When I first open my computer, I am required to put in a password in order to get to the programs. This was not my doing, but my son’s, since it used to be his computer.
He was getting a new computer for school, and I had just fried mine by accidentally dumping water on the keyboard, so I got the hand-me-down.
On that screen, he also set it up so that the background changes daily to show some beautiful displays of nature. Yesterday, it was a picture of an iceberg. Now, I don’t know if you have ever seen what an iceberg looks like under the water, but what peeks out above the water is considerably smaller than what is underneath. This is actually how the use of the term for underlying problems of a smaller dilemma, ‘tip of the iceberg’ came about.
The enormous chunk of ice under the water somewhat anchors the iceberg in an upright position. Plant root systems are also much larger than you may expect, and one of their main purposes is to anchor a plant in the soil keeping it from falling over.
Although we are more focused on what is growing above the soil, roots have many purposes beside holding the plant in place. They are basically the way the plant eats and drinks. Roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil, which are circulated through a system of tubes and transport cells, called the xylem, to the rest of the plant.
Roots have various characteristics; however, healthy roots are generally white or light in color. This is particularly important to keep in mind when purchasing a new plant. Check the roots by carefully removing the plant from its container. Discolored, gray, brown or black roots may be an indication of root problems.
Good planting techniques are essential to root health. Before planting, soil should be tilled two to three times the width of the root ball and just as deep. This will allow the roots to spread easily and become established. It may be necessary to amend the soil to reduce compaction, add nutrients, help to retain moisture or adjust the pH of the soil. Avoid burying the root ball too deep, as it may cause the plant to suffocate. Tamp down the soil around the plant base to ensure that it has good soil contact.
Of course, plants love water; yet more plants meet their demise from overwatering than underwatering. Less frequent, deep watering encourages plant roots to reach down into the soil. Waterlogged roots run the risk of diseases such as root rot, which will inevitably kill the plant. Gardeners often mistake stunted growth, yellowing of leaves, wilting and leaf drop with the plants need for more water, when in fact, they are signs that the plant has been overwatered.
Speaking of too much of a good thing, overfertilizing a plant can also have adverse effects on the root system. Fertilizers should only be applied after a soil test shows the soil is lacking certain nutrients necessary for the plant to prosper and only applied at the recommended rate. When it comes to water and fertilizers, more isn’t always better.
Weeds and overcrowding also leave plant roots to battle for both water and nutrients. Plants should be mulched, not only to help retain moisture and maintain soil temperature, but to keep the weed population down. Plants should be positioned in relation to other plants so that all of the roots have access to the elements they require to thrive.
There are a few insects that feed on roots, and their effect on a plant is consequently similar to those of overwatering. When proper plant care is given and plant vigor starts to suffer, the problem may be hiding in the soil. If pests are suspected, loosen soil around the base of the plant and sift through to see if you notice an abundance of insects. Some common culprits include root weevils, root aphids, fungus gnat larvae and maggots. Identifying the pest is necessary to the treatment.
As with many things in life, the often-unseen roots are the foundation for success. Until next week, happy gardening.
— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit https://mg.aces.edu/limestone for more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners.