The Root of It
Toronto Star column – published March 23, 2013
“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows it under his feet.”
– James Oppenheim
Gardeners: your time off is almost up. Winter is on its way out and spring is in.
Reminder #1. Mind the roots.
As you peruse the seed racks at your local retailer or scan the text and pictures in seed catalogues, I remind you that the seeds that you sow, regardless of species, variety, or genus all have one thing in common: they will produce a root before they produce any substantial ‘top growth’. Mother Nature, once again, knows best. When a seed makes contact with moisture and heat, it wakes from its winter slumber and sends new growth soaring downwards.
Once liberated from the shell of a seed, the root goes about its job with gusto and purpose. The life of the plant, which was just a seed of hope before the sprout occurred, depends almost entirely on the ability of the root to do its job.
Roots provide a number of functions in the garden, the first one being that of an anchor for the plant. The nature of a plant’s roots varies depending on the soil that a plant naturally grows in, the amount of wind that it would normally deal with, and the growth habit of the top portion of the plant. An oak tree, for instance, will produce a tap root that will not only anchor a tall growing, ‘top heavy’ tree but that long, carrot-shaped anchor is very efficient at seeking out sources of moisture deep in the soil.
A shallow-rooted tree, like a willow, sends its root tentacles out in a more or less lateral fashion, looking for surface water and soil nutrients in the top layer of soil. That is why it is so difficult to grow a great looking lawn under a strong surface-rooting tree like a Norway maple or a birch tree, while this is less of a problem around tap-rooted trees.
A healthy plant has healthy roots. These are words to live by, in the garden [and maybe in life, though I do not think of myself as nearly that profound].
The attention that you pay to proper soil preparation at the time of seed sowing, sticking cuttings, or planting a new geranium in the garden amounts to the same thing. The results will be proportionally good or bad depending on the quality of the soil that you plant it in.
This brings me nicely to the many options that you have when it comes to bagged soil products. In short, I advise that you ‘buy the good stuff’. Easy for me to say, but how do you know? First of all, if it is very light to handle, it is going be a lightweight in the ‘performance’ arena too. Potting soils and container mixes that are so light you can toss a large bag across the room without much effort are peat based with very little else added. A 30-litre or 2/3 bushel-sized bag should have some heft to it. It is a good sign if you need to grunt when you lift it.
There are many peat based potting mixes that are well worth using: I use them myself from time to time. However, you should be warned that the lighter the mix and the more peat it contains, the more frequently you will have to water it. This works fine for commercial growers with expensive automated irrigation systems, not so good for those of us with a day job or a life outside of plant watering.
Look for a potting soil that contains about 20 to 30% compost or composted materials. While this makes the bag a little heavier to lift it also contains natural nutrients like beneficial bacteria, microbes, and other metabolism boosters.
To help retain moisture, add coconut coir. With a consistency of peat, it actually holds moisture more effectively and breaks down more slowly. You buy coir as a solid ‘brick’ or in chunks, like the Natura branded product. Both are soaked in a bucket of water for several hours before use. I add coir when I want a potting or planting mix that requires less applications of water on my part.
Reminder #2 – top and roots are connected.
Roots support the super highway for nutrients and moisture of the plant. Chlorophyll is the grandest evolution since the beginning of time. It is the green pigment that transforms sunlight into chemical energy in the form of plant sugars. Without it we cannot exist. Energy is sent down to the root zone of a plant to power their growth. Roots then search for water and dissolved nutrients in the soil which are then pumped back up to the green portions of the plant to support them. It is the perfect ‘scratch your back’ kind of arrangement.
When a gardener is aware of the importance of a healthy root system we spend more time looking down and exploring the mysteries that lie beneath the surface of the soil. Don’t try to solve all of these mysteries on your own, Jacque Cousteau once said that we know less about what is down there than we do about what lies at the bottom of the ocean. We do, indeed, have a lot to learn. But I digress.
One new method of enhancing the ability of plants to absorb moisture and stabilize soil is Zeba. It is a new product that is an improved form of basic corn starch. Premier Tech, a Canadian company, has produced this unique product in an effort to help plant roots to develop and to minimize the amount of water that we have to apply. Zeba produces a ‘hydro gel’ that absorbs and releases water over and over again, similar to a sponge. It is a granular product that holds up to 500 times its weight in water. Plant roots absorb moisture from the granules through root suction on an ‘as needed’ basis. It is biodegradable and as safe as, well, corn starch. Details at www.pthomeandgarden.com
All of this is to say that the snapshot that you have in your mind of a gorgeous garden this season can actually happen. That reality is far more likely to occur if you are conscience of plant roots and if you act to grow healthier ones.