Monday, May 05, 2008

A little educational primer on factory plants

Plants that you can buy at most retail outlets these days are grown in factory conditions. This is NOT a bad thing. In most cases it has meant an overall improvement in the quality of the stock, in my opinion. But there is one drawback, and it's inherent in the mechanization process. I'm going to have to explain that to help you understand what the dealio is.

These days, most plants for sale are started in what are called 'plug trays'.
...that thing right there. See?
A plug refers to one tiny, tiny little 'potlet' in a large square tray of the same. One tray might have, say, 50 of these little 'plugs'. This is filled with medium (dirt) and then the seed is planted, by a machine, right in the center of this small cup.

After the seed germinates and the first true leaves appear, the plug tray is loaded into another machine which uncups the new little plant, medium and all, into the center of a somewhat larger sized plug in another tray, fills in with a little more medium....and so on, until optimum sales size is reached.

Now depending on the plant, this 'moving up' process can take place up to three more times until the final 'sale sized' plant is achieved, at which point it goes onto a refrigerated truck and ends up at Lowes. Lots of plants never have a human touch them until the final 'grading', which entails pitching the crappy looking ones. Nobody has actually taken the plant out of the dirt and put it into new dirt; its all been done by machines. Not a bad thing in and of itself at all.

The problem is, there are two different types of plants: ANNUALS, which only live for one year and have a very accelerated growth pattern, and PERENNIALS, which nature has designed to last over a period of years. And in the case of perennials, you have a very, very short window of time during which you can 'move up' the plug into the next larger pot size.

Here's why: A perennial plants' root system grows fast, and it grows big. A perennial plants roots are used for more than temporary anchoring and's meant to carry the plant through lots of changes over the years, supplying food, supporting the plant through potential extremes and storing carbs over the dormant season. It's an entirely different kind of system than the roots on an annual plant.

What happens when the perennial is not moved up quickly enough is a condition I call 'plugbound'.

A 'rootbound' plant is one that has filled its entire pot with roots and 'eaten up' all it's medium. This can happen with any plant, annual or perennial. When it happens, it's not a terribly big deal as long as you catch it soon enough. You can fix it by tearing off the bottom half of the root ball, giving the remainder a shake and sticking it in some new medium.

Plugbound perennials happen when the baby plant spends too long in that first, tiny little container. It makes lots of roots that circle around and around looking for new medium. But because those first roots are permanent structures used for storing carbs, after that plant is moved up into the next larger size of container, the 'knot' that the roots formed when it was in the tiny container will remain that way in that same contracted position, growing bigger and wider, until they actually squeeze the crown to death or split it apart.

I have to say that most growers probably aren't worrying about when specific crops need to be moved ahead; they're just moving them up according to a 'one size fits all' business schedule. And this won't wash. It doesn't matter too much with annuals, like I said...a week here or there is no big deal. NOT SO WITH PERENNIALS.

I've seen this happen time and time again and it pisses me off. I pay 7.00 for a specialty perennial plant, I expect to have it for longer than one goddamn season. 'But, I checked the pot when I planted it, and the roots weren't circled or anything," you say. And yes, the plant you bought was just beginning to fill in its new, larger layer of medium with new growth. Remember, those very first roots right next to the crown are tied in a large, ever-expanding and tightening knot, way in where you don't generally see, right in the center at the place where the stem enters the dirt.
This is what it looks like when you saw apart the root ball of any typical 4-inch potted perennial late in the season. You can actually see the different pot sizes by where the roots all gathered and 'paused' against the wall of the pot. Look carefully next to the stem there. Lots of times the plugbound roots will have balled themselves so tightly around the crown of the plant that they'll actually be heaving above the surface of the medium. If you see this, it ain't good. Don't buy the plant if you don't want to fool with it. Yes, you can fix it, but you risk killing the plant, so don't pay full price for it. Refuse. COMPLAIN.*

Until consumers become more educated and demand that this situation changes, you'll have to check TO MAKE SURE that the perennial you're buying is not going to kill itself a couple of months down the road. Here is how you do that:

Here's a little gaura lindheimerii that I've just taken out of its sales pot. Looks pretty standard from the side; this is what you want to see; lots of medium with roots all the way throughout it.

Here's the bottom of the root mass. Again, this is looking good so far. The roots head south chasing after the water so the bottom of this pot should be filled with them. Perennials make A LOT of roots, and they make them fast.

The first thing I do is I knock the top layer of potting medium off and get rid of it. You can see here its kind of greenish looking? That's algae, which promotes rot. Also, God only knows what kind of weed seeds have blown onto the top of that medium while it was sitting out on the sales yard or riding around in the back of some scody old refrigerated container. You'll save yourself a lot of headaches if you just shitcan this top layer, believe me. so then...

