Best way to loosen pot bound roots?

linnea56(z5 IL)July 18, 2011

A couple of recent threads have me thinking about this. Loosening up with my fingers seems to just tear, especially if they are fine roots. I've tried sticking a fork into the sides and twisting, in several places. I still hear tearing but less.

What's the best approach? I read somewhere to make vertical cuts down the side, like 4 evenly spaced around the plant. That seemed kind of destructive to me.

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a2zmom(6a - nj)

I usually just take my pruners and make 4 slashes. Yes, some roots will get cut, but more will soon grow.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 2:49PM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

I tear with my hands unless too tight and then I cut. When I do cut, I pry them all loose. I cut off any that are tightly wound into a circle. I do not plant with rootball still in shape of the pot or just cut four strips and not loosen up the roots.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 3:30PM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

I rub, I pull, I rip, I cut, I untangle - whatever needs to be done. It's fine, I don't worry about damage - the trauma will encourage new root growth. :0)

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 4:22PM
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As gently as I can, I pull, untangle and cut. It has to be done or the plant is doomed so I just get on with it. One plant in particular had roots twice the size of the plant growth above the soil. I stuck it in a small bucket of water for a few days to let the roots relax, then planted it in a VERY LARGE pot. It seems much happier now.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 4:31PM
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Bumblebeez SC Zone 7

What mxk said. As long as I do something, it's not a problem.
There are a few plants that dislike transplanting- gardenias and camellias, for instance- and with those plants I am very careful. Otherwise, no.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 5:23PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

in the RIGHT season ...

with the right noozle ... like the one at the link .... [or the right person [an artist] with the right metal working tools could make one.. lol]

you simply lay the plant on the ground.. and blast that stuff off ... using your finger.. or an on/off hose end switch [for the life of me i cnat think of the term] ... to temper the strength of the water ..

as per the other posts ... I WOULD NOT DO THIS IN THE WRONG SEASON ...

bare root is bare root.. what part of that equation involves using large sharp knives to destroy many roots ...

or ... in my sand.. you shake it twice.. and everything is gone .. lol ... dont complain too much about having good soil ... [yes i know this started about pots] ...


Here is a link that might be useful: link

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 5:29PM
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linnea56(z5 IL)

I guess using my fork to untangle is not so bad after all. :) It's like a comb in some ways.

Ken, are you saying you break up the root tangle using water? Or the water washes off the soil, so you can see what you are doing?

I will be prepared when this heat wave is over!

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 7:18PM
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Soak the pot the night before or at least a few hours before planting so the root ball is good and wet. Then claw the root ball with your fingers or hand cultivator or a big, wide-tooth comb. I keep one in my garden tool basket just for this. Don't give a thought to root damage to most plants. This actually stimulates the growth of new feeder roots.

I also remove all roots that have grown out of the bottom of the pot or are curled at the bottom of the pot or burlap.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 10:28PM
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linnea56(z5 IL)

Neat idea, Ginny. Thanks!

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 10:42PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

CUTTING will encourage the formation of new roots...ripping, shredding, twisting, smashing, etc. is very destructive. The standard procedure is to take a sharp knife and make several vertical slashes down the root ball. You can even cut away some of the mat of roots from the sides and bottom, as that kind of growth is virtually useless to the plant.

The cutting or removal of roots is not harmful to a plant and may very well stimulate a lot of new growth. You might be interested in knowing that when trees and shrubs are field grown and dug by hand or machine from the soil, as much as 90% of the root system is left behind. The severing of the roots with sharp instruments encourages a rapid regrowth of a brand new root system.

Another know how a bit of shearing across the top of a shrub, tree, or other plant will stimulate a lot of new growth just behind the cuts? EXACTLY what happens when roots are pruned sharply.

If the roots are just barely tangled, you can use your fingers to tease the roots apart. But I almost always do a bit of root pruning regardless. It's beneficial, not harmful.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 11:09PM
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Bumblebeez SC Zone 7

How do you know though?
I don't have problems with plants growing well and I have ripped, cut, untwisted, mashed, stepped on, slashed, whatever needs to be done. I think the care afterwards and the season have more to do with it than anything. But again, some plants, and it's helpful to know about any plant before planting, require a little more attention.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 11:55PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

oh yeah .. rhiz reminded me..

go to the dollar store to buy a huge butchers knife.. and keep it in the garage ... comes in handy.. and you dont care if you dull it... might also buy a honing stone to sharpen it ...

