Pay Attention to Your Transplant's Roots

We all want to do the right things for our plants so that they will perform to their best abilities. We want lots of tomatoes, peppers, squash and beans. We also want our decorative plants to look full and healthy, so how should you treat them when it comes to transplanting? Even if you've picked up cell packs at a local garden center or big box store, it is up to you to transplant them properly so they grow fast and productive. The first thing to do is make sure that the plants are not root-bound. This is when they stay in their original container too long and the roots form a solid mass in the shape of their prison. You can actually lift the little plant out of its cell gently and inspect the roots. You should see some roots around the outside of the soil ball, however if it is a solid mass of tangled and constricted roots, the plant has been in that container too long. It can still be salvaged in the majority of cases, yet if there are other choices, select those. The plants with fewer roots showing will settle in faster. Rootbound plants need to learn to grow outward into the soil and if they have spent weeks going 'round and 'round, it is difficult to retrain. The best way to fix this is to take a sharp knife or clean garden shears and clip around the rootballs in several places. This will encourage new root growth outward instead of inward. Plant in the garden or your container as usual, however keep a close eye on them for a couple of weeks to make sure that they receive enough moisture. With the injured roots, they need moist soil, but not constantly wet soil. In a week or two, they should be as strong and sturdy as the plants that are not rootbound.

roots that need trimming

These roots are almost pot bound. They need trimming to give the plant a better chance to succeed

When Root Shock Actually Helps

Many gardeners are concerned with root shock and fear that their transplants will suffer when moved to the garden. In a few cases that is true, however most vegetable starts and annual flowers actually benefit from a little rough handling. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and members of the Solanaceae family generally need their roots teased a bit and spread out some before planting. Coleus, begonias, petunias and other annuals like this treatment as well. I fluff the rootball some with my fingers and simply drop them in to the hole. The plants don't seem to care. This encourages the roots to spread some and grow outward instead of coiling in a tight mass. If the roots are tightly packed, they compete with each other for the same moisture and nutrient sources. After transplanting, make sure that they have plenty of moisture if the weather turns hot or dry. They are still baby plants and until they double in size, should be watched over more carefully than a full-grown plant. Some plants are just the opposite. Beans, squash, cucumbers and melons are best planted from seed and the roots allowed to grow naturally. Finding these transplants in the garden center is usually a sure sign they have been in their containers too long. If they have more than one set of true leaves and more than two or three inches tall, pass on them. If you start these plants yourself, time the planting so that they are no more than two weeks from dropping the seed to setting in the garden. The best choice in these cases is to direct seed and forget about the transplants. The direct seeded ones will probably catch up to their older siblings shortly.

roots after trimming

The same plants that are in the first image after teasing the roots apart with a sharp knife

Transplanting Trees and Shrubs

Trees and shrubs on the other hand, do need special attention to prevent transplant shock. Sometimes the roots are pruned before packaging, or the rootball is crowded in the container, like the annual plants in the cell packs. They have depended on an artificial source of water for many months,(instead of a few weeks like vegetable transplants) and expect that long drink every day that the garden center workers give them. They are actually water junkies, addicted to the wet stuff. They will need a slower detox from the regular and frequent doses of water that they are used to getting. Just like the annual plants, the roots should be loosened a bit to encourage them to grow outward instead around in a container-shaped ball. Dig the hole twice as big as the container and make sure there is plenty of loose soil in the bottom. Place the plant at the recommended height and back-fill with soil. Trees and shrubs will need frequent water if nature doesn't provide it as they slowly adjust to the surroundings and climate. They should have supplemental water all through the summer and taper it off in the fall. The roots should have settled in and acclimated to their new home by then.

good root growth

Lift the little plants gently from the container to check the roots before purchasing. These roots are great.

Transplant When the Conditions are Right

As long as the weather is mild and there is decent moisture in the soil, transplants should settle in without much problem. I usually transplant on a cloudy day because that will give the little plants a full 24 hours to settle in without the sun stressing them. The small roots are still forming and a hot, sunny day may be more than they can overcome. If you must transplant on a hot, sunny day, give each transplant a drink of about a pint of water to help them on their way. I pour it in the hole before I set the transplant so that the most moisture is right on the roots. If the day is cool and overcast, it isn't needed as much. Remember that loose soil with plenty of organic matter will be better than harder-packed clay. So, amend your soil with compost and/or manure if needed. I've always said to dig a ten dollar hole for a two dollar plant. The better the conditions are, the better chance your transplants have to perform at their best.