Root Bound

One Key to Establishing Healthy Plants is a Good Root System

There is nothing so disappointing to gardeners as having one of their prized plants fail to thrive. There are various reasons for plants to die, of course. A gopher may severely compromise the root system, a fungal infection prove too massive for the plant’s defenses, or a severe storm take down a stately tree. One key to establishing healthy plants is a good root system, and unfortunately, it is all too common to find nursery stock that has spent too much time in too small a container. So shoppers beware and follow these good tips.

Many herbaceous plants like perennials can eventually recover from being root-bound in a pot. Tree ferns, palms, bananas, gingers, and others are all fairly forgiving, but for lots of woody trees and shrubs, root-bound becomes root-girdling, when the roots bind each other so tightly they literally strangle the tree or shrub. In some cases, such as with citrus trees, native oaks, conifers, and even such reputedly tough guys as Pittosporum, you may be well advised to buy a larger pot size. Even then, if the roots have begun to circle before the transfer to a larger pot, the fate of the plant may be sealed. Don’t be afraid to ask to look at the roots, especially when shopping for trees, particularly if they appear to be growing out through the drain holes of the pot. Honest nursery people want satisfied customers, because happy buyers become repeat buyers.

If the root system seems just a little overgrown, root pruning when you plant can be beneficial. The cut ends of roots of most species will branch and create a wider network in the ground. Some landscapers routinely slice off at least an inch of the bottom and, if it seems warranted, the sides of the root mass before burying the whole thing in a well-prepared planting hole. Some palms are definitely an exception to this and once cut, new roots must grow from the trunk again, so don’t treat any palm to root-pruning unless you know it can take it.

May Tips

• Thin fruit of peaches, nectarines, and plums now, leaving at least 6 inches between individual fruits along the branches.

• Cover the trees with bird netting to foil thieves. If the fox squirrel has made it to your neighborhood, extend the netting all the way over and around to the trunk and secure it to keep them from climbing up into the tree.

• Plant anything that likes heat: daylilies, gaillardia, both ornamental and culinary sages, avocados, and citrus, to name just a few.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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