How to remove a seriously underpotted plant from pot?

Columbus, OH

I was gifted a large syngonium at an estate sale over the weekend, and it's in a lovely, globe-shaped pot. However, the roots are packed so tightly that I am afraid of tearing up the plant or breaking the pot to get it out. I thought about using a hose to wash away some dirt, I'm pretty sure it hasn't been repotted in at least 10 years, so new soil would be good; the current soil is incredibly compacted and hard as a rock; even the hose didn't move enough soil to soften up the root ball so I could section it.

Any ideas? It's a lovely hand-thrown pot, and a lovely plant that I don't want to kill, but it desperately needs Al's soil mix and a larger pot.

Powder Springs, GA(Zone 7b)

Soak it to begin with in a large tub if you can. Take a flexible tool such as a cake icer and go around the rim of the container and get as deep as you can. Hopefully this will cut the bond of the roots and pot and you can pull it out. Use a tool to break any roots around the drainage holes as well.

The last method is a bit more severe but usually always works. Take a sharp knife and quarter the plant like a pizza. Hopefully you won't have to get that drastic but this way you will have four plants instead of one. Syngoniums grow fast.

Columbus, OH

I am working on that, I cut a mat of roots about 1/2" thick off the bottom of the pot, but the curve of the pot keeps me from doing much with a spatula or knife, it's about 3" narrower at the top than at the sides. I have small fingers and I've been picking at the roots that are adhered to the side of the pot and rinsing soil as I go, so I'm hoping that'll loosen it. I think I may need to section it like you suggest, I'm just a big pansy about that. I know the plant will breathe a sigh of relief to be in new soil, but root pruning scares me in a way foliage doesn't, for some reason. I know it's irrational.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Hi, Celene. I'm not proselytizing, only drawing a parallel between the plant and what is often said at church, and that is, "Don't sacrifice the eternal on the alter of the ephemeral", which applied to the plant simply means don't worry so much about what the plant looks in the immediate (because that's temporary), worry about what it will look like in the years ahead. With that in mind, I would worry about salvaging a valuable pot by doing whatever you need to do to get the plant out of it, even if it means quartering the plant with a sharp tool. If you don't, the plant will continue to decline and it's even possible the pot might break if you try to keep it viable. After removing from the pot, I would divide the plant, making sure all the old soil is removed and repot the part you think is most likely to make it into a fast draining soil, as I see is your plan anyway.

It's really not the best timing for a repot of this plant (best done in mid Jun - mid Jul) now, but the plant will survive & recover, albeit more slowly than if you repotted in the summer. I would be guided by your sense of whether or not you feel you're in an emergency situation, where the plant probably won't make it to Jun.

For some guidance as to how to tend the plant after repotting, you might wish to read through this thread about growing practices that I recently posted:

Take care.


Columbus, OH

I put on my big girl panties and sectioned the root ball. I then root pruned and repotted with Al's soil mix. Syngoniums will root easily even if I'd just cut the plant off at the soil, so I'm not terribly worried, but I did cut off a lot of old, corky root. It was not as scary as I thought, and after looking at the root ball that I removed, none of it was especially vital and healthy in appearance.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Good going - strong work! No lightweights around your house, eh? ;-) Keep it just barely damp & in good light until it starts to push new growth, then fertilize. Fertilizers with 3:1:2 ratios come closest to providing nutrients in the same ratio as that actually used by plants, which gives you a decided advantage in winter (and summer). It helps you keep o/a fertility levels at thair lowest w/o causing a deficiency. That's helpful because low fertility levels facilitate water and nutrient uptake, which helps you guard against spoiled foliage in the dry indoor conditions common during an Ohio winter. 24-8-16, 12-4-8, and 9-3-6 are all commonly used 3:1:2 ratios.

Thumbnail by tapla
Columbus, OH

Normally I use Espoma Plant-tone for foliage plants (5-3-3). Is the extra nitrogen not so good considering the root pruning? I also have Miracle-Gro, which is 24-8-16, as you recommend, could just dilute it more than directed. I haven't done anything other than water a bit with Superthrive as of yet. The plant is in a smallish room with many other plants and four terrariums to help with humidity while it recuperates.

At least this was an easy plant to root prune, it helps with confidence. I have read you advice about pruning and repotting vs. potting up, thus far it's on the money but nervewracking. Next summer when it comes time to root prune my baby citrus, I'll need a Xanax.

Powder Springs, GA(Zone 7b)

Syngoniums are weeds if treated with just a small amount of care. Your's will do fine.

Thumbnail by hcmcdole
Columbus, OH

Good to know :)

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Celene - 5-3-3 really isn't a high-N fertilizer. More accurately it would be considered a high-P fertilizer, the reason being that plants use, on average, 6X more N than P and about 3/5 as much K as N, so the K (3) content is right on, based on the amt of N supplied.

The only thing I see as a potential issue with the Plant Tone is that many nutrients are derived from organic sources, so delivery isn't as reliable or as easy to control as it would be if you chose a synthetic soluble fertilizer. My favorite is Foliage-Pro 9-3-6, because it supplies nutrients in the ratio at which plants use them, and it is a complete source of the essential nutrients plants need for normal growth; but Miracle-Gro or Peters in 24-8-16 or 12-4-8 are also good choices because of the 3:1:2 ratio of N:P:K.

