Myth: This Plant Likes/Prefers to be Root-bound

tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)October 24, 2009

I would like to talk a little about, and hopefully dispel the myth that certain plants 'like' or 'prefer' to be grown tight (under root-bound conditions). Maybe we can also understand that no plant will 'do well' when it's pot-bound if you are using a plant with plenty of room for its roots as your standard of judgment. If plants did better growing under root-bound conditions, it would seem that Mother Nature would have arranged for in situ (where they naturally occur) plants to grow with their roots in tight little cones or cubes, yet we never see that occur. While it's true that we may be able to use the STRESS of our plants being root-bound to bend plants to our will and achieve OUR goals, the fact is that this serves US well, and not the plant.

Lets examine what 'growth' is. Growth is simply a measure of the increase in a plant's biomass, how much bigger it has become (the weight of the sum of it's parts), and is the actual measure of how 'well' a plant is doing. We know that tight roots restrict growth, reduce the amount of extension, and reduce the potential for an increase in mass, so even if we THINK plants are doing well because we use the stress of tight roots to get them to bloom or grow in a particular habit that we like, the truth is tight roots are stressful and plants would rather have plenty of room for their roots to grow so they could grow as mother nature intended. No one is more aware of the negative influence tight roots has on growth than the bonsai practitioner who uses that tool extensively to bind down the plant's growth habits so the will of the grower, not the plant, prevails. Using tight roots as a tool to achieve an end is all about the grower's wants, and not the plant's.

If we chase this a little further, we can see the reasons that it is suggested that particular plants might like root-bound conditions. Tight roots alters the plant's growth habits and the stress of tight roots can cause other physiological responses like bloom induction. Again, this is happening because of stress, and is the plants unhappy response. Bright flowers make the grower happy, but the plant's perspective may be entirely different.

Where I was really heading when I started to write this is: There is a relationship between plant mass (size), the physical characteristics of the soil, and the size of the container. In many cases, when we are advised that 'X' plant prefers to be grown tight, we are being told that this plant won't tolerate wet feet for extended periods. Someone somewhere assumed that we would be growing this plant in an out-of-the-bag, water retentive soil, and "a big pot o' that soil stays wet for a long time, so we better tell these people to grow this plant in a tiny pot so the plant can use the water in the soil quicker; then, air will return to the soil faster and roots won't rot.

If you place a plant in a gallon of water-retentive soil, it might use the water fairly quickly, at least quickly enough to prevent root rot; but if you put the same plant in 5 gallons of water-retentive soil, the plant will take 5 times as long to use the water and for air to return to the soil, making it much more probable that root rot issues will arise. So lets tell 'em to grow these plants tight to save them (the growers) from themselves ......... because we KNOW they're all going to be using a soggy soil.

Key here, is the soil. If you choose a very porous soil that drains well and supports no (or very little) perched water (that water in the saturated layer of soil at the bottom of the pot), you can grow a very small plant in a very large pot and make the plant MUCH happier than if you were growing it tight. You still have the option of choosing those plants you prefer to stress intentionally (with tight roots) to get them to grow as YOU please, but for the others, which comprise the highest %, it makes much better sense to change to a soil that allows you to give the plant what it wants than to stress the plant so it won't die. That's a little like keeping your dog in a sleeping bag 24-7 to ensure he doesn't get cold.

Al

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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Great post, Al!

My goal is to grow BIG Jades, so I use larger containers to allow room for the roots.
Because I use a mix based on the principles that you've put forth in your numerous
postings on soil composition, I have very, very little fear of root-rot.

Josh

    Bookmark   October 24, 2009 at 2:54PM
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red50(7b)

Hi Al,

This is a timely post for me. Two weeks ago I brought a Chamaedorea elegans, "Neanthe Bella", which I quickly divided into six plants, because it seems to large for that little pot. Well too, I kind of like to pinch pennies. After doing that, then I read in one of my thrift store houseplant books this plant likes to be root-bound. I thought - Oh No!!

Now, you have calmed my fears that I made a bad mistake.

I have been researching all of your previous post on potting mix, & taking notes. Thank you, Al for all of your efforts.

Joyce

    Bookmark   October 25, 2009 at 9:21AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

So nice of you to take a moment to offer the kind words, Joyce. Thank you. Enjoy your palm, now palms. ;o)

If you think your soil is going to hold any perched water ..... you know how to use a wick - right?

Al

    Bookmark   October 25, 2009 at 11:18AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Hey, Al, just wanted to say thanks again!

Josh

    Bookmark   October 26, 2009 at 12:07PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Thank YOU, Josh. And thanks for the credit you so often give me on your other posts - it doesn't go unnoticed. ;o) I feel bad that I didn't thank you when I thanked Joyce - would've if I'd've looked a little further upthread.

Take care.

