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Root Bound Plants – Do As I Say, Not As I Do

by Fern on February 3, 2010

in How To

Post image for Root Bound Plants – Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The photo above depicts what used to be growing in a pot at my parents’ house. Those are the roots. They have become so root bound, that they have used up virtually all the dirt in the pot. Pretty crazy, eh?

This is what happens if you don’t repot your plants for 8 years! I originally planted these pots when I was in college in LA. When I moved down to Long Beach, I gave them to my mom, and they have been in my parents backyard ever since.

Until today.

A plant is “root bound” when its roots take up all the space in the pot, or nearly all the space. The roots are matted and tangled and often form a mass that cannot be separated without cutting the roots apart. If left in a root bound state, the plant will eventually suffocate and die.

Symptoms of a Root Bound Plant

  1. The plant has stopped growing. This means that no new shoots are forming, even though the plant may produce some new leaves.
  2. The leaves wilt a relatively short period after the plant is watered.
  3. Regardless of the fact that you are properly watering and fertilizing the plant, an inordinate amount of leaves are dying. No amount of adjustments to the amount of water or fertilizer seems to help.
  4. Roots that are visible from drainage holes or in masses above soil.
  5. The top few inches of soil are impenetrable by your finger.

How to Help Your Plant

If you suspect that your plant is root bound, the solution is to repot it. If you would like the plant to grow larger, plant it in a larger pot. If not, then you can repot it in the same pot.

First, deeply water the plant. Water will help the plant slide out of the pot easier. Once the plant is out of the pot, remove all rotten and/or discolored roots. Trim the largest, thickest roots by cutting 50% of the root off. Be sure to leave all the bright white roots, they’re still in good condition. Gently break up the remaining roots, this will help promote new growth.

p.s. I ended up throwing all the old plants out, and planted a pair of blueberry bushes in my old pots instead. They’re surrounded by geraniums and dichondra.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

shari February 3, 2010 at 9:58 am

50% seems like a lot of root to cut off. Do you ever have problems with plants going into shock? I’ve never taken more than 1/3 off the root ball, which is the same general rule I use for cutting back things (with exception of the winter hard prune for perennials). Am I doing something wrong?

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Fern @ Life on the Balcony February 3, 2010 at 10:51 am

Shari–Gardening isn’t an exact science. If you’re cutting things back by a 1/3 and that works for you then there’s no reason to change. But I have really large pots that are hard to repot, so I like cutting back really large roots by half so that I don’t have to repot again next year. I haven’t had any problems.

There are quite a few plants that I prune pretty hard and have good results with. For example, I cut back new growth on my fruit trees by 2/3s. And with blueberries, I’ve read that you should cut 50% of the bush down to the ground each year, because blueberries only bloom on new wood.

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melanie watts February 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Great informative post. I cut back the roots of an Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’, n twice. It was hanging in a window and already in a huge pot. I also cut back some of the top growth, which seemed prudent, since I had cut off some of the plants roots.

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shari February 3, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Thanks, Fern. I know I am a bit on the timid side when it comes to cutting things back. It’s good to know I probably won’t kill anything if I really have a go with the trusty old Felcos. :-)

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Kimberly February 3, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I’ve gotten so many root-bound plants like that from the nursery. I am always amazed.

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Fern February 4, 2010 at 1:09 am

Melanie–I’ve never been patient enough to grow asparagus. Don’t you have to wait several years after planting it for it to produce anything you can harvest?

Shari–Just don’t go too crazy! Baby steps… ;-)

Kimberly–Yeah, it’s a real bummer when you have to deal with a root bound plant from the get go!

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Mary C. February 4, 2010 at 8:52 am

Oh, I think you just gave me the magic info I needed to figure out why one of our flowering bushes never gets as big and perky as it’s neighbor… another item on the list for this weekend… provided there’s at least one sunny day…

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angela February 4, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Now, if you really want to keep a plant in a pot for 10 or more years and you don’t want it to get root bound and die, put the pot on top of nice, rich soil (which, of course you cannot do in a balcony).

Fern, your post is a reminder that I need to get my act together and deal with some aloes that I haven’t re-potted in about 10 years. The roots grew through the drainage holes and dug deep into the ground. The plants are healthy. I am not sure they qualify as container plants any longer, though, and I do need to get them out of those pots.

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Fern February 5, 2010 at 12:34 am

Angela–I’ve had that happen to me in a different way. Last fall I arranged some plants still in their nursery pots around the base of one of my fruit trees to try and figure out what looked best. I forgot about them there and…oops…the plants in the nursery pots grew roots down through their drainage holes into the fruit tree’s pot.

Mary–Being root bound is a definite possibility!

Sheila Delaney August 11, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I got some greenery and it was fresh from the store. I woant to have these make roots but ive heard if you put a baby asprin in the bottom of the vase of water it will help your plants not bite the big one lol. Is this true cause im on a fixed income and i really cant afford to buy nutrients to go into water and they havent rooted yet (I just got them 3 days ago). Any help is highly appreciated.

