Healthy Roots Make Healthy Plants

Garden Clippings for March 3, 2018

The trick to a healthy plant is not a trick at all.  It a well-known truth that healthy roots make healthy plants.

The relationship between roots and stems is tight.  Without roots, the stem will not survive and without the stem, roots will have no ability or need to grow.

Roots need photosynthesis in order to function.  We know that if a tree is cut off at ground level the roots below will give up.  Occasionally plants are aggressive enough to send up new shoots after they’ve been cut off, but if a plant is continually beheaded, its roots will give up the ghost.

Roots have a three-fold function.  Their primary role is to hold up the stem above.  On a calm day, holding up a tree is an easy job, but when the wind is fierce, roots go into overdrive.

Roots’ second job is to supply the stems above with water and nutrients.  Like drinking straws, roots are pipes that continuously transport supplies to the plant above.  Healthy roots area always busy producing new roots, because it is the newest root tips that do the most absorbing.

Unlike human hair that grows from the base, roots keep growing at their tips.

The third critical job for roots is storage of nutrients and water.  Think of roots as a warehouse that supplies the plant during a draught when nutrient and moisture supply is restricted.

The trick to strong root growth is good soil. Composition of soil varies greatly, but the ideal soil will usually contain about 25% water, 25% air, 5% organic matter and 45% tiny rock particles that we know as sand or clay.

Plants will modify their growth habit according to their surroundings.  In poorly drained or waterlogged soil, trees’ roots will come to the surface in search of air.  Some plants such as corn and Maple, Birch and Spruce trees have little tolerance for standing water and will always show their surface roots.

Plants such as Willow and Poplar can survive quite nicely with less oxygen but need plenty water.  Unless these plants are growing near a stream their roots will aggressively reach far and wide to satisfy their quench.

Organic matter or compost, whose volume in soil is the smallest, packs the biggest punch.  Without organic matter a soil will have no nutrient supply.  With a few exceptions such as dune grass, plants have an unending need for organic matter.  The more the better.

To find a good example of nutrient rich soil, take a walk in the woods and pick up a handful of soil from the forest floor.  Decades of accumulation of organic matter teeming with microbial activity comprised mostly of old leaves and stems makes the forest floor chock full of nutrients.  For healthy home gardens we would be wise to add compost and mulch to try to mimic the forest floor.