Root Washing: What it is and Why You Need to do it When Planting Perennials

root bound in container

Root washing is the removal of all of the planting media from a tree or shrub’s root ball before planting it, followed by pruning out dead or damaged roots.

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Years ago, common advice when planting trees and shrubs was to ease the plant out of its nursery container and drop it in a 2X wide hole with the planting medium intact. Then backfill with compost and soil and off you go. It was thought that not disturbing the roots would allow them to expand vigorously into the neighboring soil.

Unfortunately, recent research (and even my gardening experience) has shown that this planting technique can result in shrubs and trees that may not thrive and it may even lead to their demise. More than a few times I’ve removed plants from my garden and others whose roots did not expand outside of the planting hole even years later. This is especially true for trees whose burlap wrap was left in place. Restricting root development like this not only starves the plant of nutrition but results in poor anchoring, leaving the shrub or tree vulnerable to wind and weather.

What is root washing?

Root washing is the removal of all of the planting media from a tree or shrub’s root ball before planting it, followed by pruning out dead or damaged roots. To ensure success, gardeners should also observe up-to-date planting techniques. This gives your perennials the best opportunity to thrive in your garden. Establishing a healthy root system creates a healthier plant overall, requiring less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Removing the potting media allows the plant to pour its stored resources into spreading its roots into neighboring soil. This quickly anchors the plant and creates an opportunity for it to gather nutrients from the surrounding landscape. While top growth may initially appear slow, rest assured that plenty of work is going on below ground.

When a plant is planted with its root ball intact, the plant will initially form new leaves and flowers. That’s because the roots have not been disturbed and the resources stored in the plant are poured into top growth and reproduction. But when resources are spent on top growth, fewer are available for root growth, which diminishes the health of the plant below the soil line. And eventually above. The result is a plant that may not thrive and eventually dies. It may take years to happen, but it’s inevitable.