by Matt Lebbanister
We as human beings are notorious for trusting our eyes. This tendency has lead to many phrases such as, “Never judge a book by its cover”, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, and “Out of sight, out of mind”. We as gardeners are no different. Many indoor gardeners, professionals and hobbyists alike, have a habit of only caring to the health of the plant that is visible to us. Overlooking the importance of root health can not only lead to shortcoming at harvest time, but can invite unwanted pests and disease into the grow room.
With root health being so vital, proper care is necessary to maintain vigorous root growth throughout all stages of plant development. Now, not all roots grow underground in soil. Orchids are an example of plants whose roots grow in the air. Such plants are known as “aerials”. For the sake of keeping things simple, the more common plants with a root system that does grow underground will be discussed in this article. As well a brief description of the root system and how it works will be given. It will be explained how proper technique and some ‘must have’ products will allow your roots to reach their maximum potential throughout all phases of plant growth. Explosive root growth below ground will always mean explosive plant growth above.
Roots in vascular plants begin when a seed germinates or a cutting is coaxed into growing roots. The single root from a seed will grow down into the medium in search of water and nutrients and begins to branch out rootlets. As the roots grow into the soil/soulless or hydroponics medium, the roots act as an anchor to keep the plant stable. Roots at this early stage of growth are smaller and more delicate than the roots of established plants. This means that special attention is needed when caring for young plants.
Young roots cannot be dried out, where established plants can survive awhile when dry. Whether starting your cuttings in a soil/soulless mix or in a hydroponics medium like rockwool, be sure to water often. Take care when watering. Roots at such an early stage of development can be drowned easily. When over water, plant root-hairs cannot take in any oxygen. Microscopic root-hairs will only absorb water and nutrients in the presence of oxygen. Over watering a plant at any stage of growth will not only mean that the plant is denied any nutrients, but water as well. This means that by over watering your plants, especially seedlings and cuttings, you can actually cause the plants to dry out.
To prevent over watering, always use a growing medium that has good aeration. Adding pearlier to a mix can increase the oxygen retention to an ideal amount. Also, using multi layered propagation trays will decrease the risk of drowning roots. Multi layered propagation trays have a layer with holes for the medium to sit on. When this tray is put in another tray without holes it traps any excess water away from the growing medium.
A great way to start off healthy roots when propagating seedlings or cuttings is to starve the plants of nutrient initially. By limiting the amount of nutrient the plant receives the roots are forced to grow strong and grow quickly to search for nutrient. This is achieved by denying seedlings and cuttings any nutrient for the first week of root growth, then increasing the levels of nutrient gradually each consecutive feeding until reaching full strength. Adding nutrient to a solution being fed to young roots will give them no reason to grow large since they will not need to look for food. Also, young roots are delicate and can be burned easily.
Here are a few products that are safe to feed young roots and will increase their growth rate. Humic acid, usually labeled “Black” by manufacturers, is an excellent additive to any nutrient solution regardless of stage, but can be especially beneficial to young roots. Humic acid can improve the quality of soil/soulless mediums by increasing water retention and by supercharging biological activity. Humic acid is found in healthy soil and is what gives it its rich, black colour. It acts as a chelating agent by latching itself to many micro nutrients essential to root growth. When taken by the plant’s root system, the fact that the humic acid has attached itself to many other nutrients increases the efficiency of the plant.
Another product, which is very similar and safe to feed young roots, is fulvic acid. Fulvic acid, usually labeled gold by manufacturers, is a derivative of humic acid and works well in conjunction with humic acid. Fulvic acid latches itself to macro nutrients and draws them into the roots. Both fulvic and humic acid can be used safely throughout all stages of plant development.
Heating pads are a must for early stages of root growth. The ideal temperature for rapid root growth is 65-75 F. This simple product can keep the young root zone safe and healthy within this ideal temperature range. Using a heating mat can also take days to weeks off the time taken to root cuttings.
With roots growing quickly, attention must be paid to the container the plant is in. Plants should never be allowed to become root bound in whatever container they are in. Always transplant before plants become root bound. When transplanting, one must take care of the delicate root-hairs. Damaged roots can invite disease into the plant.
Since mature plants have more specialized roots, special care must be given. There are many simple products and techniques that can give any grower explosive root growth and ensure root health. The methods may change depending on whether growing in a soil/soulless medium or growing hydroponically, but the principle remains the same. For instance, all roots, not including aerials need to be kept out of the light. Light not only dries out the root, but it promotes the growth of algae and bacteria on the roots. Roots in soil/soulless mixes are easily kept out of the light, but plants grown on ebb and flow tables in rockwool cubes can be a little trickier. One simple technique for keeping light off your ebb and flow table is to cover it with black and white plastic. This should be done before the plants are transplanted from starter cubes to any larger size. Place the larger cubes in the arrangement desired on the table. Once this is done, cover the table with the black and white plastic, white side up to reflect the light and black side down to absorb any light that would reach the roots. Then cut X’s in the plastic where the starter cubes will be placed into the larger cubes. This keeps the light out of the root zone and will keep the humidity in.
There are products that are relatively new to the market that can provide rapid root growth throughout all stages of plant development. These products feature beneficial bacteria and fungi. These beneficial bacteria and fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots where nutrients are broken down making it easier for the plant to absorb them. They are found naturally in soil, but soulless mixes and hydroponics growing mediums are void of any beneficial bacteria and/or fungi. Many companies have made these symbiotic organisms available for the home gardener. In fact many companies are putting mycorrhza, the term for fungi that live symbiotically with roots, premixed in their soulless medium.
With all the new and available products and nutrients directed solely at improving root growth, it is hard to believe how many gardeners simply neglect them or forget about them all together. How often do gardeners think to themselves that a wilted leaf could possibly be caused by something happening below the surface? Let us set forth this day, forgetting all the phases that point to our true nature. Let’s keep what’s out of sight, in mind.
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