Freeing Rootbound Plants

‘I live in Thailand and I have just moved into a new house the previous owner has left me a beautiful pot plant which seems to be absolutely thriving but after a little deeper look I can see the plant has grown into the soil under it. The plant is in a very awkward place and really needs to be moved. But I’m so scared to kill it. I also know that being like this in the pot can’t be good for the plant in the long run…Do I cut the roots and risk killing this beauty?

Sondra, Thank you so much in advance.

I’d like to deal with this with as much love and respect for this plant’

Thank you for the question about an often overlooked, yet critical aspect of gardening. Absolutely cut the roots and free this plant from its rootbound prison, you’ll be doing the plant a favour, in fact the hardest thing about this task is going to be getting the plant out of the pot.


Freeing Rootbound Plants

Any root bound plant will benefit from being removed and relocated from its confined space. There’s no need to worry about hurting the plant as remaining in a rootbound condition is more detrimental than anything else. With a standard nursery plant that comes in a 10 or 20 mm plastic pot releasing a rootbound plant is as easy as watering the soil, squeezing the plastic sides and popping it out. Then you tease out as many of the wound-up roots as possible and clip off the excess with secateurs leaving you with a balanced root-ball and then replant.

Now for a plant like yours, bound in an earthenware pot (same goes for ceramic) you have a a task on your hands. You’d be lucky to get it out, I have a feeling you’re going to have to bring out wrecking crew and smash the pot open with a hammer, sledgehammer, crowbar, whatever is easiest and the most fun!

Why? You might ask. Well, there’s a few things going on here.

  1. The tiny size of the pot relative to the plant for starters.
  2. The woody roots growing from the pot into the ground.
  3. The fact that the pot is not only earthenware but square also.


With a circular earthenware, or ceramic pot you might have a chance of getting the plant out, but in my experience those woody exposed roots are just the tip of the iceberg. They will be curled up inside all around each other, interlocked, wedged and attached to the pot in the corners and sides in the most unhelpful ways – essentially making it impossible to remove the plant. I doubt the woody roots found their way out on the first attempt, well that’s what experience tells me anyway – and trust me I’m a gardener!

The pot looks like a throwaway, so it’s no big deal. It’ll feel good smashing that pot up and freeing the plant, and how often do you get to feel good about smashing things up? It’s the right thing to do. The pot’s constricting the plant which will do so much better out of there, it’s doing well just to survive as it is. In the case that a pot is worth saving, try a serrated bread knife sunk in at the edges operated with a sawing motion around the internal perimeter of the pot to see if you can free the plant.

I wouldn’t worry about hurting the plant in this whole process, it should survive just keep it well watered before and after. Either transplant it direct to the ground in a well-prepared soil or move it to a much larger pot. But before you move it, think about how you are going to do it – break it down into tasks.


1.Pre-prepare it ‘s new position, garden bed or a much larger pot?

2.Trim the plant back into a nice shape. Plants always do better with a trim before transplanting. The reduced foliage means less moisture loss to transpiration – the plant will better cope with transplant stress. Think about plant cuttings, we usually take the foliage back to all but the last few pairs of growing tips. From the pictures sent in I can see that it could easily be trimmed into a nice spherical shape by taking out some of the wild outlying bits, or better still cut it back even harder.

3.Roots growing from the pot into the ground need to be cut, secateurs might do it, otherwise a saw. Make sure all your tools are clean and sharp.

4.Move the plant to its desired position for transplant then remove it from the pot or otherwise break it away with a hammer. Once the plant is out cut the woody roots back and get your fingers in there and tease out the finer roots so that everything runs free. Don’t worry too much about hurting the plant, there’s probably not even much soil left in the pot and if its managed to survive like that, a bit of root remediation isn’t going to hurt.

On a heavily rootbound plant it is possible to take off up to 50% of the root-ball sometimes more with no ill-effects depending on the plant and how severely bound it is. With a substantial trim of the root-ball also trim back the crown of the plant.

If you think you’re harming the plant, then think about bonsai which are extremely delicate – yet the entire art relies on either trimming the roots, keeping the plant in small pots, or otherwise restricting root volume to restrict overall growth. Once you’ve untangled the root-ball into something manageable it’s as simple as repotting or transplanting, use plenty of compost, then water in well.


Tips for Ultimate Success

1.To increase the chances of success water well before and after.

2.Perform the task in the late afternoon, there’s nothing worse than transplanting into the full heat of the midday sun. Often it’s the first few hours after the transplant that determines whether the operation is a success.

3.Have a new larger pot or a place in the garden pre-prepared, composted and watered, the plant should be back in earth ASAP.

  1. Trim the crown of the plant back to a nice manageable shape. If you’re worried about losing the plant you can always make some cuttings from the parts you trim off.
  2. Remove the plant or break the pot, trim woody roots and tease out the finer ones, then trim the root-ball back to a balanced shape so that it literally resembles a ‘ball’ or spherical shape, don’t be too fussy about it – just get it back in the ground ASAP.
  3. If you must transplant to a sunny spot in the garden, prepare a shade cloth or even an old white bed sheet draped over the plant for a few days/ weeks will help reduce transpiration and allow it to fully recover much better. Water it in well and regularly until you notice new growth starting to appear.

Follow the steps and don’t worry too much about hurting the plant, cutting off those woody bound roots is like cutting off a gangrenous limb, it’s worth the risk.

Most gardeners are accustomed to only trimming above ground, but once you’ve pulled a plant out and trimmed its roots…then you know you’ve really arrived!


Dr. Kris

Garden Doctor


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