by Charles

This article was originally published in 2014 by Garden Culture Magazine, US Issue 3, under the title, “Maximizing Yield from Container Gardens”.

Container gardening is super popular, but did you know that plastic pots and resin plant containers aren’t doing you any favors? Heads up, urban gardeners! Your small space fruit and vegetable yields are being stunted, because the plants’ roots are suffering.

Growing plants and having a garden is a rewarding hobby; especially when your plants look awesome. It is a great feeling walking out your back door to check on your garden, and spotting the first ripe tomato of the season. It’s almost as good as eating that first ripe tomato. Maybe almost as powerful as bragging to your neighbors and friends how nice the tomato was, or how nice your garden is. The feeling is more enhanced knowing your garden is nicer than theirs. For a home gardener there is nothing better.

However, what sometimes gets lost, especially to the novice or the beginner, is what makes that plant and that fruit look great. That fact is, for most, all the attention is given to the top of the plant, when in reality, if you do not have a great plant below, you will not have a great plant up top. I am talking about the roots. The part of the plant that you don’t see, but is the reason for the top of your plant being beautiful and fruitful. If you have great roots, you will have great fruit.

Ample Harvests Come from Good Roots

For many years a challenge for container gardeners has been to create a natural environment inside a container. Mimic the soil, temperature, and drainage while providing an area for the roots to grow to their potential. After all, a plant is only as good as its roots. For a long time the only option has been a plastic container. As we have learned, traditional plastic containers do not offer the best environment for plants to thrive. They do not drain well, they hold heat in, and they do not encourage a plant’s root structure to develop to its potential.

These reasons are why companies and home gardeners alike have made changes to their plastic container designs and to the mixes they use. Both have drilled holes in the containers to deliver oxygen and better drainage. White plastic containers are more popular to guard against heat buildup. Soil companies have made a nice business from creating mixes that drain well in a plastic container that doesn’t properly breathe or allow for proper drainage. Over the last few years, many companies have addressed these challenges, and now make both hard sided and fabric containers that offer the benefits that the container gardener needs to produce a healthy and productive plant.

Root-Bound Plants Reduce Garden Yield

Growing in a hard plastic container almost always means that a root-bound plant is your result. A root-bound plant is when the roots of a plant outgrows the container it is in. This is easy to do when growing in a container that doesn’t breathe and promotes root circling.

Roots need oxygen. As they grow they are looking for and seeking out oxygen. The roots of a plastic container reach the edge of the container and begin to travel along the slick sides of that container. With little to no oxygen and nothing to stop the roots, they circle around and around the container until they reach the bottom of the container and the drain holes. Finally, oxygen!

This is why with traditional plastic  containers there are always roots coming out of the bottom of the container – it’s aerated here. At this point the plant is basically root-bound. Even though there is a void of root growth in the interior of the container. That void is there because the roots have gone elsewhere looking for oxygen. The container gives the roots very little place to grow because they are trying to get out of the 3 or 4 bottom drain holes. When this happens many problems can occur. The plant may become stunted, stretching can occur, smaller and slower flower and fruit production, and watering needs increase dramatically. Not the recipe for a great plant worth bragging about.

Aeration Containers & Fabric Pots Air Prune Roots

With the new technologies that have become available to the home gardener, these problems are eliminated. Available now in both hard sided and fabric, there are containers that actually prevent root bound plants and will even promote root pruning. I am talking about aeration containers designed to actually prune your roots. Some work better than others, but all of them have the same ideas at play. They stop root circling and promote root pruning.

In an aeration container when the roots reach the edge of the container they come in contact with the oxygen that they need. Since most roots cannot grow in straight air, the forward growth stops and root pruning happens. As the roots reach the air at the container wall, the tip of the root will dry out, resulting in natural pruning. When this happens that root will branch out laterally towards the center of the container creating more roots that will grow to the edge of the container and do the same thing. This action will occur over and over filling up the entire container with roots. It’s not just the same roots circling around, but a root structure that includes many more root tips. The more tips the better as this spot is most efficient at absorbing water and nutrients.

Plastic Pots: Poor Plant Environment

Having this well-developed root structure will allow the plant to absorb more water and nutrients. Just like humans who eat too much, a plant that can eat more will get bigger too. Roots will not grow to find nutrients. They grow when there are nutrients available. This being the case and the root structure containing many more roots tips, the plant is sure to grow beautifully and produce brag-worthy fruit.

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