When the pots are pretty... too pretty... the roots may be ugly
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Plant vendors are sometimes quite creative in packaging the "business end" of plants, but this can come at the expense of happy roots. I'm shocked (shocked, I tell you!) at what I have found in pots of purchased plants. When you can't easily tell what's in that pot, you should expect a surprise, and plan to correct for long term plant health.
I used to think that any plant up for sale had been lovingly nurtured.
Surely it had led a charmed life in some lovely rural setting, allowed to stretch its roots and thrive. Then I found plants with glued stones as mulch, with spongy moss where I expected bark, or with some other impenetrable surface treatment that defied any attempts to know just what was in that pot. Now I realize these are danger signs. Those who grow plants for profit are sometimes pushing marketability and profit and the impulse purchase. They aren't thinking of the plant as a long term investment. Let me give you two recent examples.
Orchid (are they kidding?)
I've often been tempted by those out-of-bloom orchids. The price drops dramatically when the flowers are gone, but with a little attention an orchid will grow and rebloom. Last month I finally broke down and paid $3.75 for a Dendrobium of unknown but surely lovely bloom color. It was potted in an undraining bamboo composite container. The top of the "soil surface" was a solid mat of sphagnum moss. I knew that I'd be repotting "Denny" in a pot with a drain hole; that didn't faze me. On prying the orchid out of its pot, I found the moss was not a topdressing. The plant has been reared in a much smaller container, as shown by a root ball firmly circling several wedges of coconut husk. Then it was firmly packed into this new pot with wads of sphagnum. How could this be? All I'd read about orchids screamed drainage.
This spring I bought a plum tree. In shopping, I compared two options. Option "A" would be a bare root tree from a well known mailorder nursery. Option "B" would be a four foot tall, leafed out, potted tree from a big box store. The local store price was cheaper, and I'd have the fun of choosing my own specimen too. The potted plum's root ball was wrapped in fabric and tied, and placed in a pot. I brought my prize Santa Rosa plum home and prepared a spacious planting hole for it. On pulling the tree from its pot, and unwrapping the fabric from the root ball. I was in for a big surprise. Clearly the tree was not carefully dug and wrapped, as I'd naively assumed. Several inches of heavy dirt fell off from around the trunk, revealing that the tree had been buried much too deeply in the pot. Next I found all the sturdy roots fanning out from the trunk had been chopped off at five inches. Practically nothing of a fine root system remained.
What I'm finding is this: some plants are made "pretty" and sturdy for shipping and sales, but not necessarily in the best condition for the long haul.
Both specimens above had their root zones heavily concealed. It was all but impossible to know what condition the roots were in without taking the plant apart. I'll admit that a moss packing will keep the orchid roots evenly moist in shipping and for sitting on a sale shelf for a few weeks. That seems like a good plan for a plant being sold essentially as a "cut flower with benefits" (leaves and roots.) Eventually though, the moss would likely become a soggy mess instead, since there was no way for any excess water to drain out. Orchid recommendations call for mixes are decidedly coarse and chunky, allowing for highly aerated roots. I've repotted the Denrdobium in a suitable mix and airy "orchid" style pot with ample drainage. As for the plum, it needed to be planted much more shallowly than the potting would suggest. It also certainly needed to be staked to prevent summer thunderstorms ripping up tender new roots. I planted at the proper depth and staked the tree (and saved that proof of purchase in the Plum entry of my reference book.) I'm still quite surprised that the plum survived the summer in good shape. What can be this vendor's logic? I can only think that those small trees are produced at minimum cost, and packaged securely and with minimum of space and weight. They'll hopefully endure trucking and handling in the store before planting. Then when planted too deeply, or without staking, some will drown or fall over. Most purchasers will be unable (lost receipt) or unwilling (not worth the time, especially since they may feel the plant died due to their own negligence) to seek their promised refund.
The smart buyer of plants will consider the whole plant, not just the top greenery or flowers, and also his or her expectations for the plant. "Gift" or impulse plants, like seasonal items, orchids, and money plants, may be potted for show and not for grow. Realize this and care for the plant accordingly. Pay special attention to the watering of such plants, as the root zone conditions are what will often make or break this plant. Repot if necessary, using the soil mix recommeded for the plant in question. A repotted plant will suffer less from transplant shock than it would from suffocation or drowning in substandard conditions. And if there's a guarantee available, keep that receipt, tags, or whatever is needed, because the demise of this plant may not be due to your care but to what was done to the plant beforehand.
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.