Plant Roots – Basics For Houseplants, Landscape and Lawns

ficus root system

Plant Roots – I’m going to beat on that drum again! Plant root systems – unfortunately – are the most neglected and least maintained part of the plant. Yet they are probably the most vital.

Because these underground parts of the plants are out of sight, they are often forgotten. The portions of the plants above ground get the most attention.

The vigor of growth and attacks of diseases and insects are carefully watched – above ground. Plant nutrient deficiency symptoms have captured the interest of home gardeners, nurserymen, horticulturist and the farmer.

These nutritional deficiency symptoms which leave a tell-tale pattern on leaves and other parts of the plants show their mark plainly to those who have learned to read the signs.

Plant Roots Gain Interest

As you delve deeper and deeper into growing plants for food or fun, the roots become of greater interest. Roots attract attention because their functions are numerous.

The plant is anchored in the soil by the roots, and the ability of the roots to hold the plant upright may affect crop value. Plants which have a limited root system may be uprooted by winds with the result that crop return is poor.

Instead of considering a root is a root, let’s look a little farther. We know, in general… all roots being equal… what their basic functions they are.

Roots also provide channels through which plant nutrients and water move from the soil into the plant. In general, the larger and deeper root system transmits a greater amount of plant food and water for the growing plant.

No matter what homeowners care for:

  • House Plants
  • Landscape plants in the garden
  • Potted Plants on the Patio or Deck area
  • Grass which makes up our lawns

They assume all plants must have a vigorous root system. Don’t assume (myself included) that a newly purchased plant has a container full of roots. Stop and take a look at the root system before jumping into any regular maintenance routine.

vigorous plant root system

Growth Habits of Roots

Roots, like the top growth, have characteristic habits of development. The types of root growth are as varied as the different kinds of plants. Yes, often the different strains of the same crop will have a variation in the style of root growth.

To care for and protect the roots, growers must be entirely familiar with their growth habits. Roots are really the mouths of plants, but they do not hunt out plant nutrients in the soil as dogs chase rabbits.

Fertilizer must be placed so that the young tender roots may come into early contact with it soon after root growth starts. Fertilizer placed in bands on each side of the row and a little below the level of the seed or plant is a desirable location for most crops.

However, care must be exercised to see that the fertilizer is properly applied, neither too close to the root nor too far away. Roots develop rapidly where plant nutrients are abundant.

With an increased root system the plant can consume more plant nutrients and produce more root and top growth.

The gardener can to a degree vary the depth at which roots grow in the soil. Deep, early cultivation in the Spring will force the roots to grow deeper, and the succeeding cultivations will cause less root injury. If dry seasons follow, the crop which is rooted deeply will not feel the effects of dry weather as soon as the shallow rooted crop.

Some plants don’t have a vigorous root system or deep root system. One of the most widely grown indoor plants is the pothos or golden pothos. That “philodendron looking” plant with gold coloring on it. The pothos is a shallow-root plant. Many times I’ll see a basket or pot of pothos with the center completely rotted out.

The plant vines around and hangs over the edge of the pot, but the center looks pretty sad.

Why does this happen?
pothos easy care house plant
What is this person caring for? Roots or Soil?

Most likely what happens is they watch and water the soil – not the roots. The dirt doesn’t Grow!

Does this sound like you? Not all plants need a thorough soaking, but would prefer a light watering – depending on the plant and root system. Also most of the water is probably being poured right into the center of the plant and not around the pot.

Yes, roots may reach the bottom of the pot, but will most likely be found at the outer edges of the pot and not the center. The outer edges allow the soil to drain off, leaving the soil moist and not wet. This is one reason I like sub-irrigation – watering from the bottom up!

Another place we may find a shallow rooted plant is in new plant arrivals. These plants have been in transit and had their root systems knocked around. They need time to slowly repair themselves and become efficient again. In the case of an under rooted plant, it may need time to fill out it’s growing media in its new surrounding.

A plant in a 10 inch pot may only have the developed root system of an 8 inch pot. The bottom soil may take a long time to dry out. It may be necessary to allow the plant(s) to dry down halfway before watering again.

That being said, take a look at your plants and plant watering techniques.

Are you pouring your water right in one spot? Are you watering a plant with a shallow root system or undeveloped root system?

Take some time to look at the roots of your plants. Don’t forget plants in lower light levels probably aren’t going to use as much water. Learn to water the roots and not the soil.

Your plants like it much more and has less chance to create plant root problems.

Cultivate with Care

Losses resulting from pruning roots with the cultivator are often exceedingly high. With a knowledge of how plants grow under normal conditions more care can be exercised when cultivating.

It has been studied that the roots of a single corn plant may have a total length of from five to nine miles. From these few observations it is apparent how careless root cultivation can easily prune off a half mile or more of these roots.

The ill effect may not be visible immediately, especially if rain follows cultivation or if growing weather is favorable; but, sooner or later, the effect will show if carefully checked.

Roots Improve Soil

Root systems play an important part in soil management after the crop is harvested. The roots provide organic matter thoroughly distributed in the soil.

Organic matter so distributed helps to keep the soil in good tilth. Do not be misled by the above-ground growth of plants, they may look similar, but the root weight may vary greatly.

The roots in meadow, pasture and turf grasses function differently than do cultivated crop roots. These plants usually grow year after year. The tops are removed from the meadow and pasture for feed, and on the turf or lawn the grass is mowed regularly.

To keep these forage crops and the turf growing, the plants must be well nourished. In turf 60 to 80% of the root system dies each year, so high fertility is necessary to keep the new roots growing and reaching out into the soil. Old sod land is known to be high in organic matter. The roots deserve the credit.

Make Roots Do a Job

A concerted effort to put roots to work rejuvenating poor run-down soil or maintaining a rich soil pays well. There are many crops which will fill the soil with fine, fibrous roots which enter into every part of the plow layer.

If legumes are included in the mixture, the soil will benefit from the bacteria nodules on the legumes. These bacteria can extract nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil in such form that plants can use the nitrogen as food.

Take good care of roots no matter what crop you are growing. Protect them as carefully as the tops of plants, and your returns will be substantially increased. Learn to know roots better; they are among the gardeners’ and farmers’ best aids to wise and profitable growing.

Tips To Improve Your Plant Care
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