For Release May 25, 1999

The Root of the Problem

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

In my job I get to look at a lot of plants during a year. Of course, most of these are sick, dying or dead, so that can be pretty discouraging some times. Some of the plants have rather apparent problems: some kind of insect or disease problem, maybe hail, wind, or excess water damage. But more and more often there is no quick and easy diagnosis. There are no apparent insect problems. The plant appears to be free of any disease pathogen or any other immediately obvious problem.

When that happens, it’s time to get to the root of the problem. Plant roots are one of the most important parts of the plant and often the most overlooked, neglected and abused. Out of sight, out of mind works for plants also. A plant’s roots are it’s very life. They do far more than just anchor the plant. They are the plant’s mouth. They take up water and food. They exchange gasses with the soil atmosphere. They are the first part of the plant to start growing in the spring and some never sleep in winter.

But when something starts to go wrong with a plant the roots are often the last thing considered when analyzing potential problems. When the problem is with a field crop where you have a couple dozen or several hundred affected plants it is very easy to dig up a few plants, look at the roots and dig a hole to look at the soil. However, when the problem is with a tree in your front yard it becomes tough to dig it up and look at the roots and most people don’t want me digging holes a foot or two deep in their lawn to look at the soil.

Why on earth do I want to dig a hole and look at dirt? Quite simply, the type of soil that you have, and how it is arranged and the condition that it is in as well as what else is "down there" all have big impacts on how roots develop, how they do their job and how well the plant is growing. One of the biggest problems that I see in field crops, garden crops, lawns and even in landscape plants is soil compaction.

Soil is supposed to be a conglomerate that is half solids and half spaces. Ideally the spaces are half air and half water (although right now there seems to be a lot more water than air!) When a soil is subjected to heavy traffic especially when it is a little bit damp it compacts. The ratio between solids and spaces is thrown out of balance with there being more solids than spaces. If you are building a house this is good. If you are trying to grow plants this isn’t good.

Where do roots grow? Well, they don’t grow through the soil particles, they grow between the soil particles. If these particles are compacted close together it becomes impossible for the roots to penetrate down into the soil profile. You can have a plant growing with all of it’s roots in the top inch or two of soil. We often see this problem around new homes in landscape plants. We also see it in crop fields that were worked too damp.

Sometimes roots don’t all grow out away from the plant like they are supposed to. A plant that has been growing in a container for too long may have roots running around in circles. As these roots grow they put a stranglehold on the rest of the plant and it eventually chokes itself to death. Therefore when you are planting new plants, take a few minutes to check for circling roots. Then either straighten them out or cut through them so new roots will grow out.

Roots are the life of a plant and they can also be the death of a plant. Everything that is done to that soil can make a difference in how those roots develop regardless of all the other things that you do after planting. Take the time to care for the soil and the roots at planting time and we won’t have to spend time later on finding the "root" of the problem!


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