Mary C. February 8, 2010 at 9:17 am

Thank you so much Fern! You helped save at least one of my plants this weekend! I may have accidentally killed the bush I was talking about when I tried to prune it a couple week ago….but I re-potted his brother and found a huge mass of roots-still in the original nursery bucket! Wrote about it in my new gardening diary blog ;) http://marysgardeningendeavors.blogspot.com/2010/02/moved-butterfly-bush.html

Also because of your post I immediately recognized one of my celery plants was root-bound when I was watering it and moved it to a bigger container :) The roots were poking up in the topsoil, before I would have thought the rain just washed some dirt away or that some clover seeds had started sprouting in there. You helped me figure out the real answer right away!

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Emily February 9, 2010 at 6:39 am

Hi Fern,

I love your blog, you just saved me a lot of $$ in new pots and frustration with a too-full balcony because I did not realize you could repot in the same planter!! I have just been moving my plants to bigger pots for years.

Question: What is the best time of year to deal with root bound plants? It has been pretty cold here in South Carolina – is this something that should wait until Spring?

Thank you!!

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Fern February 9, 2010 at 10:42 am

Emily–You do need to move your plants into larger pots if you want your plant to get bigger, but if you’re happy with the current size of your plant, then by all means, repot in the same pot. I would wait until there is no danger of frost in your area to repot your plants. You don’t want your plant to have the stress of being repotted combined with the stress of below freezing temperatures. Depending on where you are in SC, that’s probably in April sometime.

Sandra Zak March 26, 2011 at 10:44 am

My spider plant is 33 years old and needs to be split and repotted. The plant is in a very large pot 16 inch pot. How do I get this LARGE root bounded plant out of this very large plastic pot? The plant is HUGE!!!!

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sarah April 17, 2011 at 1:15 am

Hey how do i get yacka plants out of pots that have beenin there for 8yrs and are so root bound?/I have been digging away and putting water on it still they will not move or come out and I don’t want to break the lovely black pots they r in!I want to re plant baby yackas and just start again!thanks for any suggestions Sarah

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Fern April 17, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Sarah–I’m not familiar with yacka plants, but if they are tough plants, you can use a sharp knife to cut around the edge of the pot.

Sarah April 18, 2011 at 2:57 am

Hi fern thanks for that idea about the knife I have already tried that and having no luck it just won’t move Grrrrrr :)

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Laura April 17, 2012 at 5:31 am

Thankyou!

I’ve just found your site while trying to find some info on what to do with pot bound plants, I always though you just had to pot them in a bigger pot – but I don’t want lots of huge plants!!

Great tip and a good explanation, thanks again :)

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Oakley November 9, 2012 at 2:21 am

Thanks for the information! I started a balcony garden recently. In my collection I have a plant that looks like it has reached the end of its days. This information helped out to clarify things. I hope you don’t mind if I quote you on my next post on my blog.
By the way, if I read correctly your a fellow LB native. Good to know I have a neighbor with the same interest.

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joan May 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I have racked my brain trying to figure out what to do with this, rather these olants i have aquired from someone who neglected there care, sorry my letter next to the o doesnt work) so this will be hard to desribe, in a small ot alright container, were a Ficus, 2 Dracaena of different kinds and the bottom of the container was torn out from there roots going through , so immediatly when she gave it to me , i went to the nursery with the olant and got a large container , some good organic soil and now they are growing by lea s, and bounds, but the Dracaena at the very bottom which is about a foot and 1/2 high is trying to grow uo through the Ficus and when it does it will also be met with the other dracena which is next to the ficus and it has room for its self but none other will . There roots are very intertwinded to the oint you can’t tell , who they belong to, bound in a circle and have been growing like that for 4 years until i got this 3 months ago, i feel real bad because they dont even look like like they did, there wanting to grow and doing so everyday now. what can i do about seoerating the roots without knowing what i am doing, i know i am going to ruin them and they were so neglected before and doing so well now, does anyone know how the best way i can do this. thank you

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joan May 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I mean i need to give them there own container and have two more ready , but can’t get myself to cut into them, without knowing exactly what i am doing. anybody had this same dilema. I would love to hear from you , it just has to be done today, i need to water them, and someone said ,if your going to translant them, dont do it when there wet, is that right anyone? thanks

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joan May 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Same one with the Ficus and dracaena’s , i also meant to say the draceana which is not so in trouble as the one down low under everthing. Well it hasthe ointed leaves and has grown 3 more branchs and heads of the ointed kind, the dracaen underneith is just a one big leaf kind which will grow to be 10 ft. tall i understan.

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Conrad June 18, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Good day Fern:

Sadly my passionflower died due root bounding. I saw all the symptoms you’ve posted and I never imagined it was because of that. What can I do with all the soil? Is it a good idea to reuse it? Thanks and have a nice day.

Conrad

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