Superthrive works well as a root stimulant, but as a tonic or fertilizer ..... I've never been able to find any value in it. Here is something I wrote re it's use (which was published by permission in a specialty growing magazine - I think the name of it was STEMMA, for some reason):

Superthrive or Superjive
The question regarding the value of Superthrive as a miracle tonic for plants is often bandied about in horticultural circles. Over the years, I had read claims that ranged from, "I put it on my plant, which had never bloomed, and it was in full bloom the next day." to, "It was dead - I put Superthrive on it and the next day it was alive and beautiful, growing better than it ever had before." I decided to find out for myself.

If you look for information on the net, you will probably only find the manufacturer’s claims and anecdotal observations, both so in want of anything that resembles a control. Though my experiments were far from purely scientific, I tried to keep some loose controls in place so that I could make a fair judgment of its value, based my own observations. Here is what I did, what I found, and the conclusions I made about any value the product Superthrive might hold for me.

On four separate occasions, I took multiple cuttings of plants in four different genera. In each case the group of cuttings were taken from the same individual plant to reduce genetic variance. The plant materials I used were: Ficus benjamina, (a tropical weeping fig) Luna apiculata (Peruvian myrtle), Chaenorrhinum minus (a dwarf snapdragon), and an unknown variety of Coleus. In each instance, I prepared cuttings from the same plant and inserted them in a very fast, sterile soil. The containers containing half of the cuttings were immersed/soaked in a Superthrive solution of approximately 1/2 tsp per gallon of water to the upper soil line. The other half of the cuttings were watered in with water only. In subsequent waterings, I would water the "Superthrive batch" of cuttings with a solution of 10 drops per gallon and the others with only water. The same fertilizer regimen was followed on both groups of cuttings. In all four instances, the cuttings that I used Superthrive on rooted and showed new growth first. For this reason, it follows that they would naturally exhibit better development, though I could see no difference in overall vitality, once rooted. I can also say that a slightly higher percentage of cuttings rooted that were treated with the Superthrive treatment at the outset. I suspect that is directly related to the effects of the auxin in Superthrive hastening initiation of root primordia before potential vascular connections were destroyed by rot causing organisms.

In particular, something I looked for because of my affinity for a compact form in plants was branch (stem) extension. (The writer is a bonsai practitioner.) Though the cuttings treated with Superthrive rooted sooner, they exhibited the same amount of branch extension. In other words, internode length was approximately equal and no difference in leaf size was noted.

As a second part to each of my "experiments", I divided the group of cuttings that had not been treated with Superthrive into two groups. One of the groups remained on the water/fertilizer only program, while the other group was treated to an additional 10 drops of Superthrive in each gallon of fertilizer solution. Again, the fertilizer regimen was the same for both groups. By summer’s end, I could detect no difference in bio-mass or vitality between the two groups of plants.

Since I replicated the above experiment in four different trials, using four different plant materials, I am quite comfortable in drawing some conclusions as they apply to me and my growing habits or abilities. First, and based on my observations, I have concluded that Superthrive does hold value for me as a rooting aid, or stimulant if you prefer. I regularly soak the soil, usually overnight, of my newly root-pruned and often bare-rooted repots in a solution of 1/2 tsp Superthrive per gallon of water. Second, and also based on my observations, I no longer bother with its use at any time other than at repotting. No evidence was accumulated through the 4 trials to convince me that Superthrive was of any value as a "tonic" for plants with roots that were beyond the initiation or recovery stage.

Interestingly, the first ingredient listed as being beneficial to plants on the Superthrive label is vitamin B-1 (or thiamine). Growing plants are able to synthesize their own vitamin B-1 as do many of the fungi and bacteria having relationships with plant roots, so it's extremely doubtful that vitamin B-1 could be deficient in soils or that a growing plant could exhibit a vitamin B-1 deficiency.

Some will note that I used more of the product than suggested on the container. I wanted to see if any unwanted effects surfaced as well as trying to be sure there was ample opportunity for clear delineation between the groups. I suspect that if a more dilute solution was used, the difference between groups would have been even less clear.

It might be worth noting that since the product contains the growth regulator (hormone) auxin, its overuse can cause defoliation, at least in dicots. The broad-leaf weed killer Weed-B-Gone and the infamous "Agent Orange", a defoliant that saw widespread use in Viet Nam, are little more than synthetic auxin.


Columbus, OH

I know most of that about Superthrive, and I just use it for stressed plants and cuttings. Before Superthrive, I used plain old Vitamin B injectable added to the water. The local garden people will just about start WWIII over the relative benefits of Superthrive. I was astounded the first time I saw people raising voices over it. I was oddly amused that for some people, brand of fertilizer (or stimulant, miracle additive, voodoo, depending on your perspective) was where they drew the line in the sand.

I will use the dilute Miracle Gro, the plant doesn't even look wilt-ish today. I enclosed it in a large zippy bag from a blanket, and the humidity may be helping. I'll post a picture when it perks up, so you can see the plant and the pot in which I received it.

Powder Springs, GA(Zone 7b)

In regards to SuperThrive, I like this quote by an old gardener friend of mine: "Some swear by it and others swear at it. I'm in the second group."

Columbus, OH

I like Superthrive for cuttings, but I'm not going to arm wrestle any of the locals over it, lol.

To give all of you an idea, the original plant has vines about the thickness of my little finger, and there were 9 of them coming out of an ovoid-ish globe-shaped pot 5" in diameter. I have coffee cups bigger than that.

Columbus, OH

Update: Plant is showing new growth. Thanks everyone!

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