Any dedicated commercial farmer or backyard gardener will spend a fair amount of time walking around their plants, surveying the condition of the leaves, and fruit and checking the soil for proper moisture content.
But the most important part of the plant in terms of its overall health and vitality cannot be seen. We’re talking about the complex system of roots that extend below the surface of the Earth.
Most of the issues that growers notice about their plants — from yellowing foliage to white fungus growth at the base — aren’t so much about what is seen than what is unseen. Root damage and disease are literally the root of most problems.
Like most problems we face, prevention is much easier to address than trying to treat injured or diseased roots. Yet, even the most seasoned commercial farmer may be unaware of the steps needed to care for the most important part of their plants before, throughout, and after the growth cycle is complete.
Understanding the nature of root systems, whether you’re growing vegetables, cannabis, or even large trees, is a crucial foundation for creating an underground soil environment that facilitates growth and increases the production of healthy foliage, blooms, and food.
Roots Review 101
Any third-grader can tell you that all plants are made up of roots, stem, and leaves, with each doing a different job. The roots absorb water and minerals from the soil and provide an anchoring base to the plant, while the stem’s role is to support the plant and transfer what the roots absorb. The leaves, working through photosynthesis, further nourish the plant with the sun.
Depending on the plant, the root system will look different. Some varieties, like carrots, have a taproot system while others have what is known as a fibrous root system. Both root systems are connected to the stem with secondary roots that, when healthy, constantly extend in search of water and minerals in the soil.
However, roots aren’t just a one-way conveyor belt, moving minerals and water upward to the plant. They also act as a vital energy storage system. Without the root systems’ ability to store the sugars, starches, and nutrients, the plants won’t have enough energy to grow, protect, and maximize budding flowers and fruit.
Obstacles to Root Growth
Happy roots are white or off-white and don’t smell. There are plenty of telltale signs that the roots of your plants are not in an optimum growing environment. These include:
- Leaves that curl or cup
- Wilting stems or leaves
- Plants that seem mysteriously overwatered
- A mushy, slimy quality with a brown color
What is the problem? Many gardeners and farmers want to prevent this question — and those telltale signs — before problems arise. There are many reasons why roots may become damaged or diseased.
Roots like water, but there can be too much of a good thing. If your soil tends to hold water (such as in areas with clay soil) or you are simply watering too frequently, the area underneath your plants will become starved of oxygen.
Roots require oxygen. Without it, they’ll start rotting. This is why it’s important to have soil with adequate drainage and an appropriate watering schedule.
Each region has a traditional growing season for a reason. When it’s too cold, plants can experience cold shock that results in wilting roots. When the soil becomes too hot, roots can start to rot.
Also, take note of the temperature of the water you’re giving your garden. Optimally, it should be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Not Enough Space
Just like people, roots require space to grow. A common reason that growers notice unhealthy symptoms is simply because the plant has outgrown its space. This often happens in container gardening.
Whether you are growing in small containers or large raised beds, you’ll want to ensure appropriate space for the root system. Wait to plant seedlings until the root system is established and strong enough for adequate water and oxygen uptake. If you see roots poking out the sides and bottom of a container, the plant has outgrown it and it’s time to repot.
Roots grow in the section of the soil known as the rhizosphere region, which should have plenty of oxygen and water for roots. But that’ll only get the plant so far. Those roots are also looking for macro and micronutrients to sustain the plant. Sometimes, there aren’t adequate nutrients in the soil. Other times, the soil environment requires additional support to encourage the nutritional uptake process.
Ways to Care for Plant Roots
If you see signs of unhealthy roots and have already addressed things like basic soil composition and appropriate amounts of watering, it’s time to experiment with other ways to improve the conditions for your roots.
Agriculturalists and forest scientists use a process known as root analysis to determine whether there are parasites, pests, or other pathogens that are attacking the roots. But most farmers and backyard gardeners don’t have access to the 2D or 3D images they make of the root systems.
It’s possible to pull one plant to check the roots of an entire area — but it’s better to avoid problems in the first place.
Of course, a fluffy, weed-free topsoil may look like the ideal environment for roots — but like water, it’s easy to overdo it. While some soil disruption is normal while weeding, too much tilling can disrupt the microbes living with your soil’s structure.
As the opposite of over-tilling, some backyard gardeners make the mistake of stomping throughout their beds and compacting the soil. This limits the space fragile roots have to grow toward available water and nutrients.
Instead, create pathways around plants. An organized garden also makes it less likely that you’ll accidentally cause damage to the root systems with tools, harvesting machines, or nearby animals.
Thin Plants Judiciously
If the root systems of many plants must compete with others, it’s unlikely all will survive. Thinning plants is a way to provide your crops with enough space to thrive.
Root systems of fully established large plants and trees can extend well beyond its nearby area. If a section of your growing space consistently has problems establishing healthy roots, it could be a case of too much competition.
Just like watering and tilling, fertilization is a balancing act that must be mastered for overall healthy root structures. Too much fertilization can injure — almost burn — roots, while too little fertilization will create a soil atmosphere that’s lacking in the minerals that plants need.
To determine what nutrients are lacking in your soil, get it tested through the local state agricultural extension office or purchase a test kit for your farm. This can also alert you to imbalanced pH levels in your soil, which can also cause disappointment with expected yields.
Of course, most fertilizers available in today’s agricultural market rely on chemicals or are only designed to work with specific irrigation systems. Look for a plant-derived fertilizer, like BioFuel SP by Impello. It can be added to compost or used alone, to increase the amount of macronutrients like nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and other organic matter.
You may find that certain beds host certain plants with greater success in subsequent growing seasons, and this could be due to nutritional depletion within the soil. To keep the roots of all plants healthy, remember to rotate crops rather than plant the same plant in the same space.
A general rule of thumb used by backyard gardeners is to rotate from legume vegetables to root crops to fruiting crops to leafy vegetables and back again. Some growers will rotate annually, while others may keep a vegetable family in a location for a few years before moving locations.
Support with Inoculants
A scientifically effective method that many growers use to support soils for healthy root systems is introducing inoculants like Tribus Original by Impello. This proprietary bacterial blend is specifically designed to make it easier for roots to utilize the macro and micronutrients within the rhizosphere area of the soil.
This support is especially powerful when the soil conditions are not ideal. If the plant needs to combat high salinity content, extreme temperatures, heavy metals in the soil, or inconsistent water, it will dramatically benefit from these “good” bacteria, such as Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus amylolquefaciens, and Bacillus pumilus.
By supporting root health, these bacteria work together to increase dry yields by 15%, increase stem diameter by 16%, and add 14% to the rate of overall growth. It can work in conjunction with composting or alone.
Recognize Root Problems Early
Although analyzing and caring for a plant’s root system is perhaps the best way to ensure maximum crop yields, it’s often more common to treat the symptoms instead. Some gardeners and farmers may focus more on seeds, soil, and yields than roots, but strategic growers should look deeper.
The bottom line? Approximately half of all the food that’s produced by a plant goes to the root structure. To get the most out of your growing season, think long-term and remember to care for the roots first.
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