Rootbound seedlings? No problem!

We've all had them.
We’ve all had them…


Have you ever bought seedlings from a garden centre that are rootbound? Hopefully, they were cheap but that’s not often the case. Or have you purchased or grown seedlings, then run out of time to plant them as the roots continued growing in the punnet?

No worries! With a little gentle manipulation, they’ll be fine.

Give them a good soak and wash.
Give them a good soak and wash.

What you have to do is to soak the whole punnet in water for a while, making sure that everything in wet, then one by one, pop the seedlings out of the punnet and swirl the roots and seed raising mix around in water to which a tiny amount of seaweed extract has been added (isn’t that stuff wonderful)?

Knead gently and toward the base.
Knead gently and toward the base.

Then gently knead the rootball, working toward the base. Not hard, you don’t want to break the roots. Gently does it. Then give them another rinse.

Give them another rinse.
Give them another rinse.
The branching root structure.
The branching root structure.

You’ll be able to see the roots clearly now and identify the main root structure. Now, gently tease the roots so that the longest ones are visibly clear. The rest of the roots should now be loose enough to straighten.

You want to leave some of the seed raising mix as possible attached to the roots. The tiny root hairs that attach to the fine particlles of the mix are the way that the plant absorbs moisture and nutrients.

Pot up the seedling as you normally would and viola! You have a happy plant!

Often, there’ll be a clump of roots that kind of hangs off of the main roots. You can keep that or clip it off, the plant will do OK either way.

Multiple seedlings and rootbound?

If you’re observant when you purchase your punnets or you’re overly generous with your sowing, you’ll often find multiple seedlings in one or more of the punnet cells. That’s a wonderful bonus but it can fall victim to the same problem of becoming rootbound if left too long before potting up.

That can be a headache for sure, but would I be writing this if there wasn’t a simple solution?

To resolve this issue, you can gently perform the actions listed above in order to gain a clearer view of what you are working with.

The most important thing is to be able to idetify where the main roots are. These are the ones that extend on down from the stem and branch out. They’re clearly visible in the pics. You need to be able so gently tease these apart near the top.

When you can do that, give them a good rinse again to dislodge some of the potting mix from the root ball. You should now be able to see where the next set of roots spring from the main roots. Tease them apart gently and you should now be left with the a clump of minor roots and root hairs. You may tear some roots but it’s OK if most of them stay intact.

Look closely at what you're working with.
Look closely at what you’re working with.
The root systems.

With the remaining root ball that consists of roots and root hairs, you can just (gently) tear it in half so that each seedling has roughly half of the mass (or a third, or a quarter, depending on how many intergrown seedlings you have). The trick is to apply gentle, steady pressure, not to suddenly jerk the roots apart.

There may be a clump of massed roots left over. Pinch this off and discard it. You can see the ball of extraneous roots on the sample on the right, in the above pic.

You’ll now have separated seedlings with, mostly intact root systems, ready to pot up. Pot them up or plant them out and add a little very dilute seaweed tonic or liquid fertiliset (diluted to less than half the recommended ratio). Keep them moist and your bonus seedlings should thrive.

If you have more than two seedlings intertwined like this, you may only be able to extricate two with good root systems and one or more may need to be discarded. If a plant has any roots left at all, though, it’s worth trying to save them but that will need to be replanted into seed raising mix or straight into coconut coir rather than into bigger pots or the ground. Most of them should take unless the roots left after your efforts to separate the seedlings aren’t enough. It’s worth giving a try anyway.

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