The Route Of Roots

THE REAL DIRT

March 05, 1995|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Flowers are pretty, it's true, but let's get to the root of their charm. A plant's soul lies beneath the soil. Beauty is only stem deep -- in gardening, as in life.

Behold the lowly root, unsung hero of the garden. While flowers bask in brilliant sunlight, winning praise for their good looks, roots toil in total darkness to support their verdant kin.

Roots claw their way through the soil, seeking nourishment for plants. Roots anchor plants in place and help to hold them upright. Roots defend their underground terrain against the invasive roots of other plants.

Roots do all this work, and what thanks do they get? We gardeners treat roots terribly. We starve, drown, crush and suffocate them. We force them into pots so tight that they can hardly move. We plunk them down in awful soil and make them scrounge for food. We immerse them in water and wonder why they die. We trample roots, park cars on top of them, and run over them with lawn mowers when they dare to show themselves.

Roots deserve more respect. Just because they're underfoot doesn't mean we should walk all over them.

I've been fascinated with plant roots ever since I was a kid playing with my toy soldiers beneath the cherry tree in our back yard. I dug holes under that tree with my trusty penknife, to make foxholes for my men. Every time I unearthed a root, I'd marvel at the tangled web of tiny root hairs with balls of dirt attached. Then I'd worry that by cutting a stringy two-inch root, I'd somehow killed the tree, a towering 40-footer that probably never felt a thing.

There's a mystery about plant roots that captures children's fancy. Why else would we be told that Peter Rabbit lived beneath the root of a fir tree? And what about Winnie the Pooh?

As a child, my wife believed that trees looked the same above and below ground -- that for every branch, there was a corresponding root of the same shape growing beneath the soil. And if one could somehow envision all those roots, it would be like watching the tree's reflection in a pool of water.

I could sit and look at roots for hours. In fact, I did that last night, while tending the seedlings in my home nursery. The young tomato plants needed thinning, so I carefully lifted them from their tiny peat pots, transplanting half of the seedlings into larger pots and discarding the rest. I always sow too many seeds, in case some fail to germinate.

How do I decide which plants to keep, and which to throw away? By examining their feet. Those seedlings with robust root growth make the final cut; those with wimpy roots do not. When thinning seedlings, I seldom consider their outward appearance. Healthy roots are a better clue to a plant's success than any stem or leaf growth.

Roots are so important to a plant's well-being that they may grow several inches underground before the tiny seedling first breaks through the soil. Those tender shoots are only window dressing; the real show has been going on backstage for several days, as roots begin their quest for food and water.

Most plants have one main root, an elevator shaft that goes straight down into the earth. Called a taproot, it plunges deep into the soil to lock the plant in place. In some plants, like spinach and dandelions, the taproot runs the whole show. More often, the taproot shares the workload, branching laterally into many smaller, highly efficient side roots that mine the soil for minerals.

Taproots are especially strong anchors and, once broken, may never be replaced. Transplanting a tree usually destroys that taproot and can make it less sturdy than a tree raised on the spot from a seedling.

Some roots do more than just hold plants in place. They muscle up, tug at stems and yank them closer to the soil. Tulips and hostas have "contractile" roots that actually drag plants downward, like something from a science fiction film.

Roots are pretty tough characters. Some of them refuse to die, even when the rest of the plant is gone. We call them weeds. Stinging nettle, dock and knotweed are examples of plants that habitually rise from the dead. Mow them down and the plants grow right back, buoyed by a stubborn single-mindedness that would be laudable -- if only they weren't weeds.

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