Plants: Show Us Your Roots!

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:

20171110A Keith Williamson, WC
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.

    Root mealybugs are especially insidious: look carefully! Source:
  • 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

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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