If you have been gardening for some time you know what I mean when I talk about “butterflying” your new plant. For those who think I have been out in the sun too long, I will explain how and why you “butterfly” the roots of a new plant.

To “butterfly” the roots means to spread out the roots of a new plant or a transplant so they look like the wings of a butterfly. If you have a small 2 inch, 3 inch, or even a 4 inch container, just take the plant out of the container and with both hands pull apart the roots by sticking your fingers in the middle and pulling. For larger plants, set the plant on its side and with a sharp knife or pruners, cut through the root ball about one-third to one-half the distance up from the bottom. Then spread the roots out gently so they look like the two wings of a butterfly. If the plant is fairly large sized, and especially for a shrub, also cut the other way to make an “X” so you have four wings.

Another way to prepare your plant is to take the plant out of the container and gently tease out all the fine roots on the edge of the root ball. Start at the bottom of the plant and work your way towards the top. Work into the root ball at least one inch. If you do this gently, only a few of the roots will be destroyed, so don’t worry. Your plant will grow much better when planted.

          Make sure you prepare the roots to grow out into the soil and not round and round in the hole. This condition of roots continuing to go round and round is called “girdling”. In time the roots will choke off the plant and can weaken it considerably, or even kill it. On a shrub this may not show up for two, three, or even four or five years. On a tree it may not show up for 10 or more years. The tree or shrub will show symptoms of smaller leaves, off color leaves, disease, and/or insect problems if you have root problems.

          At the garden center where I work part time, customers have brought in shrubs that just weren’t growing right or had even died. When the roots were checked, you could tell that they had not been growing out into the soil as they were all wound around in a circle. The plant had choked itself to death. When asked, the customers usually say they just took the plant out of the container, and plopped it into the ground. Many had also planted it too deep. Learn how to take care of your plant once you get it home.  Take this article and make a list of the questions you need to ask the salesperson the next time you buy a plant, shrub, or tree. Ask questions if you do not know how to plant and/or take care of it. Written instructions in addition will help you remember.

          When I was helping my son sell plants at the Farmers Market, we always took the plant out of the container, checked the condition of the roots, and taught the customer how to “butterfly the roots”. We informed them on how deep to plant it, how to water it, if the plant liked sun, shade, or partial shade, and if it needed to be brought inside for the winter

          The next time you go looking for a new plant, take it out of the container and check the roots before buying. If the store won’t let you do this, then don’t buy anything there. When you check the roots, they should be white and look healthy. If not, get another plant. Roots are very important in growing a good healthy plant. Next, check to see if the roots pack the container. If the container is full of roots we say it is “root bound”. That is, the roots fill the whole container and it does not have any more growing space. It is not bad to purchase a “root bound” plant as long as you correct the condition before you put it into a larger container or put it into the ground. If it is a houseplant, you will probably want to put it into a larger container as soon as you get it home, and after you have corrected any root problems.          

          Many house plants can easily become root bound if they are not repotted or divided every so often. When repotting, look at the roots and see if they fill the whole container. If so, you can “butterfly” the roots or tease the roots out, put the plant in a larger container, back fill with the proper soil or a container mix, and water thoroughly. If you repot a house plant, the general rule of thumb is to “only” go to a pot one size larger. Thus you go from a 4” container to a 6” container, from a 6” container to a 7” or 8” container, or from a 12” container to a 14” container, etc. If you move a plant into too large a container, the plant struggles and uses all its energy to fill that space with roots and does not increase its top growth or expend energy flowering until the roots have done their thing.

Gladys and I have continually encouraged our readers to learn about their plants so they grow in ideal conditions. You need to know what kind of soil it likes, how much water it likes and how often, how much fertilizer it needs and how often, does the plant like sun, part sun, or shade. If inside, does it need bright light, or will it be ok at the office where there is very little direct light. Also find out if it can be divided when it gets big, or if it likes to be root bound. Remember some houseplants like to be root bound. CLIVIA for example, likes to be left in its container until the roots get so big they break the container. AFRICAN DAISY likes to be root bound and a Christmas cactus does not mind being root bound.  I very seldom repot my CHRISTMAS CACTUS.

You also need to learn about the plants, trees and shrubs you have in your yard. How often do they need to be divided if at all, and if so, what time of year, and how? How often should it be watered and fertilized? Does this plant need to be pruned? If so, how often, when, and how?

Prepare your plants before planting, then plant correctly, water correctly, fertilize correctly, and prune correctly. Your plants will thank you.

Copyright 2011