Al

    Bookmark   October 26, 2009 at 2:43PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

No worries, Al ;)
I feel compelled to give credit whenever someone compliments the potting mixes I'm using.
In fact, I feel guilty if I don't.

Josh

    Bookmark   October 26, 2009 at 3:50PM
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red50(7b)

Hi Al,
Yes, I did find the part about perched water interesting.

I got a little Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata),at a plant sale last spring, and I just read that it also likes too be in a pot too small for its size.
Right now, I have it in a pot with some other plants. It is about 6 inches tall.
What size pot is correct for a plant of that size?

Thanks, Joyce

    Bookmark   October 27, 2009 at 10:10AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The slower (draining) the soil is, the smaller the pot needs to be so the plant uses the water (from the soil) and air can return to the soil faster so root rot is avoided. As the soil particle size gets larger, so can the pot size, until finally when soil particle size is around 1/8" and the perched water table disappears, you can use any size pot you like.

The bottom line is that appropriate pot size doesn't depend on the size of the last pot the plant material was in, it depends on the relationship between the soil's physical (drainage/aeration) characteristics and the size (mass) of the plant material, and as soil drainage characteristics approach the point where the soil holds no perched water, you can plant the tiniest seedling in 100 gallons of soil if you wish, and expect excellent growth.

E.g., bonsai soils are very coarse, and as a matter of course, we very often plant very small material in very large pots filled with very fast (draining) soils to promote rampant growth in material we want to hurry along in development.

Al

    Bookmark   October 27, 2009 at 11:03AM
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puglvr1(9b central FL)

Thanks for the GREAT thread Al...I cannot tell you how many times I've heard/read of certain plants that "loves being root-bound"...so its good to know that if you use the right potting mix you can use the size pots that you want and not have to worry too much about over watering. Thanks again for all your very informative posts. We appreciate you always sharing your vasts knowledge with all of us. Mostly, for explaining it so that even "I" can understand it(when it gets too scientific...it usually goes over my head)lol...

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   October 27, 2009 at 11:51AM
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tootswisc(z4/5Wi)

Hi Al,
I am a pot bound sort of person. Maybe it is because I like to wear tight jeans...Wait....what I should say is I think if I squeeze my *** into tight jeans it might look better. So that is my preference with a lot of my plants. I think they look better in smaller pots. I know how to care for under potted plants. They look nice and seem happy.

I have tried several times to get ingredients for your soil Al. The last time I tried I got a potting mix that looked close and then I added some bark....My plants did not like it-although a lot of them are still in it and they seem happy now.

I do really worry about perched water. My under potted plants don't have a chance to be bothered by that.

Diane

    Bookmark   October 27, 2009 at 9:21PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

There are times when I care about aesthetics and other times when I'm trying to achieve a particular goal and aesthetics are not a consideration at all. For my more refined plants (mostly bonsai) I'm choosy about pot size/shape/color, but when I want to hurry things along & really get plants into high growth gear, I use fast soils and make sure the roots have room to run. You can't get that kind of growth when roots are tight, no matter how hard or what you try, but you can get a more refined plant. By that I mean you get shorter internodes, smaller leaves, and slower growth.

Many here think that unless a plant is growing at 100 mm/hr, that they are doing something wrong, but as long as the plant is colored nicely (green), growing, and not showing signs of bugs, disease or burned foliage, and THEY are happy with their plant(s) appearance, they should count their blessings and feel accomplished in their husbandry skills.

So far, of all the (hundreds) of people who have tried the same soils I use, only a very few have had any negative comments. Almost all of those were because it wouldn't wick (upward) fast enough to work well in earth boxes (but that was easily fixed by adding a little more peat or compost) or the mix they ended up with, after investigation, turned out to be nothing like what I use. I can't remember a single person that took some time to get familiar with the gritty mix who didn't love it, so you're the first. That leaves me to wonder if it was really as close to what I use and offer recipes for as you thought, or if starting with something that was just close, and then modifying it even further left you with something entirely different than what I use.

I'll send you a bag of what I grow in if you're willing to give it a fair try? ;o)

Al

    Bookmark   October 27, 2009 at 10:54PM
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tootswisc(z4/5Wi)

I was not even close to your mixture Al. I am sure I would love your soil mixture. It is just that I couldn't find the ingredients after several attempts.

My kids gave me bromeliads and air plants stuck on a piece of drift wood with moss. Talk about fast draining! I've had it for over a year and now have several pups on each plant.

I would just love to have a bag of your soil. Indoor gardening time is upon us. The days are growing shorter. I have mixed emotions but I am sure enjoying my plants

    Bookmark   October 28, 2009 at 9:04AM
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meyermike_1micha(5)

Yes, even I can understand with all your patience and thorough explanations...
What a great wealth of info you continue to care enough to share with us..

Funny, even I use to keep mine rootbound, until I started using the mixes you suggested, especially the gritty mix.
It feels good to be able to throw my plants in any size pot bigger than what everyone else does, or believes what is best for the "plant" not so, out there, and see my plants wallow in happiness! To see them grow vigorously..

