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Gardening: Caring for new plants now to use in spring

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

September is a great time to be working in the garden, taking advantage of the cooling temperatures. And it’s also the time to score some great buys on plants at rock-bottom prices at garden centers.

If you find bargains you can’t pass up but have no place prepared in the landscape or garden, plant them in a holding area to hang out while you prep their permanent space this fall. In spring their new home will be ready and transplanting will be a snap. When I lived in the country, I used much of the planting area on the west side of my house as a holding bed for plants awaiting a home.

At this time of the year container plants are usually pot bound and hurting for moisture, so it’s key to get them in the ground ASAP. But putting a badly root bound plant in the ground “as is” is a recipe for failure.

If the roots have filled the bottom of the container and formed a solid mass, take a deep breath and cut that bottom layer away. If you can see soil through that layer, using a three-pronged cultivator rake out the matted roots and trim them back to an inch or so. Using a serrated knife, slice through the matted roots that line the sides of the root ball and tease them out. Then stick your thumbs in the center of the bottom of rootball and spread it open. I also gently peel or tease away the top edge of the root filled soil to prevent the wicking for moisture should it become exposed.

What seems like a form of torture stimulates the plant to produce new roots that will move out and become established in the soil. Plant a root bound plant “as is” and roots will continue to grow in a circular fashion rendering it unable find the moisture and nutrients it needs to thrive. In winter these pot-bound plants often heave out of the ground and die from exposure.

The knee-jerk reaction is to fertilize after planting, however most fertilizers contain a nitrogen charge that would stimulate the plants to grow leaves, which further stresses the plant. I take my cues from Bonsai growers who counsel not to fertilize new plantings that have been root pruned for a least a month.

If you’ve never done pot bound rehab on a plant, Google “rehabilitate root bound plants YouTube” and watch some of the dozens of tutorials available to help boost your confidence.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at