I’ve promoted root washing of containerized and B&B trees and shrubs for a few decades now. The experimental science is slowly coming along – it can take several years to determine if the practice is more successful in terms of plant survival than leaving the rootball intact. But we know how soils function in terms of water, air and root movement, and we understand woody plant physiology. So it’s pretty easy to predict what will happen when trees, whose roots are held captive in layers of stuff, are then planted, intact, into the landscape.
Early in spring 2021 I purchased a couple of Japanese maples to frame our garage. As always, I root washed these specimens. Here’s a play by play of what we did, and what we found.
After more cleaning and untangling, we have a root system ready for planting. Well, almost.
If you are still wondering why this is a cautionary tale, consider what would have happened if the rootball was planted intact:
The root flare would have been buried below grade.
There would be multiple layers of stuff between the roots and the native soil (i.e., clay, burlap, and media).
The twine circled around the trunk would girdle it eventually.
The poor structural roots would not create a stable support system.
Now, one can argue all they like that there isn’t a robust body of scientific literature to recommend this practice – and there isn’t, yet. But leaving rootballs intact creates textural discontinuities between the roots and the native soil, and poorly structured woody roots are not going to correct themselves. So why not embrace a practice that removes both the soil and root problems?
Two years ago I installed a pollinator garden in early July. This goes against my recommendation to install plants in the fall, when roots have longer to get established and less stress is felt on the rest of the plant. But I wanted to see what would happen if I was careful to mulch well and keep it irrigated. Oh, and did I mention I was going to root wash every one of them? (Be sure to look at that process in the link from 2018.)
I reported on progress last year, and this year shows even more vigorous growth by nearly all the plants. Two of the three ‘Bandera Purple’ lavender died over the first winter, as they were marginally hardy (USDA 7-10) for our area. One straggler remains in the lower right hand corner of the photo below. The Agastache ‘Acapulco Red’ and the Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’ were planted near the front of the beds on both sides and while they survived the first year, they are now gone. My guess is that our cold snap in February 2019 wiped out those plants that were in less protected locations. Perhaps we’ll fill those spots in later with something more cold hardy, or just let the escaped Viola tricolor continue to colonize bare spots.
Overall, the garden is wildly successful in attracting hummingbirds and a variety of native bees and other insects.
I still have a little work to do – I’m relocating the strawberry adjacent to the southeast garden so it stops invading the perennial bed. But after that I’m calling this garden finished.