Fixing rootbound plants

A couple of years ago, one of my clients asked me to plant a couple of Japanese maples in containers for their pool area. We did, the trees grew well, and everyone was happy.

Last year, my client mentioned that while one Japanese maple looked great, the other one was looking pretty sad. I checked it out and it was definitely stressed for some reason. It didn’t take long to notice the problem. Girdling roots were starting to strangle the tree.

fixing rootbound plants before

When we plant trees and shrubs, we want their roots to spread out horizontally through the soil. It’s how plants want to grow, so when the roots don’t (or can’t) spread laterally, we have problems. In this case, part of the problem was due to the fact that we have a tree in a medium-sized pot. Girdling/circling roots are going to happen, unless we periodically pull the plant and do some root pruning.

The real problem, however, is how this plant came from the nursery. Looking at that photo it’s clear that the tree was purchased with root problems already starting. Because these Japanese maples came from a well regarded, higher end nursery, we didn’t look too closely at them.

Fixing rootbound plants

So what did we do? Did we toss this tree and replace it? Heck no! I pulled the tree out of the pot and dropped it into a muck tub full of water (the cashier at the co-op was horrified that I, a large male in a southern town, bought a neon pink tub, but that’s a story for another day). After a few hours I set to work. Fibrous roots had made a full lap around the circumference of the pot so they had to go first. Grabbing the hose, I then alternated between rinsing soil away from the roots, and cutting roots so I could reach deeper into the rootball.

I’m kicking myself for not taking pics of what I found, because there were roots as big around as my finger that had looped back towards the plant. All in all it was a long, drawn out process that’s going to result in a much happier tree. I rootwashed and pruned the other tree while i was at it, but it was much easier to deal with. I didn’t have time to document the whole process, but I did document the process of rootwashing and pruning a hydrangea. Here’s that video.

The takeaway here is that this problem could have been avoided by more closely inspecting the plant material. Honestly, that tree should have been rejected and a different one used. Container grown plants are a little more susceptible to circling/girdling roots so look very closely at those. Also, for whatever reason, Japanese maples also seem to be a little more problematic than other plants. I bought an end of season, scratch and dent Japanese maple for my yard in November and that little 7 gallon tree took a LOT of root correcting.

Look carefully at your plants. The life you save will be green and so, so pretty.

Spring’s almost here. Let’s plant something cool.

Dave Marciniak is a landscape designer and speaker. He lives in Culpeper, Virginia and can be found via his website and on Twitter.

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