The Cutting Edge

By Jim Sollecito

Shaving the sides of the root system is the most effective way to establish a landscape plant.
Shaving the sides of the root system is the most effective way to establish a landscape plant.

I believe if you stop trying to get better, then you cease being good. What I am about to share might cause you to rethink everything you knew about planting.

My wife and I recently met with my former classmate, Cornell University’s Nina Bassuk. We always exchange solid information. Every so often the information we share is earth shattering. Literally.

Fact: most nursery stock is now grown in containers instead of the ground. This lessens transplant shock, allows for crop uniformity and makes a nursery operation feasible no matter the earthly soil.

So, these roots are now entirely housed in the container, as opposed to the in-ground method where most roots were cut off when dug from the earth.

But since the roots cannot grow laterally beyond the container, they start to circle the pot, eventually become “pot-bound” and need special attention. This happens to nearly every plant that you take home.

Conventional planting requires ensuring the plant is placed at the same height in the ground as it was in the container. But first the roots would be “scored” or cut with a shovel in a few places to disrupt the circling. Additionally, we would physically tease and spread the roots to encourage them to adapt to their new homes. This worked pretty well.

Except it didn’t. Because misdirected roots would still grow in the wrong direction. This can cause problems. They can’t collect as much water and nutrients as roots that spread out. They may cause plants to never securely anchor themselves into the new soil. Not a good thing, as they may tip with the wind. In severe cases, roots can even grow tightly around the base of the plant and strangle it.

New research has shown that shaving the sides of the root system with a saw is far more effective for a new plant to become established. Healthy roots grow healthy shoots. And stronger plants are not as enticing to insects as stressed plants.

If you cut circling roots before planting, new roots will grow outward from the cut roots, breaking the habit of growing in a circle. As they grow, they’ll also branch, widening the root network. Bassuk recommends shaving the entire root ball of a pot-bound tree or shrub before you plant it. Research has shown this helps trees get better established and grow again more quickly after transplant.

The technique is to shave one inch from the sides and bottom of the root system, which eliminates encircling roots. You can use a hand saw or a serrated knife. All the exterior roots should be shaved. Then quickly (before they dry out) pop them into their new home and water thoroughly. As Bassuk stresses (to the point of insisting) “Watering is crucial. Once planted, roots need to grow beyond the lightweight container mix into surrounding earth.” To promote root growth, surround the shaved roots with backfill that is 1/3 compost, mixing in a couple of handfuls of crab and lobster shell. Water thoroughly again. Top off with two to three inches real bark mulch, taking care to keep mulch away from trunks and stems. Well-planted, this new member of your landscape will probably need little more than routine watering.

Yes, it is that simple. And this year when you see our professional crews working in your neighborhood, look closely. Each member will have their very own root shaving handsaw. Science is beautiful. And we like to be on the cutting edge.

Jim Sollecito is the first lifetime senior certified landscape professional in NYS. He operates Sollecito Landscaping Nursery in Syracuse. Contact him at 468-1142 or