Gardening

Plants: Show Us Your Roots!

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Check plant roots before you buy.

When you’re out shopping for plants, here’s one step in choosing a plant that is often overlooked, but which should be mandatory: a thorough root check.

Ask permission to take the plant out of its pot or ask a nursery employee to do it for you.

Here’s what to look for:

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This plant is so underpotted its root ball is entirely covered in roots. Not a good choice! Source: Keith Williamson, Wikimedia Commons
  • You don’t want a plant that has been growing in its pot for so long that it’s become root bound (pot bound), with the roots either reaching out of the bottom of the pot or wrapping around the root ball several times.
  • Nor do you want a plant with few visible roots and soil so loose it falls off when you remove the plant. That’s a sign that it is freshly potted and not yet ready for sale. Sometimes you even discover that the plant is only a cutting and has no roots at all! (Incredible but true: I’ve lived the experience!)
  • Look out too for nodules or lumpy growths. Of course, this is normal for some plants (dahlias, butterfly weed, other bulbous plants, etc.), but otherwise generally indicates disease, insects or harmful nematodes.

    20171110C mrec.ifas.ufl.edu:lso
    Root mealybugs are especially insidious: look carefully! Source: mrec.ifas.ufl.edu/lso
  • Check both soil and roots for the presence of insects and other pests. Don’t worry about “normal” creepy crawlers—the types you see when digging in your garden (sowbugs, centipedes, etc.). What you don’t want are things like aphids (plump little pale yellow to white insects) or root mealybugs (bits of cottony fluff among the roots).
  • Finally, smell the root ball. If it has a “forest after a rain” scent, everything is fine, but if it smells like a rotten potato, something is indeed rotting and you won’t want that plant!

What you’re looking for is a root ball that holds together, with roots spread fairly evenly and no sign of disease or undesirable creatures. When you’ve found that plant, put it back in its pot and head straight for the checkout!20171110A

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

1 comment on “Plants: Show Us Your Roots!

  1. I worked on a gardening project last weekend, and there were two plants that looked exactly like this photo. It took a lot of work to get them out of the pots and then free up the roots to plant them.

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