Botanist Moment: Root Pruning Your House Plants / by Brooke Hansen

Have you ever had a house plant that is doing great and then, out of nowhere, just tanks for no apparent reason?  You've been watering it the same, treating it the same, but all of the sudden it just goes downhill.  What gives right?  Chances are that the plant has actually outgrown it's container and has become "root bound" underneath the soil.  And the good news is that to solve the problem you don't have to go buy a whole new bigger container, you can just root prune!

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but when a plant is confined to a container, root pruning can actually be the best thing for it.  It'll put the pep back in it's step, and - ultimately - save it from choking itself out.  So scroll on to get a quick and easy guide to root pruning.

You will need:

  1. Pruners
  2. A wooden pencil (one you don't care too much about)
  3. A waste bin
  4. Potting soil
  5. Gloves (unless you like dirt under your nails)

 

Here's my red-margined dracaena tree.  It doesn't look bad really, but it has looked a lot droopier than usual so I figured I better check the roots.  This will work a million times better if your plant is pretty dry so don't try if you've just watered it.

Here's my red-margined dracaena tree.  It doesn't look bad really, but it has looked a lot droopier than usual so I figured I better check the roots.  This will work a million times better if your plant is pretty dry so don't try if you've just watered it.

To get the plant out of it's container you can wiggle it around or if your container is flexible you can squeeze the sizes of it to loosen the soil up.  Gravity can help too, so turn it on it's side or slightly upside-down if you are having a hard time.  

To get the plant out of it's container you can wiggle it around or if your container is flexible you can squeeze the sizes of it to loosen the soil up.  Gravity can help too, so turn it on it's side or slightly upside-down if you are having a hard time.  

NOTE:  If it seems like the plant and dirt are going to fall apart when you are trying to get it out, it probably isn't root bound.  Root bound plants usually come out, soil and all, in one mass.

Root bound!  Just as I suspected.  An easy way to determine if you really need to root prune is if the roots have started growing in a circle on the bottom and are growing into each other.  

Root bound!  Just as I suspected.  An easy way to determine if you really need to root prune is if the roots have started growing in a circle on the bottom and are growing into each other.  

Now take your pencil and "comb out" the roots so that they are hanging down instead of wrapping around.  You might break some roots in the process, and that is a-ok.  Tough love is encouraged.

Now take your pencil and "comb out" the roots so that they are hanging down instead of wrapping around.  You might break some roots in the process, and that is a-ok.  Tough love is encouraged.

Here's where the love gets really tough: clip those roots you combed out right off using your pruners.  Please be careful and don't clip off a finger.  You can clip off as much of the roots as you want as long as you're leaving 3-5 inches attached.  

Here's where the love gets really tough: clip those roots you combed out right off using your pruners.  Please be careful and don't clip off a finger.  You can clip off as much of the roots as you want as long as you're leaving 3-5 inches attached.  

Now that all those roots are out of the way, use your pencil to poke the bottom of your root mass for an aerating effect.  

Now that all those roots are out of the way, use your pencil to poke the bottom of your root mass for an aerating effect.  

Now you can repot.  You can totally use the soil that was already in there, however you will still need some new soil to fill up the space you just created by clipping off all those roots.

Now you can repot.  You can totally use the soil that was already in there, however you will still need some new soil to fill up the space you just created by clipping off all those roots.

And viola, you have successfully root pruned a plant.  You're a regular Katherine Esau!  Now water your plant generously, remove any dead leaves or other material, and give yourself a high five.

And viola, you have successfully root pruned a plant.  You're a regular Katherine Esau!  Now water your plant generously, remove any dead leaves or other material, and give yourself a high five.