Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener

This potbound plant went right into the garden.  Photo by Stibolt

What do you do with a pot bound plant?

Pot bound!
by Ginny Stibolt

I attended a Day of Gardening event and I bought a number of native plants, but the ones I bought from one of the vendors had been in their pots too long and were pot bound. I knew this when I bought them because roots were coming through the drainage holes. If I'd been at a nursery or big box store, I would have rejected them, but the price was right and I want to support the folks who are offering native plants. Plus, I've learned how to treat pot bound plant to provide the best chance for survival.  

What do you do with a pot bound plant?

The first to be planted, because it was drying out in its pot, was the tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii).  The roots formed an off-white mass in the shape of its pot (as shown in the top photo), but they were not mushy.  I pushed the plant out of the pot by sticking my finger through a drainage hole and squeezing the sides of the pot. When coaxing a plant from a pot, don't pull on the stem of the plant, but handle it by the root ball.

Teasing out the roots of the tickseed.  Photo by Stibolt

There were two separate clumps growing in the pot, so I pulled them apart trying to keep as much of the root as possible.  The soil in the pot is expendable, though.  Any nutrients in this potting mix will have been used up when a plant is in this condition.  

<< Once the plants were in their holes, I teased the roots out and spread them in the planting hole.  When transferring a plant from a pot to a garden, make sure the plant is no deeper than the surrounding soil. 

I filled in with the garden soil.  In this front bed the soil has been mulched for a couple of years and is in pretty good shape.  I built a berm of soil about seven or eight inches away around the plant to form a water-holding saucer. I added a shovelful of compost into the planting area and then watered each plant with a whole three-gallon watering can right after planting and I watered again late in the afternoon. Rain was forecast for the next day, but if it hadn't come, I would have watered the next day, too. I'll continue to water for the next week or so. I also picked off all the flowers to reduce the strain on the plant.

In 1991, the genus Coreopsis was designated as the Florida state wildflower. Thirteen species of Coreopsis occur in Florida, most of them are native.  These are annuals or short-lived perennials and are widely used in roadside plantings.  I will gather the seeds and sow them into our meadows to see where they do best.

Pot bound oak leaf hydrangea. Photo by Stibolt.

Oakleaf hydrangea

I also bought an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) that was in dire need of a new home. It was four feet tall, but it was in an itty-bitty one-gallon container and its roots were growing out the bottom. In this case I didn't even try to coax the plant out of its pot; I made a vertical slice down one side of the pot and peeled it away from the root ball.

Again, I teased the roots out into long strands and spread them out in a radiating pattern in the wide planting hole. When planting container-grown trees and shrubs, rinse away potting soil. and don't add any amendments to the soil.  Use only the soil that occurs naturally in the area. This encourages the roots to spread out.  

The old gardeners' tale about planting a $5 tree in a $25 hole is wrong. Enriching the soil in the planting hole creates a situation where it is unlikely that the roots would grow out and away from the tree. When roots don't radiate from the tree, then the tree is more likely to blow over and it's less likely to be drought tolerant.

Spread the roots of a pot bound plant.  Photo by Stibolt

These roots were pretty long, so I dug a wide shallow hole.  I made sure that the hydrangea was planted no deeper than it was in its pot.  Then I built a water-holding saucer around the tree with a berm of soil. As above, I used a whole three-gallon watering can on this plant right after planting and then again late in the afternoon. I'll continue watering this and the other woody plants I bought for a few months because they need more attention for long-term success.

Oakleaf hydrangea is native to Florida's panhandle area and it prefers a sweeter soil than the acidic soil we have here under the oaks. I will lay some eggshells and sprinkle some powdered quicklime around root area.


Be ruthless

If you find yourself dealing with a pot bound plant, be ruthless. While it's a shock to a plant to be treated like this, if you just plop the whole pot bound mass into a planting hole, it will take much longer to adjust to its new location and will be more likely to die when the nutrients in the potting soil are spent. Take your time and be thorough in releasing and spreading the roots of these unfortunates, supply enough water, and soon you'll have a living, thriving plant for your garden.

(Update: The oakleaf hydrangea filled out and became part of the ecosystem in the wooded area that was the front meadow.)


- University of Florida professor of horticulture, Ed Gilman's website has details on planting, pruning, and otherwise caring for your woody plants:
- The Association of Florida Native Nurseries has a locator for nurseries near you that specialize in native plants:
- You can learn about root rinsing and other garden myths at Linda Chalker-Scott's website:

Ginny Stibolt is a life-long gardener, a botanist, a naturalist, and a garden writer. You may contact her or read more of her articles posted on her website:

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Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener