Words of Wisdom from Beneath the Ground

Each growing season reveals to an observant gardener new secrets of his craft. Over the years those observations become the accumulated garden lore that separates the novices from the wise old gardeners. With all of the books, journals and internet sites at our command the really viable information comes from our fellow gardeners.

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that putting a bare root plant directly into the ground can result in a dead plant or one that struggles through the growing season and succumbs to the rigors of winter. Even a plant that is transplanted from one area to another will often suffer when it is put directly back into the soil if the root ball is not kept intact.

The major reason for this is that roots, under normal growing conditions, contain multitudes of root hairs. These are threadlike extensions of the outer cells of the root. Each root hair survives only for two to three weeks and each is the outgrowth of a single cell. They significantly increase the root surface and allow for the absorption of a greater amount of water and nutrients. Deprived of these root hairs, a plant cannot absorb enough water to prevent wilting.

On bare root plants these root hairs are non-existent. They have been broken off or been destroyed by the drying of the root surface. If these denuded roots are put directly into the soil they will take some time to produce new root hairs. If you soil is heavy and full of clay as ours commonly is there may be air pockets that make it difficult for the root hairs to develop. If the soil dries out the budding root hairs will be destroyed.

When a plant is dug from the ground a number of the roots are destroyed unless the root ball is kept totally intact. Even if the larger roots survive unharmed many of the root hairs will be broken. Transplanting with the root ball is less likely to result in total root hair loss as does denuding the root of soil. Still there is often enough loss that the plant will wilt and must be carefully watered and shaded.

The solution is to pot up transplants and bare root stock to allow then to develop complete root systems before putting them into the harsher conditions that exist in the ground. Use good potting soil that drains well. This will insure good root contact. Keep the plants well watered and out of the bright sun. In less than a month most plants will have put out enough roots complete with root hairs to hold the soil together when the plant is removed from the pot. At this point it can safely be put into the ground.

Root hairs are modified by the type of environment in which they are produced. One study conducted by the USDA Forestry Service’s Rocky Research Station indicated that compaction of soil affected the structure of the root hairs. Any windowsill gardener who has rooted a cutting in water has experienced this phenomenon. A healthy well rooted cutting placed in soil will often wilt and die. This is because the root hairs produced in water will not function in soil.            Soil should be added gradually to the water until all of the water has been displaced. This allows time for the root hairs to modify or re-grow. The gradual transition will result in a healthy plant with an adapted root system.

Give these tiny but vital structures some consideration the next time you are transplanting. Your plants will thank you.              .