in small poly-cells to saleable 5-gallon to 15-gallon black plastic pots. We've all seen the end-product -- densely root-bound plants difficult to remove from their pots.

Recently the dilemma of root-bound shrubs popped up in two situations. We had several azaleas to plant in a new garden bed. Roots en masse pushed out the pots' drainage holes. Shrubs would not be coaxed, cut, or thumped out of their containers. So I slipped a utility knife into bottom holes, pulled the blade up to the pot rim, and roughly peeled off the black plastic shells. Inside, a round hunk of brown, thickly massed roots desert-dry to the touch and a cup or two of bark chips.

On another property, 11 of 30 hollies planted about a year and a half ago looked like they were dying. Leaves curled under, browning, dropping; upper branches and branch tips were crisp and bare. After some speculation, we popped out one holly to check the roots. Though they'd been watered by drip irrigation for many months, the dry roots were just as fibrously massed as when planted. They hadn't grown a smidgen -- not even a quarter inch beyond the original nursery root ball. The roots circled back and hugged themselves so tightly no water could reach inside.

Unfortunately this commercial installation isn't unusual. It's quick and easy to dig a hole, pull a root-bound shrub from a pot, plop it in the hole, and leave. Planting that way is wrong -- WRONG.

Each holly cost the property owner $50 plus planting labor. That's minimum $1,500 for shrubs destined to die. The year's guarantee was up. What to do? Replace them all or try to save them?

We spent a long afternoon digging up those 11 hollies then cutting and loosening the roots with pruners and a substantial, sharp-toothed, stainless steel Japanese garden knife. Besides clipping away sides and bottom of each root ball, we had to pierce the top deeply and cut wide holes for water to penetrate, to reach the inner roots.

We clipped the thick roots circling around the ball then pulled them free. We gently tugged the fibrous roots loose and the original nursery bark mix fell away.

To give replants a fighting chance, we sprinkled kelp meal, a slow-release mineral fertilizer, a pinch of water-absorbing crystals, and handfuls of humus in their planting holes. We watered, watered, and watered, soaking and soaking and soaking those dry roots -- then watered again with diluted liquid kelp.

The property owner has been watering every two or three days. We're on the lookout for signs of new green leaves emerging, buds forming.

If this works, I expect we'll replant the rest -- before they're on the brink. The moral: tease out those roots and plant correctly the first time.

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