Marianne Ophardt

Garden Tips: The final Garden Tips – Part 2

A mass of circular roots can stunt plant growth even after planting in a garden. Make sure to loosen and tease apart the roots to give the plant its best chance to thrive.
A mass of circular roots can stunt plant growth even after planting in a garden. Make sure to loosen and tease apart the roots to give the plant its best chance to thrive. Getty Images

There was no way last week when I announced my retirement from writing Garden Tips that I could fit in all the gems of wisdom that I wanted. So here are my last words of advice for you.

FALL AND WINTER WATERING: During the late-fall and winter months, water your trees and shrubs when the soil becomes dry. Because we often experience fairly mild late-fall and early-winter weather without the benefit of snow cover or appreciable rain, the soil can become quite dry. It is important to keep the roots of woody plants from drying out and becoming impaired from desiccation. While it is crucial to water evergreens during the fall and winter because they continue to lose moisture from their needles and leaves, it is also important to water shallow-rooted deciduous trees and shrubs. Of course, water is not applied when the ground is frozen or there is snow on the ground.

READ THE LABEL: Before resorting to pesticides for controlling a pest, see if you can manage the problem without chemicals. If you are going to use a pesticide product on your plants or somewhere around your home, be sure to read the entire label first. Check to make sure your target pest (insect, weed, disease) is listed on the label along with the type of plant or situation where you intend to use the product. Read and follow all directions and safety precautions. If you are applying the pesticide to an edible crop plant, look for the number of days you will have to wait before you can harvest your crop.

IT IS ALL ABOUT THE ROOTS: Girdling roots became a serious problem when the nursery industry started growing plants in pots. This is because when plant roots reach the sides of a pot, they start circling around the pot. Circling roots are not just a problem with container-grown trees and shrubs, but also with annual, perennial, and vegetable transplants.

If circling roots are not corrected at planting time, they will not grow out into the surrounding native soil and will develop into a thick, dense mass of roots that cannot support plant growth. If the girdling roots are not very matted, they may be loosened and teased apart. If very dense, the root mass needs to be disrupted in some way.

The recommendations for the treatment of severely root bound container-grown trees and shrubs has been changing over the years. Until recently, the approved practice had been to make 4 to 8 shallow vertical cuts down the sides of the root mass to cut through the circling roots and then loosen the roots. Now, some researchers are recommending a more drastic shaving off of the dense masses at the sides and bottom of the root-bound masses. Many gardeners worry that disturbing the roots by slicing or shaving will kill a plant. It could, but the truth is that an extremely root-bound plant will not grow well and thrive if the roots are not disrupted. You are better off not buying seriously root-bound plants, especially trees and shrubs that can be a significant investment of your time and money.

To learn more about these methods, refer to the WSU Extension Fact Sheet FS047E, “Planting Trees and Shrubs in the Landscape” that I co-authored with Dr. Rita Hummel, WSU Professor of Horticulture. It can be found at The publication includes numerous photos of dead plants where the circling roots ended up killing the plant.

Before I close, I want to pay homage to my predecessor, Mary Jane Lewis, a wonderful lady who was a talented writer for the Herald. When she retired 30 years ago, she encouraged me to take the column over from her. She emphasized the importance of being timely and dependable in writing my column. I trust I did not let her down.

Now it is time for me to retire to the garden. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and learn from my “Garden Tips.” I will miss chatting with you every week more than you know.

Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.