Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center

Let’s talk about our roots…


Many times when we think of the ideal plants for a project, we picture only half the plant. We want a certain height or number of stems, or a specific aesthetic quality of the foliage: but don’t forget to picture the roots of your ideal plant!  Roots are of vital importance to a plant’s survival out in the “real world.”  While the green parts above ground are photosynthesizing to keep the plant fed, down below, the roots bring in the water and nutrients that make all biological processes in the plant possible.  In the nursery we protect and nurture our plants, giving them water, nutrients, and even helping them fight off pests. But once they are planted in the landscape, the plants largely have to provide for themselves, relying upon their roots to do the job.


Once planted, it is of utmost importance that plants’ roots can immediately start egressing out into the soil to find all the compounds necessary for growth, development, repair, and immune response.  In the nursery we aim to grow plants with healthy root systems that will help the process happen quickly and efficiently. Healthy root systems help the plant get over the stress of being popped in a new area so it can get to the business of growing, thriving, and surviving. To us, this means that the plant exhibits many fine roots throughout the entire container and has no root circling. The fine roots, which are the smaller, fibrous roots of plants, are where most of the absorption of water and nutrients takes place; a plant starting with a greater number of fine roots will have a larger surface area through which to absorb what it needs. Roots that become spiraled or tangled in their nursery pots can have a difficult (and somewhat impossible!) time “untangling” themselves to grow out into the soil after planting, preventing the plant from accessing resources from the soil.

At Oxbow, we attempt to grow beautiful and healthy root systems through our container choices and our transplanting methods.

containers1 containers2

When we can, we use containers that are elongated and have bottoms open to the air.  A few examples are shown in the photos above. Containers with open bottoms allow for air pruning, which occurs when the primary roots grow down to the bottom of the plant and encounter drier air. They cease growing at the tip, which encourages the plant to send out more roots — including the desirable fine roots. The open bottom and elongated shape of the containers also discourages root spiraling and generally allows for nice, elongated primary roots with a rich system of fine roots in between. Admittedly, the containers are more expensive and do not transport as conveniently as some of the more traditional containers, but we work with our customers and either lend out our containers with their plants in them, or pull and bundle the plugs for them, as in the photos below.

plantsandroots1 plantsandroots2

As we move our plants up from one container size to the next, we are sure to pay special attention to breaking up any tangled or spiraled roots, and we will typically prune some of the longer roots at this time as well. This may seem counterintuitive at first, or like we are being unnecessarily rough, but in fact is quite helpful to the root system: pruning tips encourages new growth in the plant’s root system as it settles into the new container, and the new growth typically includes more of the desired fine, fibrous roots.


There are a couple more months of good planting weather ahead of us!

Click here for our current wholesale availability.

Interested in setting up a contract for a future project?  Click here for our all-species price list.  Let us know what species you would like to see on this list.

All inquiries, contact Bridget, nursery manager, bridget@oxbow.org, 425.788.1134 ext 4


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