The next thing I do is fill up a container with water and swish the rootball around in it to wash out the medium, so I can get a look at the root structure. Take hold of the rootball and the plant and hold it the same way you'd hold a baby chicken...kind of make a supportive cage of your fingers but don't squish. Then, abandoning the baby chicken image unless you are very sick indeed, immerse your hand and the rootball into the water and swish it about gently, maintaining your grasp of the whole structure. This isn't a mop. Don't grab it by the stalk and slosh it around. Roots are breakable. Be nice.

And this is what I end up with. You don't need to wash out all the dirt; just enough so that you can see what's going on. And what I see (and what you can't because this is a shitty picture) is that this is a nice little rooted cutting. All the roots come out of a central little knob of crown at the base there and head straight out and down. This is what a well-grown little perennial SHOULD look like.

Now (because I am cheap and picky) I'm going to re-pot it in a larger pot and let it rest for a month. It's pretty early in the season here and if I were to plop this right in the dirt outdoors with its little roots all interfered with it would stand a pretty good chance of dying before it got established in my heavy, cold soil. So...

I put it right into the pot, with it's roots spread out,

...and then I backfill with my medium; 2 parts compost to one part soil from my garden thats been sifted together. I firm the plant down and give it a few taps to settle everything in, but I don't mash it down.

Now I set the newly potted plant into a bowl. I fill the bowl up halfway with water and let capillary action wet the medium from the bottom up overnight, in the shed. This sets the plant in nicely and doesn't pack the medium down the way top watering does. This is how I set in all my perennial transplants and it works really well.

Tomorrow it will go outside to where I hold my potted stock and it will stay there until I'm ready to plant it out.

Now I have between late May up until mid-September to transplant this guy. When I do, I'll transplant in the evening. That gives the plant all night to get used to it's new home and take up some food via it's roots, without the added stress of the light and heat of the day stimulating it to try and do too many things at once. (Thats what causes 'shock' and kills plants.) This really works, and besides, it's so nice to plant in the cool of the evening anyway.

So there you go. If you spend good money on a perennial plant, this is what you should be prepared to do, if you buy from a large retail outlet. Just be advised. Until people begin complaining things arent' going to change. Perennials aren't meant to be disposable. If you pay more, you should get more. Right? Right.
*READ ON! you got your plant home and discovered too late that it's plugbound? do not despair. simply unpot the plant, shake out all the medium you can and carefully try and untangle the roots with your fingers. about half the time this will work, and you can re-pot your plant in a nice big pot with new medium and let it rest.

if this doesnt work because the roots are too tightly knotted or are very brittle, you can do one of two other things before you give up and pitch it out-

1. soak the entire root ball in water overnight. the next day, gently swish the rootball back and forth, supporting it with the 'baby chicken' hold, until the roots untangle. then pot up and hold for a month.

2. try the above, and if the roots still hold the bound form, take a knife and shear off one entire side of the rootball, starting to one side of the crown.

yes, literally cut or saw it right off. then cut off about 1/3 of the top growth and all the flowers or flower buds, and pot up the remains. hold it for a couple of months, or until you see new growth. I know it seems savage, but this works. the cut roots that are still tangled in the remaining half simply decompose into the medium and new storage roots grow out of the cut side of the crown. it's worth giving a try; and you'll feel so heroic when it works!


  1. Thanks for the perennial primer, interesting, and information that will help me as I purchase new plants this season.

  2. I've overeaten.

    A burrito and a helping of Ma Beastie's chickpea curry if you must know.

    Am I plugbound?

    Or rootbound?

  3. Anonymous2:49 AM

    Holy Moses!

    I mostly buy annuals as they are for the vegetable garden or grow things from seeds - which is the most fun. I just posted a bit about the allotment garden - by the way I have a new job!!


  4. that was very helpful...i always wondered about great grandma was the planter and she taught me a lot of things but was one of those women who wouldn't teach EVERYTHING because then everyone would know...she died with her chicken dumplings recipe as she would never give it up...what a waste...

  5. those dont look like po... plants!!!!

    nice little post for those who not in "the know" about such things...

    and how does your garden grow?!?!

  6. Everyone should be forced to garden. I saw this program about how most plants in our gardens today came from the mountains of western China, I was amazed, the lovely little geranium for one.

  7. sunnyD: welcome welcome! i hope it helps. people need to know this stuff so they don't get ripped off.

    mj: you're HELLBOUND.

    mr. the dog: HOORAY FOR JOBS! HOORAY FOR ALLOTMENTS! HOORAY FOR ANNUALS! I am so happy for you! that news made my whole week, mutts!!!

    daisy: well thats just goofy. i'd rather miss someone for who they were, not their dang ol chicken biscuits.

    voices: I can grow papaver somniferum, ephedra and artemesia absinthum right tits out in the front yard, but one little po...plant would bring the po-pos. its a sick world.

    knudie: you are absolutely correct you botanizing old degenerate you! I am impressed!! you know what else came from there? bubonic plague! yay!

  8. great post, FN. And yes, more people should be aware of such things. Me? I ALWAYS up-end a pot and check the roots before I buy.
    I'd have such fun helping you get ready for spring planting. And when you get chooks, they can help!