How to Deal with Extremely Root Bound Plants

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First off, don’t buy root bound plants. It’s just a bad business, trouble and tears. In general, you should always try to buy the youngest plants you can find. They are healthier than plants which have spent more time in a pot, and will quickly grow to match the size of older, more expensive–and more likely than not–root bound plants.

How do you know if the plant is root bound? Look at the bottom of the pot and see if roots are poking out the bottom. This is a bad sign. Don’t be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check its condition. If you see more roots than soil, this is a bad thing. If you’re buying fruiting or flowering seedlings, look for the ones which have not yet flowered, even though the ones which have flowered are cuter and may look like they have more promise. They’d don’t. They’re flowering or fruiting out of desperation to spread their seed before they expire in their pot prisons.

But sometimes we end up with a root bound plant. This week, in a fit of madness which doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect, Erik and I broke our own rules, doing two things we never do: We 1) bought a couple of plants at The Home Despot and 2) we bought these plants in gallon-sized pots. The plants had already put up flowers. And yes, of course they were root bound. Extraordinarily so. They were living in dense pots made of their own roots.

As I tried to resuscitate and plant these babies, I realized that I should post this technique on the blog, in case it might be helpful to others.  Forgive the photos. Erik wasn’t around to help me take them, and the battery on the camera was flashing red, but I needed to get those plants in the ground as quickly as possible. I only had time for a couple of bad shots.

How to Save Root Bound Plants

First off, I’ve found that root bound plants are often dehydrated plants, because the pots are mostly full of roots, making the soil hard and water repellant. If this is so, it helps to give the plants a good soaking before you un-pot them by placing them in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Method A) Mildly root bound plants can be helped along by gently massaging the root ball with your hands just before planting to loosen the roots and open the ball if it has become hard-packed. If there are any big, long roots circling the root ball, trim those short.  You can do a similar thing with a hose to open up the soil and loosen the root ball.

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Method B) If your plant is extremely root bound, as mine were today, you’ll find you can’t simply work the roots apart with your fingers because they’ve formed a sort of impervious mat or pseudo-pot of themselves.  In this case, you have to be ruthless. Get yourself a sharp knife and make long vertical cuts down the sides of the root ball–how many depends on the size of plant, and what you think is best, but I find I usually make 3 to 5 cuts.  These cuts do violence to the roots, but will allow new root growth at the cut sites, giving the plant a chance to spread its roots out in your garden’s soil, instead of trying to live within its own, self-made prison.

In these extremes cases, there is also usually  a thick mat of tangled roots at the bottom of the root ball, pressed into the exact shape of the pot bottom. I tear this layer off.  Then I put my thumbs up the middle of the root ball and stretch it open just a little if necessary, gently,  to make sure the center is soft and not rock hard or densely tangled.

Get your plants in the ground as soon as you can after these operations. If possible, work in the shade, or in the early morning or evening, so the plants don’t spend much time with their tortured root balls exposed to the midday sun. Water well, and maybe top dress the new plantings with a handful of worm castings, or water with worm casting tea, or some other kind of plant pick-me up, to apologize to them for all of the rough handling.

It is very important to watch your plants closely after transplanting. They are like critical care patients until they begin to grow new roots. Until that time, you’ll likely have to water them more frequently than a normal plant, because their root structure is all messed up.  If the sun is strong, provide them with some shade. Also consider mulching to slow down water loss. Baby them as much as you can.

[ETA: One of our readers reminds me that another way to up your chances of success is to trim back the foliage of the plant. Fewer leaves means it will need less water, and can spend more energy growing new roots.]

No plant wants to be handled this way but with luck and care, the plant might do well afterward. The only alternative is planting it root bound, and no root bound plant can thrive. As in its pot, it will be hard to water, and it will live a short, sad life, always sickly and constrained, if it makes it at all.

As a caveat, I know of a few types of plant which can’t abide any fooling with their roots at all, like bougainvillea, for one, but if you buy a root bound plant, or allow one of your own seedlings to get that way, you really don’t have much of choice, or much to lose, so give it a try.

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17 Comments

  1. The other important thing that I always do when transplanting, particularly rootbound specimens, is remove foliage. When a plant’s roots are compromised by transplanting, it can’t support that much foliage. Taking a lot off always seems to help the plant recover faster.

    My rule of thumb is to remove dead leaves, seed leaves and then move up from there until I reach leaves that are really healthy and turgid.

  2. Oh, interesting point about buying younger plants! I think I’d always assumed on some level that a bigger plant would be a better choice, since it was “more established” or something. But that’s really not all there is to it, is it? Bigger means more to support (and yes, more chance of being rootbound).

    How much success have you had at coaxing rootbound plants back to health?

    • How much success? Well, I guess that’s a matter of definition. I think it’s possible to get a badly root bound plant into the ground and keep it alive–that’s one kind of success. But the chances of the plant thriving, really growing and taking care of itself and acting like a natural plant–which I’d call true success– are not as good.

  3. I was also lured into the box store yesterday by a colorful sales flyer; I emerged with two root-bound palms for the patio. I will begin my Saturday with each of them on the operating table (potting bench) ‘neath my scalpel (old kitchen blade much rattier than yours). Thanks for the good ideas on wielding the surgeon’s knife!

  4. Good to know.
    What about for those of us without a garden but with potted plants. Is there a way to keep the plant happy and healthy without the pots getting unwieldily large?

    • It’s actually sort of the same deal. You take the plant out of its pot, trim the roots, and then put it back into the original pot with some fresh soil. Look up “root pruning” or “root trimming.”

  5. At first glance, it appears you have three hands! People who do not know one thing about plants just cringe and gasp when they see how rough I am (in their opinions)with plants as I transplant them.

    By slicing down through the sides of the plant, you are effectively killing some of the roots. That way, all the roots are not having to support themselves. Good riddance and leaving a few good roots to soak up the water and supply it to plants. That also makes a shorter route to the plant itself. I don’t know why people think that a plant from the nursery that might look beautiful is a healthy plant or one that will thrive. I say this as I am pondering how brutal to be to a rose I acquired in the middle of the winter.

  6. Hi there , I’m repotting my balcony plants , but so many are so root bound that they can’t be removed from the pots ( most of which are good quality ceramic pots ) . The plants are surprising healthy , just need repotting. Is there an easy way to remove the roots from pots which seem to be attached by glue ! Appreciate any suggestions … Thanks

    • I think you should be able to cut them out by working your way around the sides of the pot with a sharp knife (to cut away roots which are clinging to the sides of the pot). Then, they’ll still be stuck to the pot bottom, but you should be able to pry them out–if you loose some roots don’t worry about it.

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