Forced Roots

The Sower

The more I research about sustainable gardening, the more I discover how we’ve been growing our crops with too much toil and effort. When you observe how plant life grows in nature, without effort, you begin to wonder if it really could be as simple for humans to garden.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we force roots into the earth. In nature, seeds fall, or are carried by various means. So why do we plant seeds in the earth? Burying seeds in earth can keep wildlife from eating the crop. But so can adding a layer of hay for crop cover. There are exceptions to this, of course, like planting bulbs.

Casting seed has been a common practice when planting large crops. Perhaps it’s not the most cost effective means of using seed. But the crops grow.

When I was attending a class on gardening at the Resiliency Institute in Naperville, Illinois on Fruit Gardening, someone discussed how they had several fruit trees they planted in April, by burying only half of the root ball in earth and covering the top with thick mulch. Already this summer they got fruit from a small, newly planted tree. The secret is in the aeration of the roots. Compaction is death to plants. Their roots need nearly as much air as the leaves.

So here I am, a complete novice and wondering if I can apply similar theory to our garden. I mean, we have an 800 square foot plot of land, why not experiment? Besides, I was lazy and didn’t feel like digging a lot more holes for my remaining marigolds. It was either toss them or plant them. It’s torture for me to destroy plants, so here was my experiment.

Step One: The Marigolds

This row of marigolds was originally in tiny starter pots that we started from seed, so root bound that they were wilting and dying. In this row, I had cleared the weeds and added a thick layer of mulch. I didn’t even bother getting out the garden spade. I just cleared away the mulch, broke up the root ball a bit, plopped them on top of the soil, covered the roots only with mulch, watered and watched over the next weeks.

It was sink or swim, marigolds! At least I gave them a little bit of a chance.

These were “planted” in mid-July 2013, from single stemmed, single bloomed flowers. When we returned from Europe after a month away (and the soaker hose set to water every two days on a timer), this is how they looked. (click for larger picture)

Now, I will say that the ones we planted the roots in the soil got larger. So my next experiment will be burying the roots half-way.

One might say, oh that’s all well and good, but what about crops that you actually eat? Would that really work?

Step Two: The Peppers

At our garden club, when people have started too many plants, they can leave extras on a picnic table at the gardens. So I found two pepper plants. I had no idea what kind of peppers. When I got them, they were short (six inches) with a few leaves each – typical of new plant starts.

So I grabbed two of them and started my next experiment. Same deal as the marigolds. In mid-July 2013, I planted the two pepper plants, same method.

When we returned from Europe at the end of August (about six weeks after planting them in mulch, on top of the soil), here is how they looked.

We were surprised to find well developed peppers, ready to pick! The plants are on the small side but prolific producers for their size. I’ve since picked these and several more have formed, they are still in bloom here in mid-September.

Accidental Step Three: The Tomatoes

So, here was my accidental experiment. We had so many tomato starts, we gave most away, but tossed one on a bed to decompose. We also tossed one of our marigolds in this bed and covered both with mulch. I left them for dead!

Here is what happened. They both grew vigorously through the mulch. No real surprise, right? Surely some of you have tossed something only to see it growing quite happily on top of a mulch pile.

Well, here they are. The tomato plant is a bit hard to define (with the neighbor’s weeds as a backdrop), but it’s huge. It’s larger than the three identical ones we planted. It’s actually producing tomatoes, has several flowers, as you can see if you look closely. The marigold is right in the middle of it.

Again, not all that spectacular except one thing. Prior to August, we had an incredibly wet growing season. Whenever it rained the tomatoes wilted (and some leaves died). Typical right? Tomatoes hate rain! But do they? Or are their roots compacted, or has the soil gone anaerobic?

We had three tomato plants in soil, just like it, in a slightly drier bed. I call them my zombie tomatoes because one died completely, another still had ripening tomatoes even with dead leaves, and the last one got tomatoes but never got large. Its leaves also suffered. None of the those three got to the size of the one above.

So if there is enough rain to make the night crawlers come up, and you find some drowned, this is what’s happening to the roots too. They can’t breathe. Microbes and animal life die. Without beneficial microbes, plants cannot survive. They might bounce back (fortunately) once the worms are able to continue their underground tunnels to make the soil aerated again, and microbes start doing their part.

