Should Roots Be Loosened Before Planting?


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circling roots

Transferring a plant from pot to ground can be like sending your firstborn child to the first day of school. You pull the plant from the pot and stare at the root bundle: do you leave it alone, or should you loosen the roots before planting? 

Gardeners should loosen roots before planting. Unless the plant is a fragile seedling, loosening up the roots and untangling them before planting helps the plant establish a healthy foundation for future growth. 

Today, we will explain why loosening roots before planting is helpful, how to identify roots that need special attention, and how to correct any problems. 

By the end of this article, you will feel confident loosening roots before planting.

Why Do Some People Say Roots Should Not Be Teased Before Planting? 

It is commonly thought that roots are fragile and weak and that their transition from pot to soil should be trauma-free. 

While plants certainly should be treated with respect, it’s important to realize that the most passive approach might not be the best for them. 

Indeed, recent studies from Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor, Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University, have shown that pruning and loosening roots before planting will help them in the long run. 

People assume that roots become stressed when they are disturbed. While this makes sense, it is actually beneficial to manage the roots before planting. 

Here are a few reasons why people have said gardeners should avoid loosening roots (and why they aren’t necessarily true): 

  1. Teasing roots will stress the plant’s equilibrium
  2. Loosening could dry the roots out 
  3. Seedlings need their roots 

Will Loosening Roots Stress a Plant’s Equilibrium? 

People believed that a plant develops the root system it needs to survive, so that root structure should never be altered. While this line of thought sounds correct, there is a catch.

When moving a plant from a plastic container to the ground, the plant’s environment is being changed and the plant will need to adjust. By pruning, loosening, and teasing the roots, the plant receives a jump start in that adaptation. 

Plants tend to form bad habits when they are in pots (we’ll talk more about these later). Like a drill-Sargent kicking the bad habits from recruits during boot camp, you’ve got to correct the roots’ behavior before placing them in the soil. 

Will Loosening Roots Dry the Plant Out? 

It is important that a plant’s roots never dry out. For this reason, many people have been afraid of correcting the root bundle before planting. 

While a plant’s roots certainly can dry out while being loosened, this is not a reason not to correct a poor root bundle. 

By following the tips below, the root system drying out before planting should not be an issue. 

Should I Loosen the Roots on a Seedling? 

What about a seedling? Well, seedlings are a bit different. In general, gardeners should take more care when handling the root structure of a seedling. 

It probably won’t kill a seedling to have their roots gently loosened. However, there are a few reasons why seedlings aren’t in the same category as larger plants. 

First, seedlings are not typically old enough to have developed negative root structures; therefore, seedlings have much less need of being loosened and pruned. 

Second, a seedling’s roots are much smaller and more fragile than the roots of an established plant. Due to smaller roots, they don’t grab onto the soil as much and are, generally, already pretty loose, so there’s not much reason to handle them further. 

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Matthew 24:44

How to Recognize Negative Root Structures 

Up to this point, we’ve mentioned that potted plants can develop negative root structures. Now, we want to explain some of these patterns and why they need to be corrected. 

Plants were made for the wild and the soil, so it’s no surprise problems can develop when a plant stays in a pot for an extended period. 

Here are some things that can indicate a plant is pot-bound and in need of loosening: 

  1. Roots that are circling the pot 
  2. Roots that are growing back up the center of the pot 
  3. Roots that have become overly wooden 

Let’s discuss these issues in more detail. 

Plant Roots that Circle the Inside of a Pot 

To check for this first issue, remove the plant from the pot. After the root bundle is removed, look at the location of the roots. 

If it looks like the roots have been wrapped like twine round and round the ball of dirt, it’s a good chance that it is a circling root. 

Circling roots will eventually create a sort of noose around the plant and cut off its nutrients. For this reason, it is very important to correct root circling before planting. 

Roots Growing Back Toward Potted Plants 

root bound plant

When inspecting the root ball of a plant, look for any roots that have grown down to the bottom of the container and are now starting to grow back up to the plant’s center. They can be a problem. 

Plants will eventually outgrow their pot. If an overgrown plant isn’t moved to a bigger pot, the overgrown roots will look for space to expand. Usually, this space is found back up toward the center of the plant. 

These roots are long and hooked, and they have difficulty expanding outward when the plant is placed in the ground. 

Large Wooden Roots in Potted Plants 

Overgrown roots in pot

When a plant’s roots become large and woody, it can indicate that the plant has outgrown its pot.

These large stubby roots can have a hard time adapting to the natural environment and may make the plants’ transition to the ground difficult. 

Smaller, more supple roots have an easier time adapting to their new environment.  Just because a plant is more mature does not mean it cannot be planted, see our article on planting old bulbs.

How Should Gardeners Best Loosen Roots Before Planting? 

Alright, we’ve gone over the where and the why. Now it’s time to go over the how

When preparing to loosen plants, keep in mind – the point is to restore the plant to the most natural root system so that they thrive in a natural environment.

Nature grows plants without our help all the time, and our goal is to allow plants to thrive in the most natural state possible. 

Here are several techniques to keep in mind when loosening roots

  1. Use a sharp knife to cut the sides of the root bundle
  2. Soak the roots in water before teasing 
  3. Untangle and massage out knotted roots 

Let’s go over these in more detail. 

How to Fix Circling Plant Roots 

The first thing to do is deal with the circled roots inside the pot. 

To do this, a sharp knife is needed. Using a dull knife increases the risk of pulling the roots out instead of untangling them. 

Take the knife and cut an “X” into the bottom of the root ball. Then, using the X as a guide, cut four lines up the root bundles’ sides. 

These cuts will not harm the plants, and they will inhibit the roots from creating more circles and encourage them to spread out in the new soil. 

Soak the Roots in Water Before Teasing Them 

For those who are worried about drying out the roots or having tough dirt sticking to the roots, it’s beneficial to soak the roots in water before loosening them. 

The water will do several things. . . 

First, it will dissolve the dirt and expose the roots; this will provide a better view of the roots, allowing a good look at anything that might be problematic. 

Second, it will soften up the roots, making it easier to loosen them and untangle any knots if needed. 

Untangle and Massage Out the Root Ball

The word massage is helpful, as it reminds us not to be too rough with the roots and to clear the root of any knots. 

When looking at an established plant in its natural environment, the roots are spread out and untangled. We want to give potted plants the best chance of achieving this natural state. 

After soaking the root bundle, it should be pretty easy to tease the roots out and into a relaxed spread. 

Another reason to massage out roots: if the pot-shaped roots are merely dropped into a hole in the ground, a barrier forms between the potting soil and the natural soil. 

By massaging and loosening the root bundle, the roots will likely mingle with the soil around them. 

If you’re interested in more ways to help potted plants, see our article about getting plants good drainage in pots and avoiding root rot.

Conclusion 

It is recommended to loosen roots before planting. Potted plants can develop issues after being in captivity for too long. These problems include circling, inverted and overgrown roots. 

These problems can be corrected by loosening and pruning the roots. Teasing out the roots does not cause harm to the plant. Rather, it helps to restore the plant to a more natural state.  And nature wins the green thumb award every time.


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Corey Leichty

Hi, I’m Corey and I love using gardening as a way to provide food for my family, learn life lessons alongside my wife, Andrea, and teach life lessons to my two sons. Do you have gardening questions? Not finding what you are looking for? Please feel free to Ask a Question (Click Here!) and I will get back with you as soon as I can!

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