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What is Root Pruning?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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Root pruning a horticultural technique in which the roots of a plant are trimmed. While this might sound like an alarming proposition, root pruning can actually be good for plants when it is done properly, and it can resolve a number of issues associated with trees and shrubs. For root pruning, well sharpened, clean tools are needed, and some gardeners recommend keeping a separate set of tools just for work on roots, since grit from the soil around the roots tends to grind up the tools quickly.

Roots serve a number of functions for a healthy plant. They help the plant take up nutrients from the ground, and they also work to stabilize the plant. Some plants may utilize their roots to force out competition, as well, taking over the soil so that other plants cannot settle in it. When people engage in root pruning, they remove nonessential roots, leaving behind the small, delicate roots which the tree uses to access nutrients.

One reason for root pruning is transplantation. When trees and shrubs are transplanted, people often note that their roots are quite sprawling. Instead of trying to get all the roots, people root prune down to the root ball, the cluster of roots in the dripline which actually gathers nutrients, and then transplant the tree. The tree will put out new roots for stability later.

Root pruning can also be used to manage size, and to control plants being grown in containers. For bonsai in particular, root pruning is critical, as it will keep the roots from filling the entire container. When plants become rootbound, they have trouble intaking nutrients, and the volume of the roots can actually force the plant up out of the container, with the plant literally uprooting itself.

Another reason for this practice is to control buckling of sidewalks and pathways. Roots have a way of disturbing these features in the landscape, and while barriers can be put in place to encourage them to grow elsewhere, occasionally a determined root will snake its way into an inappropriate place. This root can be removed without harming the tree to prevent further damage to the walkway.

It is important to time this pruning activity carefully. Pruning tree roots does damage and shock the plant, although it will not kill it. It is best to prune roots in late fall or early spring, when the plant is fairly dormant. During peak growing periods, like in the late spring, root pruning can damage a plant.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Mykol — On Jun 06, 2012

I have lived on the same place for about 20 years, and most of my flower gardens have been made by transplanting. For many kinds of plants and flowers, it is very healthy to divide and transplant them, and this continues to give me more garden area to work with.

When I am transplanting something and pruning the roots, I make sure to keep the equipment for that separate. I also clean the equipment well throughout the year.

It is much healthier for your plants when your equipment is clean and you also minimize the risk of transferring certain diseases or pests from one area to another.

By honeybees — On Jun 05, 2012

We live on 3 acres, and when we moved here, there was only one tree on the property. One of our friends had several evergreen trees he had planted too close together and wanted to thin them out.

We rented a truck that would dig up the tree and all of the roots so you could transplant it. This would also dig a new hole to plant the tree in and we were able to transplant several trees this way. The hole was big enough so the entire root system would fit.

It was really interesting to see how long and big the roots of the trees were. They weren't even very tall yet, and the root system was much bigger than I thought it would be.

These have made great landscaping trees in our yard. When you disturb the root system like this, it is not uncommon to lose some of the trees. I think we only lost about 10% of them, which we have been told is a pretty good percentage when you do something like that.

By John57 — On Jun 04, 2012

I have a small bonsai plant in a container for several years, and had never pruned the roots. I never even realized that bonsai pruning was so important until the roots began to take over the whole pot.

When my plant uprooted itself because of this, I went online to find out what was wrong. Then I realized how important it was to prune their roots. I pulled the plant out of the container, pruned the roots, and potted it in a bigger container.

It looks a lot better than it did, and I hope I didn't do any permanent damage to it by not keeping the roots pruned.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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