Thankyou Al....:-)

    Bookmark   October 28, 2009 at 3:15PM
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jeannie7

The whole notion that a plant does better when in a pot-bound condition comes from a long standing understanding of the plant in question. Mostly, does better when pot bound is speaking of BLOOM.
This is a definite.....many plants DO well ...and better when pot bound produce much better flowerting.

To argue the point.....then one would have to provide a dozen plants that are not "pot-bound"....and another 12 so wrapped up.
Then compare the differences.

To argue this point on simply suggesting a plant can do as well when not pot bound is not answering the question.
To avoid re-potting a plant, giving it fresh source of nutrition in more loose soil, many observances speak against it....the plant will do better if left alone....in a pot-bound state.
This speaks well of the reason to not re-pot just for the sake of doing it....especially in winter months when it is suggested that putting the plant into fresh soil can induce it to do something it can do much better if not done.

    Bookmark   October 30, 2009 at 4:33PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Did you bother to read above - where the issue of blooming was addressed and it was acknowledged that it is often useful to stress a plant by under-potting/growing it tight to force blooms?

The measure of how "well" a a plant does is how much it increases in mass. If you wish to sacrifice some of that "wellness" by stressing the plant so it does what you want, namely produce more blooms, that's fine, but growing a plant tight to bend it to YOUR will is indeed compromising growth, no matter how you look at it. That may be advantageous or useful to some or many, but it certainly doesn't change the fact that by growing tight you leave potential growth and vitality lying on the grow bench, perhaps in a trade for blooms, compact growth, smaller leaves, shorter internodes ...... BTW - there ARE many plants we grow simply for their foliage.

Al

    Bookmark   October 30, 2009 at 5:49PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Jeannie,
I would phrase it, rather, that your plants survive DESPITE the care/treatment you suggest...not because of it.

As Al mentioned, twice:
"[...]we can see the reasons that it is suggested that particular plants might like root-bound conditions. Tight roots alters the plant's growth habits and the stress of tight roots can cause other physiological responses like bloom induction. Again, this is happening because of stress, and is the plants unhappy response. Bright flowers make the grower happy, but the plant's perspective may be entirely different."

Lastly,
no one would ever suggest re-potting a plant, willy-nilly, just for the sake of re-potting a plant. What purpose could that possibly serve, other than for a re-potting demonstration? More often than not, "out of season" re-pottings are necessary due to poorly functioning soils.

With Jades (Crassula ovata) in small pots, significantly crowded roots can sometimes lead to branch-drop. If this happens in the winter, it needs to be addressed immediately.

Josh

    Bookmark   October 30, 2009 at 7:38PM
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meyermike_1micha(5)

Most plants want ot survive. True?

Therefore, when they feel threanted, they will do their best to reproduce offspring, such as spiderplants!

When roots are cramped beyond movement, they shoot out offspring to protect their species.. Some shoot out blossoms!
It doesn't mean its healthy or happy, it just feels threatened..

I prefer to keep mine healthy and growing..

    Bookmark   October 31, 2009 at 9:36AM
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daphne-z5

Coming in late, but does this help at all?:

Plants bloom when stressed.
Humans like their plants to bloom.
Therefore: Humans stress their plants.

I do not believe that stressing a plant carries any of the moral freight of, say, keeping livestock in confinement. The former practice is OK, and sometimes desireable. But we should understand that that's what we are actually doing.

- Daphne

    Bookmark   November 13, 2009 at 9:52PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

That's a succinct paraphrase of what I said. I especially appreciate the reference to the fact that we shouldn't feel that growing plants tight should be accompanied by any moral baggage. I'm in the middle of a hotly debated issue on another forum where a person took offense to the fact that I said growing in unglazed clay as opposed to plastic offers greater potential for better vitality if you're willing to make the sacrifices that accompany that practice. I stressed that no one is going to judge because of where you set your priorities, but it's good to know that there IS that room for improvement, and that we are ALL in the same boat in that we cannot, and probably more often WILL not do every little thing we can to squeeze every last drop of vitality from our plants.

Thanks for the perceptive notation.

Al

    Bookmark   November 14, 2009 at 11:23AM
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exoticrainforest

Just a word of thanks for the information. I have agreed fully with Al's information for many years.

We own a small private botanical garden in NW Arkansas open to the public free of charge and don't allow anything to become pot bound yet the plants continue to bloom and flourish as they would in nature provided they are given the other natural conditions they need...ie: correct light and water. Many of the plants in our collection don't even grow in soil at all, they are just naturally attached to the tree supports as epiphytes.

Thanks again!

Steve Lucas
www.ExoticRainforest.com

Here is a link that might be useful: The Exotic Rainforest private garden

    Bookmark   September 3, 2010 at 6:49PM
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