I bought some plants by mail order the other day and they arrived, carefully wrapped, and each sitting in their own individual grow bag, and seem to have survived the journey okay.

Five little Bunyas sitting in a row.
Five little Bunyas sitting in a row.

I have no idea where I will plant them, these babies are Bunya “pines” or Araucaria bidwillii, that will grow gigantic cones sometimes over 10 KG in size, and reach a height of possibly up to 45 metres. I say possibly because there are a lot of things that can go wrong when transplanting trees that can make the tree fail, a nice way of saying die, before they get very large. The tree planting instructions enclosed with the plants made me almost jump up and down with frustration, because they were completely wrong. The pamphlet advised that tree roots are very fragile, and shouldn’t be disturbed when transplanting, or the poor little tree would go into shock.

WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG!!!!

Tree roots are not fragile, and the best way to ensure a tree does not grow to its full potential is to plant it without disturbing the roots. Why? Because you WANT the roots to get stressed, that way they will put on new growth. Grown in nursery conditions, plant roots have a lush environment, plenty of water, a perfectly designed growing medium that hold enough nutrients and water but drains freely enough to allow oxygen tot he roots. And they are bolstered with added fertiliser to give them a good start. But think about what the soil in a garden is like. If you were a plant root would you want to leave your cushy environment and go out into the harsh, cold world?

Garden soils are rarely designed the way potting mix is, and usually need additional nutrients added. Plant roots grown in a pot will also tend to hit the side of the pot and begin circling. If this is not corrected at planting, the tree will probably die, or fall over as the roots never break out of the pot size or shape, greatly restricting the weight the tree can support. Trees that move in the ground months after planting can indicate a poorly developed root system.

This tree was pulled out of a garden with one hand, about three years after it was incorrectly planted without fixing the obvious root girdling that still persists.
This tree was pulled out of a garden with one hand, about three years after it was incorrectly planted without fixing the obvious root girdling that still persists.

If root girdling is present, some roots may head off in new directions, but the circling roots will continue to do laps of the tree, eventually they can literally strangle the tree, or create a point of weakness causing the tree to fall over. Tree roots must be encouraged to grow away from the trunk, into the surrounding soil in search of water and nutrients. The best way to know this will happen is to remove all of the potting mix from the roots at planting time.

These Magnolia Little Gem have been grown to perfection, the roots reaching just to the edge of the pot, but no further.
These Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ have been grown to perfection, the roots reaching just to the sides of the pot, but no further so they have not begun to circle.

Remove as much potting mix from the trees to be planted as possible, and inspect the roots carefully. Any circling or crossed roots should be CUT with sharp, clean secateurs as squarely as possible to leave as small a wound as possible to reduce the chance of infection. This is the best possible solution to poorly developed root systems. If the tree does not recover, it is better to find out while they are still a manageable size rather than leaving the problem to get worse, and more difficult to handle when the tree gets bigger.

Sometimes more serious methods are required to correct potbound roots, can you dig it?
Sometimes more serious methods are required to correct pot bound roots, can you dig it?

In some cases, more drastic action may be necessary, like cutting up a too-tight root ball with a spade or even a tomahawk. The shrub pictured above can handle this treatment. It will not get to tree-size anyway, so it’s not such an issue, but I felt the need to encourage lateral root developments by this “pruning” method, and break up the pot shape which had it trapped.

So many gardening books and advice warns people from “disturbing” the roots of trees at planting, or of “tickling” them a bit. I strongly recommend a more heavy handed approach. Remove as much potting mix from the soil as possible, physically cut circling roots or roots growing the “wrong way”. Roots should ideally grow in a radial pattern as evenly spaced around the trunk as possible.  The potting mix can be sprinkled around the tree as mulch after you have planted it where it is to grow, any left over fertiliser will still give the tree a boost, but only after the roots have left their “comfort zone” to find it.

There is no such thing as a perfect tree, but if you are not afraid of damaging “fragile” roots, the plants are more likely to get a good start, and grow better for years to come. Now I have to figure out where I will put the baby Bunyas so they have a chance to reach their full potential, long after I am gone!

8 thoughts on “Lookin’ for some pot stuff

  1. An old apple tree, that was moved from my aunt’s house to my old place (where it had three good years), which I then moved here, and then just recently moved from its spot because it wasn’t getting enough rain, to another, better spot, is now sending out leaves. Trees are pretty hardy things – the apple has now been moved four times that I know of, and it’s still going strong …

  2. Hi Sophie! You are exactly right, they are amazingly tough. In fact trees got along without our help for millions of years, and human-grown trees are outnumbered by billions we have nothing to do with. I think it’s better to “treat ’em mean” early in their lives. What doesn’t kill them will make them stronger!

  3. I have fits and spurts of garden activity, and when I do plant things from pots to the garden I get pretty rough… I have transplanted a number of rose bushes, lemon trees and others with great success.
    Perhaps the recommendations from these nurseries and such, is to guarantee the failure of the plants and therefore repeat customers? just a thought. Keep up the good work Garden Doctor!

    1. Roses are virtually indestructible. Lemon trees almost so. But people are scared of damaging trees. Unlike animals, trees are used to having limbs broken off completely, getting their ends chewed off, whatever the world has to throw at them. They can’t run away, so they cope by growing back.

  4. Yes yes yes to all your advice. I’ve had many trees fail over the years (even grown by ‘reputable’ nurseries) and it’s always from girdling roots, often originating from the tubestock rootball. A good reason to buy small and wait!

    1. I guess the phrase “caveat emptor” applies with plants as much as anything else. Buyer beware. I think not enough people knock off the pot in the nursery if they suspect a plant has been on display too long. As Dan Magnus from Woodbridge nursery in Tasmania said to me, “Pots are for moving plants around, not growing them indefinitely.” I agree unless a container is much bigger than a plant needs at full size, it won’t last forever.

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