The scene repeats itself again and again, in gardens around the world, every year. The story goes like this; you’ve purchased your seedlings and you’re ready to plant them in the garden.
You pop one out of the cell pack and…
…discover that its roots are wound around and around the little ball of soil. It’s “root bound” (or “pot bound”) meaning that the plant has been in the little pot so long that it’s outgrown the space. As the roots tried to grow out they hit the sides of the pot and started circling around.
Why This Is A Problem
If you plant a root bound plant into the garden or a larger pot as it is the roots will not naturally spread out and grow into the soil–for the most part, they will continue to circle. When frost hits in fall and you dig up the plant to compost it, you’re likely to see that original rootball still in tact. Root bound plants don’t usually die off from the condition, they just don’t really thrive.
How To Avoid The Problem In the First Place
Ideally, you wouldn’t buy a root bound plant in the first place. Yyes, you can pop them out of the pot in the store and check them–just make sure you do it gently and you put any plants you’re not buying back into their pots and back on the shelf in the same condition you found them.
It’s generally best not to do this check in front of a staff member–you’re not hurting the plant but many places that sell plants don’t have staff experienced enough to realize that.
But sometimes you have to buy what’s available, or you may buy plants in good condition but by the time you get around to planting them a bit of time has passed, and well, the roots had to grow somewhere…
How To Save a Root Bound Plant
But the fix is quite simple. Just loosen the roots.
You don’t have to try and untangle the whole pot full of them, but break the ones on the edges up a bit so that you stop the cycle of circling around and around.
If you’re afraid that you’re hurting the plant by breaking the roots, know that that everywhere you break the roots you’re stimulating them to grow. It’s like how if you pinch back a plant (like a coleus) it will send out a couple new shoots at that point and become bushier.
Now don’t go so far that you rip all of the roots off (that will kill the plant!) but loosen and pinch apart the roots all the way around the root ball.
Dig a hole and plant as you normally would, watering it in well once it’s in the ground.