Around now, early November, a lot of plants are looking like this. If it’s an annual, toss it, it’s done. But if it’s a perennial, it might still be good. The way to know is to pop it out of the pot and check its roots.
(A perennial is an individual plant that comes back year after year. Annuals don’t survive the winter. This could be because the plant is from a warmer climate, where it is perennial but it dies in our winters. Or the plant could be a type that grows, sets seed, and dies all in one season, regardless of winter temperatures. I suppose if you got a perennial and killed it, it is also an annual.)
Gently squeeze the pot, tip the plant upside down, and you will see the roots:
I think I said “alright!” out loud when I saw this. That is a healthy root system! This perennial is very much alive.
Not all plants will have this many healthy roots; this was the liveliest root system I saw all day. When checking the roots of dubious plants, you’re looking for white or light colored roots that are plump, not withered. