I am a sucker when it comes to buying and trying to save plants. Maybe it's the nurse in me, but it is hard to see a plant suffering and not want to help it. Usually, when a plant suffers, regardless of the signs above the soil, the number one cause is the plant is root-bound. I will show you how to identify and fix a root-bound plant in the article.
Identifying a Root-Bound Plant
Before you buy a plant, turn the plant over and examine the bottom of the container. If you see roots poking through the drainage holes, chances are that the plant is root-bound. Sometimes the roots can be entwined through the drainage holes making the plant harder to remove from the pot.
Inspect the Root Ball
Inspecting the root ball by sliding the entire plant out of its container is fine. Knowledgeable gardeners always do this when shopping for any plants. Carefully grasp the plant's main stem and lift it while tugging downward on the pot. You only need to extract a few inches of the root ball to know whether the plant is root-bound. Choose another plant if you see dense roots circling the soil's edge. This root ball may easily slide out of the container in a hard ball of roots. Garden center personnel should not mind if you don't damage the plant while inspecting it. The ideal plant will have a few white roots exposed with plenty of dark soil surrounding the other roots. The root ball may begin to crumble slightly as you extract the root ball from the container. This is an ideal specimen to buy.
Why do Plants Become Root-Bound
A plant becomes root-bound for several reasons, none of them good ones. The plant may have been neglected. The extreme development of roots may be a response to not getting enough nutrients or water as the plant grows. Another cause is not potting up the plant to a bigger pot size.
How to Fix a Root-Bound Plant
Ideally, the location you are shopping at has enough plants available that, with a bit of inspection, you can find one that is not root-bound. If your choice is limited to the one root-bound plant available, there are ways to still save the plant.
Untangle the Roots Before Planting
You can help the plant recover by untangling the roots with your fingers before planting. If you can wiggle the root ball into a loose bundle of roots bristling out from the plant. These roots will more easily find their way into the surrounding soil once you plant it in your garden.
Cut Slits in the Root Ball, If Needed
If the roots resist untangling by hand, cut slits into the root ball with a knife. Most plants are tough, and severing the root ball makes it easier for the plant to send out new roots. Make several vertical slits along the sides. Then slice a deep X on the bottom of the root ball before planting. With six-pack plants, it's usually enough to slightly tear at the root ball with your fingers before you plant each one.
How to Prevent Root-Bound Plants
If you start your seedlings, one way to prevent root-bound seedlings is to use air-pruning pots. Vego Garden offers seedling pots with air pruning strips.