washing off the roots would be better this time of year.. which lin has implied in her various posts..

cut tissue in high heat and humidity.. with warm nights MIGHT lead to root rots ...

again.. done in the PROPER season.. it is said that aggressively attacking plants.. will trigger the release of growth hormones.. and rots aside.. will stimulate the plant into reacting in a favorable way ...

what you CAN do.. and what you SHOULD do .. in a given point of time.. can be divergent in intent ... [in other words ... perhaps july/august isnt the best time to go slicing and tearing into the root mass ...] .. whereas in spring or fall.. the prime root growing seasons of most plants.. you can get away with a lot more ...

soooo .. i am the only one here who washes off and then untangles roots .... rather than doing a 'jason' on them ... dont get me wrong.. been there.. done that..

bottom line.. whatever works.. works ...


ps: also if you wash them.. they tend to fall apart and divide themselves ..

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 9:15AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

rhizo said it best. I often will cut an inch or more off the bottom of a root ball before planting it. Many root bound pots you will find a mat of roots at the bottom, these are useless and should be cut off. I have a wonderful knife, I believe from Lee Valley, stainless steel and think they call it a "harvest" knife. Unusual shape and easy to keep sharp. Al

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 9:41AM
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This is my favorite root cutter:

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 10:31AM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

Oh for Pete's sake - just have at it already. If I waited until the "perfect" time and always tried to do things the "right way" with the "proper" tool, I'd never get anything done...

The plants will be fine with proper planting/aftercare. Really - THEY WILL.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 1:35PM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

And yes, I'm aware I used the word "proper" when describing aftercare - and since I don't know how to edit my post and correct my choice of words, there you have it.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 1:47PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

The original poster simply asked for the BEST way to loosen root bound plants. I've done my best to describe the best way, based on plant physiology. Injuring roots by tearing, crushing, etc. causes a different reaction from the plant than the simple creation of new roots at a sharp cut.

There are many other methods, obviously. And plants will typically recover from a certain amount of harsh handling.

The 'standard', however, and the one that follows the guidelines for BMPs (best management practices) is to use a sharp tool of some kind to cleanly sever the roots, rather than mangle them. Why should we do something that causes injury to the plant, instead of accomplishing something beneficial?

All of this reminds me of a landscape worker who was in charge of installing several hundred 1 to 7 gallon container plants at a commercial project. His method was pretty unique: He removed the plants from their pots, laid them on the ground and proceeded to smash the root ball with his foot. Ay-yi-yi

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 4:40PM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

"He removed the plants from their pots, laid them on the ground and proceeded to smash the root ball with his foot. Ay-yi-yi"

Yep, have employed that method too - falls under my "whatever works" umbrella statement. :0)

    Bookmark   July 19, 2011 at 5:09PM
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mytime(3/4 Alaska)

I was thinging about this thread yesterday as I was "mangling" roots.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2011 at 12:07PM
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gardenfanatic(MO zone5b)

Actually, you want some cutting or tearing of the roots to stimulate new root growth into the soil rather than continuing to grow in a circle. Kind of like pruning a rose bush to stimulate new growth which results in more flowers.

I give mine 4 cuts with the pruners around the edge that was in the bottom of the pot.


    Bookmark   July 20, 2011 at 8:39PM
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As a first year gardener, I planted everything right out of the pot... the next year I tried to carefully untangle all the roots and then cut slits on the my third year I said to heck with it and now just hack everything off that looks enmeshed.

I use this tool hand tool that has a 3" blade on one side and a forked one on the other. I always feel kinda bad going at the plant in such a violent manner, but I rarely lose anything now (provided I'm not lazy about watering).

Speaking of which I have a garage full of plants purchased from the Lowes fall clearance. It would be a nightmare if I had to untangle all those bound roots.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2012 at 7:39PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

hey grl ....

you should have started your own post ... so replies go back to you .. rather than lin ...

anyway.. you have the key: going at the plant in such a violent manner

==>> just do it ... anything you do.. is better than NOT doing it ...

i have my secateurs with me ... hand pruners.. i open the bigger blade.. and simply splay the rootmass in 4 to 8 divisions ... and spread it wide.. and plant the things ... [dollar store butchers knife for bigger stuff .. steak knife for smaller]

i dont have anything to suggest if you fail to water, later in the year ...



    Bookmark   October 20, 2012 at 8:54AM
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