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.

Ten Uses for Palm Fronds

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Like the sound of one hand clapping, one of the great unanswerable Zen koans of life in Los Angeles is, “what the hell do I do with all these palm fronds?” Those outside the few places on the earth these monsters grow will be amused to hear that great masses of the fronds drop (80 to 100 feet) in the slightest breeze. Disposing of them is a constant chore but, thankfully, there are a few things you can do with them.

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Why Your Garden Should Be Dark at Night

A confession: I was a teenage astronomy geek. This hobby that gave me an awareness of how depressing it is to live in a city so brightly lit that you can count the number of stars in the night sky.

A documentary, currently streaming on Netflix, called The City Dark details just how many other problems lights cause that you might not have thought of:

  • Lighting confuses migratory birds. Millions crash into buildings every year.
  • Sea turtle hatchlings walk towards city lights rather than the ocean.
  • For us humans? An increased likelihood of breast cancer among women who work at night.
  • Depression and sleep problems.

Worst may be the lack of perspective we humans get when we can’t contemplate the vastness of space. One of the astronomers in the documentary noted that when we lose touch with the scale of the universe we don’t appreciate the fact that we will never leave this earth. The distances are just too great. His point is that if we understood the impossibility of space travel, and gave up fantasizing about space colonies, we’d take better care of our home.

Photo: highline.org.

Highline Park at night. Photo: highline.org.

Keeping Gardens Dark
Thankfully light pollution is an easy fix and saves money and energy too. We can keep our outdoor spaces dark at night to benefit our well being and as well as the survival of nocturnal creatures. Night Sky concluded with a brief interview with Hervé Descottes, one of the lighting designers of the Highline Park in New York City. Descottes’s lighting design shows how you can balance the need for security with respect of the night sky by simply directing lighting downwards.

The International Dark-Sky Association has a guide to residential lighting that will help you keep our skies dark and nocturnal creatures safe. Some recommendations:

  • Choose dark sky friendly lighting fixtures that direct light down, not up.
  • Light only what needs to be lit, i.e. create a lighting plan rather than putting up a huge floodlight.
  • Switch lights off when not in use.
  • Reduce wattage–you don’t need as much as you think.

Here’s another idea: garden with moonlight. Rather than light up your garden with artificial light, include plants with silvery-grey leaves or white flowers. Our white sage glows spectacularly during a full moon. I’m also happy we put in a climbing white rose over our entrance arbor.

By embracing the darkness we can open our eyes to the stars above.

Bees will love your Coyote Brush Hedge

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Image: Wikipedia (our picture of the NHM’s coyote brush hedge came out blurry–which really is a shame because they were good looking hedges. You wouldn’t guess it from this pic).

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Baccharis pilularis, called coyote brush, or chaparral bloom, is an unassuming Western native plant with a secret super-power: native and non-native pollinators love, love, love! its tiny little flowers. If you want to lavish affection and care on the pollinators in your garden, plant one of these babies, if you can. It really is one of the best plants for the purpose. (For more info on coyote brush, here’s a nice post at the Curbstone Valley Farm blog with lots of pictures. And here’s its page at Theodore Payne Foundation.)

What I didn’t realize until our recent garden tour at the Natural History Museum, though, is that coyote brush makes a perfectly lovely hedge if it’s pruned up right. I’d never even thought about it. Most of the talk one hears about coyote brush is that it is sort of ho-hum in appearance but can be used to provide a background to the more showy native plants. I never even thought about how its small, sturdy, bright green, evergreen leaves make it a perfect hedge plant.

So, the lesson here is that you can have a more formal/tidy/traditional garden, and still serve the pollinators– as long as you lay off the clippers for a couple of months in the summer and let the hedge bloom. No excuses now!

For those of you in other parts of the country, can you name a good hedge bush that pollinators like for your area? And be sure to name your area, so folks around you can use the information.

On that theme, here’s a link to beneficial plant lists, organized by region, created by the Xerces Society.

The Theme of a Great Garden

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Today we toured one of the finest gardens in California, the new garden at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. The occasion was the opening of the new pollinator habitat. Head gardener Richard Hayden showed us around, taking us to the edible area as well as the new pollinator and Nature Gardens. This garden gave us so many ideas that we’re going to do several posts about it. One important design lesson I learned today is that great gardens have a theme.

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Designed by the landscape architecture firm of Mia Lehrer and Associates, the Natural History Museum’s garden subtly suggests the contents inside the museum: dinosaurs, prehistory and the passage of time. There are no animatronic dinosaurs to be found in the garden. Instead, the theme is suggested through dramatic, rough stonework and the use of California native plants. The garden feels as if exists in a time before humans.

It got me wondering how thematics would play out in a more modest home landscape. Perhaps, when it comes time to design a garden it would be useful to toss around a few abstract words and ideas to help unify the design vocabulary of the garden. Picking a theme or several related themes could make it easier when it comes to making plant and hardscpaping choices.

Of course, the current theme of our garden is “Skunk Encounters.” We’re going to have a bunch of stinky school groups this spring . . .

How to Get Skunks Out of Your Basement and Yard

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Basements and crawl spaces under houses make idea dens for urban critters. If we could charge rent for all the skunks, raccoons and feral cats that have taken up residence under the house we’d have paid off the mortgage by now. Our particular crawl space critter B&B was opened by virtue of a flimsy access door. Some animal, most likely a raccoon, pried it open. The problem with this situation is that you can’t just close up the door. Some poor creature would die a horrible death and then stink up the house for months. The answer is to create a one-way critter exit.

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How to Keep Skunks Out of the Yard

wireskunk Skunks love to dig up our vegetables in search of grubs. Our late Doberman used to enjoy late night backyard skunk hunting expeditions which never ended well for him. For years I’ve used bird netting to keep them out of my vegetable beds. The problem with bird netting is that it’s a pain to work with–it catches on things, tangles up, and occasionally traps a bird. I hate the stuff. It took me 16 years to realize that I could exclude skunks from the entire backyard.  All it takes is a simple strategy: know thy enemy.

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Dudley brittonii “Giant Chalk Dudleya”

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Image: Annie’s Annuals.

The Annie’s Annuals and Perennials catalog has, as the hip kids say, “dropped.” and I’m wishing we had more space for some of the amazing plants shown on all those glossy pages. One, in particular, caught my eye: Dudley brittonii “Giant Chalk Dudleya.” Just imagine spotting this plant under the light of a full moon.

Annie notes that Dudley brittonii requires excellent drainage, can be grown in pots and is suited to USDA zones 9 to 11. Given our Arrakis like conditions here in California, an excellent bonus is that this plant does well with only monthly water. It also thrives in a pot. Mature, it’s around 18 inches across.

Annie’s does mail order and we’ve had a lot of luck with their plants. I visited the nursery on a blogger junket last year and was very impressed with the variety and quality of the seedlings–no root bound plants!

Now I’ve got to remind myself that a garden needs to be viewed from an overall design perspective, not as collection of pretty plants. Maybe there’s a place for Dudley brittonii  in our garden but it will have to work with what is already there before we, as the hip kids also say, “swoop” one.

World’s Largest Kale

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The Franchi kale (collard?) “Galega De Folhas Lisas” I planted in the fall of 2012 has reached six feet. It’s a Portuguese variety used in a soup called Caldo Verde.

Given that we have such a small yard I’ve really got to stop planting gargantuan vegetables like this and those ridiculous Lunga di Napoli squash. Root Simple is at risk of devolving into a geek with large veggie Tumblr site.