By: Liz Baessler
One of the most important parts of a plant is the part you can’t see. Roots are absolutely vital to a plant’s health, and if the roots are sick, the plant is sick. But how can you tell if roots are healthy? Keep reading to learn about identifying healthy roots and growing healthy roots.
The importance of healthy roots can’t be stressed enough. Roots hold plants in place. They also carry water and essential minerals to the rest of the plant. It’s how the plant eats and drinks. It’s important to keep healthy roots in plants that are already established, of course, but it’s even more important to check for healthy roots in plants you buy in the store.
If you buy a plant with a bad root system, at best, it will take it a long time to adjust to transplanting. At worst, it’ll die soon after you get it home. But how can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy roots?
Identifying healthy roots in the store is easy, since the plants are all potted and the roots are easily visible. Tilt the plant on its side, cradle the stem just above the soil between two fingers, and gently slide it out of the pot.
What do healthy roots look like? Healthy roots should be white or tan, succulent, and numerous and long enough to hold the soil in the shape of the pot. If any root tips are visible, they should be white.
If the roots are brown and crumbly, that means the plant is unhealthy. Don’t buy it. If the roots are very small and don’t hold the shape of the soil, they’re probably immature – the plant is still healthy, but not ready for transplant.
Only buy it if you can keep it in the pot for a while. If the roots are wrapped around in circles in the pot and don’t leave much room for soil, the plant is root bound. You can buy it and transplant it, and it will probably be alright, but it will take some time to adjust and begin growing well.
If you can find a plant that’s growing healthy roots, always buy that one.
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Know Your Roots for Optimum Plant Health
By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin
Knowing the health of your plants’ roots can dramatically improve its vigor. The same applies for container plants: knowing your roots can dramatically improve plant health and vigor. For example: if you are recognizing odd foliage problems such as leaf drop or discoloration, or your plant just seems to lack vigor, be sure to first take a peek at the root structure. We recommend that you simply turn the plant on its side, tap the entire root ball out of the pot and examine the color of the roots. If they are soft, brown and easily fall apart when you touch or pull on them, you can be assured that some or all of the root system has collapsed. If the roots are white or tan colored, succulent when you pull on them and have fleshy white tips, then your root system is healthy. Remember, some plants have fine roots and you may need to examine them with care, even use a magnifier. Without robust root development plants can’t thrive. Half the secret to growing beautiful specimens is having healthy roots.
What collapses the root system?
For the most part, poor root development is related to the presence of pathogens attacking the root system. Soil porosity, which is the amount of air the soil contains, is also related to root health. With more air in the soil the roots can “breathe” better, this lessens the chance for fungi to grow. That is where the term “an open and well-drained potting mix” comes from. Soil chemistry can also affect root development, but generally the modern potting soils are balanced in their acidity and nutrient content.
How Can I Maintain Healthy Roots?
The amount of water and fertilizer is directly related to maintaining healthy roots. First, watering plants when they are thirsty is not much different than drinking water when we are thirsty, of course we have to be able to understand the plant's signs of thirst. For most container plants, we recommend that you water when visual surface dryness appears. As simple as it sounds, watching how the soil changes color is an indicator of visual surface dryness. When the soil is dark it means that the soil is wet, as the soil begins to dry out it becomes lighter in color. On most plants there is a state between visual surface dryness and wilting foliage. Somewhere between these two conditions is when a plant needs to be given a drink. Remember, when it is time to water your plant, water thoroughly by letting a little water run out of the bottom of the pot. The second way to maintain healthy roots is related to the amount of fertilizer given. When a plant goes into its winter rest (or slower growth period) do not over fertilize in most cases you should stop feeding all together. If a plant is prone to Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), which generally occurs in the heat of summer (especially on myrtles, prostantheras and anisodonteas), go easy on the feed or eliminate feed altogether. A plant grown on the leaner side at these times tends to resist disease better. We were having great difficulty with our myrtles, especially the older plants, which would collapse in the summer especially under heat and high moisture. A disease organism was the culprit. At first we applied fungicides to correct the problem. The fungicides worked as long as they were reapplied on a regular basis. However, if the treatment regime stopped, the problem re-occurred. Once we drastically reduced the feed, our collection of myrtles regained their root health and we have not had a problem since. No longer do we have to use fungicides, we simply keep an eye on their feeding schedule.
