Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
November, 2010
Regional Report

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Jenny Rose Carey, director of the Landscape Arboretum of Temple University, demonstrates removing peat and bark media from a root ball before transplanting.

Shake Your Root Ball

"Be more brutal than you can imagine" isn't your usual gardening advice. It was Jenny Rose Carey's "hottest tip," though, on a recent tour of her quite diverse Northview gardens near Temple University's Ambler campus.

Carey is the Director of the Landscape Arboretum of Temple University. When she speaks horticulture, the wise listen. We're a fortunate Landscape Management class at Temple/Ambler's Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture. We were there to learn Carey's hows and whys for sustainable gardening in the Delaware Valley.

As we walked into her new Sunset garden, she reached for a small, blue-green needled evergreen in a black nursery pot. She turned the evergreen upside down and tapped; the root ball slipped out. She held the plant firmly. She showed no mercy when pulling and shaking the black nursery media from the roots.

"Be more brutal than you can imagine," Carey insisted. "When planting, remove all peat and nursery soil, then rough up the roots." Why? Removing the growers' peat/bark mix gives roots space and opportunity to spread, to reach into their new garden soil. Loosening the roots redirects them, frees them to experience the nutrients, air, and moisture in their new environment.

Containers Contain
Trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses grown in typical nursery pots are often root-bound. Their roots grow round and round, in and amongst themselves inside the pot. Water can't easily penetrate that dense mass, whether the plant is in the container or planted in the ground.

Think about your last young azalea or pieris or spruce that died. When you pulled it out, I'm betting the root ball was about the same size and shape as when it was planted this spring, last year, two years ago. It was fibrous, brown and dried up.

The roots didn't grow out and take advantage of their new space, soil and moisture. They continued to grow, but minimally, in and around themselves as if still in the nursery pot. Rain bounced off leaves and branches, seldom finding way to that small root ball.

A healthy shrub, tree or perennial that's adapted well resists being removed. Some roots are thick and reach far. They're doing their job, anchoring the plant, growing to access food and water.

Which reminds me of a climbing rose whose base was like a 14-inch, solid tree trunk; its anchor roots 4 inches thick. The owner and I used a pick ax, a hand saw and a battery-powered chain saw to remove it from an entrance arbor. With that huge base, root hold, aggressive branching and prickly thorns, the rose had overgrown its space and overstayed its welcome.

Next time you plant, don't just pop out the plant, dig a hole, and plop in the plant. Think about Carey's prescription for "rough, tough love." Give your "green" investment a fighting chance. Tease the roots, pull away the nursery mix, transplant thoughtfully, and water generously.

Another Carey Tip for Sustainable Gardening
Accept imperfection. Don't try to make your garden pest-free and perfect. Allow some infestation through the use of Integrated Pest Management. Here's an opportunity to educate visitors and other gardeners about Nature's dynamics.

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