By the way, if your soil has few worms, you would benefit from getting some.

While all of our other tomato plants, without exception, have a plethora of brown and dead leaves from the last downpour, this one doesn’t have a single dead leaf. It’s vibrant and green. Further, this is the wettest part of the bed, the absolute wettest part of our garden. It was underwater for a week in early summer. This one was able to keep its roots dry even in a very wet bed. In the mulch, a layer of fungus has started, and this means fluffier soil that can drain well.

Combating compacted soil

There are raised bed gardens (adding balanced, aerated soil), lasagna gardening (layers of nitrogen and carbons) and other methods. Consider that most these methods are on top of the soil, not under it. Again, not breaking open the soil.

Another method I’m interested in experimenting with is hügelkultur (hugelkultur in English spelling). When there is poor soil, wet soil, or other issues with the environment, this could be an ideal solution. It means “hill culture” – making a raised bed of sorts, but not a typical one. Check it out.


Force roots in, force nutrients out – discoveries

This has me thinking about how we force roots in the soil, not allowing the plant to find its own way to the places it’s happiest. Plants have to struggle to find their own way when we bury them in soil that is too dense.

We also force nutrients out of the soil. We rototill, which releases nitrogen. Then we have to pile nitrogen, in some form, back into the soil. We destroy microbes and worms when we rototill, which causes compaction, which in turn causes the need to rototill.

I look at it this way – every time we break open the soil, we are causing changes in the soil. To me, it’s like breaking open the skin of our bodies. Sure, we can get nutrients in that way (injections), but there are more effective ways, like topical patches or creams. Topsoil is vital to the health of the planet, to the atmosphere. Erosion is a huge problem due to agribusiness.

What’s so special about microbes in the soil?

Microbes break down the nutrients a plant needs, so that they can absorb them. When we add chemicals for fertility, we destroy microbes in the soil.  Without microbes to help at the plant’s roots, they become more susceptible to disease because they can’t uptake nutrients. Then starts a new cycle of chemicals to nourish plants, combat disease or infestation, all of which further depletes microbes.

What about helping nature with fertilizers?

What about natural fertilizers? Look at manure – if an animal is fed vermicides and/or antibiotics, those drugs are in the manure and they will kill the worms and microbes. So even though plants are receiving nutrition, it causes a dependency on this form of fertilization since the microbes are depleted, not to mention impacting produce adversely for human consumption.

There are good fertilizers, though, that contribute to aerated soil. We can add things like rock dust, kelp, decomposed fish, compost or compost tea. We can use “chop and drop,” using healthy plant clippings as part of the mulch for nitrogen. We can add brown mulch topically – wood chips, straw or other browns that aren’t too acidic. Lime and gypsum soften soil. Bone meal adds phosphorus, vital for keeping infestations at bay. Apple cider vinegar breaks down minerals in the soil. Molasses feeds microbes and adds trace minerals.

Plant rotation for nutrients?

Since plants work so hard at setting up house, we then rotate crops, making them have to set up all over. No other plants in nature rotate themselves.

Drop the force, allow the process

In essence, the more we interfere with the life of a plant, the more work we force ourselves to do in order to keep them alive. Given the right balance of organic mulches and minerals from the earth, a plant should be able to find its own way, mostly on its own.

Onto my next experiment…

We sowed some seeds for winter harvest. I tossed them on the earth (with only mulch pulled back), then covering them only with a light covering of mulch again. I mean, who likes to bend over and make furrows? If gardening can be done the lazy way, why not?

I plan to pick up some hay bales to assist with keeping roots warm in winter (cool in summer). Hopefully I’ll have a new article to share with the results!


  1. Wow, I’ve never heard that about the tree roots, but it makes so much sense! I always thought of soil contact for the roots, but I’m assuming the nutrients are taken up through the roots ends..? The loose much on the top half of the roots would allow water to get through and down to the roots quicker and easier too. I’m going to try that next time I buy fruit trees! Great to see your own experiments too.


    • My garden is one big experiment, since I only started growing a big one this year. There are some things that have to be deeper in the soil, such as bulbs (but maybe not – probably only if they have to survive a cold winter). Glad you could get some ideas this way =)


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