Should I cut or fray the roots before re-potting?
The answer is NO! We have found, the less we disturb the roots, the faster and healthier a plant will grow. No matter how impacted or pot bound the root ball is, we have always seen it grow out on its own. The confusion seems to come from the practice in transplanting nursery stock. Plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons have fine roots and their root balls become so pot bound that they don’t grow out into the new soil at planting. As far as tropical container plants go, please do not fray or cut the root ball. In fact, disturbing the root system of our young plants, which are in 2.5” pots, can drastically reduce their vigor and even kill them.
Do you treat for Mold?
No, don’t treat. It is a normal occurrence. The molds may look awful but the good news is all the activity appears on the backside of the leaves. Remember the plants are not harmed from having these opportunistic molds.
At Logee’s we have repotted hundreds of thousands of plants and never once have we had a plant that didn’t grow into its new soil. We NEVER cut or fray the roots. We simply, move the plant up by one or two sizes with the least disturbance to the roots possible.
Currently, in potted horticulture, young plants are grown in what is called a plug or cell, which neatly contains the roots of the young propagation. This method allows our growers the ability to move the young plant into a larger pot without disturbing the roots. We are able to cut the growing time in half and finish a plant quickly because we have not disturbed the root system. In days past, plants were rooted or seeds were sown in flats and then they were uprooted and repotted with a great deal of root disturbance. A re-establishing time was needed and even a certain amount of mortality was expected in certain varieties. Today our plants never know they are being moved into bigger pots and they continue to flourish without a disruption to their root system. So remember, with a little knowledge about roots, you will reap the rewards of growing healthy and vigorous plants.
Moisture Control — Overwatering is the #1 killer of potted plants. Why? Because roots can’t breathe when they’re submerged in water. Fabric pots are permeable to both air and water. This revolutionary property helps them prevent overwatering and deliver optimum moisture to the root zone.
When water is poured across the surface of the soil, it spreads outward to the sides of the pot. Once it reaches the edge of the container, water passes through the fabric and evaporates into surrounding air. That’s a double dose of good news for roots. They get life-sustaining moisture, and they’re protected from drowning.
Air Penetration — Just as moisture constantly flows outward, air constantly flows into root pruning pots. The process delivers vastly greater amounts of oxygen when compared with plastic and clay pots. All that oxygen promotes healthy roots. And healthy roots lead to fitter, faster-growing plants.
Root Pruning — In a plastic or clay pot, plant roots grow toward the boundary of the container. Once there, they begin circling the vessel in search of oxygen-rich soil. But plastic and clay pots aren’t oxygen-permeable. So the roots grow to unhealthy proportions, getting tangled in the process. The result is a root-bound plant that is stressed or dying from lack of nutrition.
In a fabric pot, the process is completely different. When roots approach the edge of a fabric pot, they form dense, finely branched structures. Notably, they do not circle or become root-bound. The process, known as “root pruning,” produces root structures that are perfect for absorbing oxygen, moisture and nutrients. The result is not only healthy plant roots, but a dramatically healthier plant.
To get the maximum yields from each bed, pay attention to how you arrange your plants. Avoid planting in square patterns or rows. Instead, stagger the plants by planting in triangles. By doing so, you can fit 10 to 14% more plants in each bed.
Just be careful not to space your plants too tightly. Some plants won’t reach their full size — or yield — when crowded. For instance, when one researcher increased the spacing between romaine lettuces from 8 to 10 inches, the harvest weight per plant doubled. (Remember that weight yield per square foot is more important than the number of plants per square foot.)
Overly tight spacing can also stress plants, making them more susceptible to diseases and insect attack.
Each beet “seed” actually contains up to 6 seeds.
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Tomatoes' ripening is pretty much at the mercy of the weather, but sometimes we can help things along. Pinching off the tips of the main stems in early summer will encourage indeterminate tomatoes (those with fruit available continuously) to start putting their energy into flowering.
Indeterminate tomatoes like to grow tall before they start setting fruits, so don't be alarmed if your tomato plants aren't flowering for their first month or two. Pinching is also a handy trick toward the end of the summer when you want the last tomatoes to hurry up and ripen.
It shouldn't be a problem getting determinate tomatoes (those that ripen all at once) to set fruit unless weather conditions are unfavorable and cause a condition aptly named "blossom drop."