Tough love sometimes needed for strong roots

"Teasing" roots is an important part of the planting process.
"Teasing" roots is an important part of the planting process.

Gardening season is almost in full swing! The garden centers are filling with plants of every color, shape, and size. We are mesmerized by it all, but we often ignore the most important part. The part we almost never see — the root system.
Just as a home is only as good as the foundation it is built upon; plants are exactly the same. And they never seem to get the respect they deserve. After all, they are only the way plants take in most of their nutrients and moisture. Not to mention, roots are what anchor our plants in the ground.
The anchor function of the root system is never more obvious than after yet another spring storm. The news starts with that picture of some huge tree, uprooted by intense winds. Next time you see that image, I want you to look a little closer and notice that tree roots are shallower than many people assume. And when pulled up in a storm, you can see how wide — not deep — they are.
Most of our plants, except for root vegetables and a few flowers and woody plants, have this fibrous root system that grows more out than down and creates thousands of little roots spreading in all directions — wide, but not deep.
I often get calls from someone, after having some construction done at their home, say they notice a tree that appears half dead in the canopy. When I ask about how close the heavy trucks and equipment came to the tree, the reply was that it was “far away” from the tree — at least 5 inches from the trunk.
But now you know, the root system extends all the way out to the dripline of the tree. The dripline is the area of the tree where the farthest out branches grow. Draw an imaginary line to the ground at that point. That is where the roots extend to, and the most sensitive area where the new roots are forming.
It is those little white roots, thin as a strand of hair, that do the most work for the plant. Like our body’s circulatory system, the real action takes place in our capillaries, those tiny roots, and their root hairs are where nutrients and water are up taken, and waste materials discharged.
That is why the singular most important action you can do before planting a new plant is to make sure those roots are pointed outward and downward. This often takes some significant action on our part, as plants are often container-bound.
Sometimes, you notice while inspecting the six pack of annuals you’re about to buy that they have been in that container so long, they’ve grown into their flat. But even if that is not the case, often when we take plants out of their pots, you only see white roots, so thick and encircling the plant, that you can’t hardly see the soil.
It is crucial to take action and tease those roots, or as I tell kids, “Tickle the roots” until they are hanging outward and downward. Why is this so important? Because roots will continue to grow in the direction they are already growing.
So, if you leave those circling roots as they are, the only water and nutrients the plant will get are those of the outside roots. You might have even had the situation where when you start pulling up the plants in the fall, you see the root system is still in the shape of that six-pack or gallon pot you bought them in-not good. That plant probably was, at best, only a fair performer.
But gardeners are plant lovers, and often when I am doing a container demonstration and show how to tease the plant roots so they are loose and open, there are lots of squeamish looks and someone always asks, “Aren’t you hurting the plant?” Absolutely not, think of it as a little tough love, so your kids grow up strong.
Sometimes those encircling roots are so bound up, you have to cut them. This is particularly true when you have trees planted. People often treat the root ball as untouchable. But what they don’t see or know is, 10 years into the growth of that tree, they will be calling me to tell me a part or all of their tree, which was fine last year, just didn’t leaf out this year.
I tell them to first look at the base of the tree, and sure enough, they will report roots that are encircling the trunk. Once underground, these roots have now increased in girth and are literally strangling the tree. This is called girdling roots, and there is no treatment at that 10-year point. But there was when they planted the tree. Always cut through any circling roots if they can’t be pulled out and straightened.
Speaking of tree roots, I get numerous calls every year with complaints of grass not growing well under trees. And my answer is: Remember the pancake of roots of the storm-damaged tree? Tree roots are in constant competition with grass roots for water, nutrients and sunlight. It is a losing battle for each individual blade.
Choose instead a shade-tolerant groundcover or mulch to turn that failing eyesore into a positive landscape image.

Storm-ripped trees show how their roots spread out; not down.

 

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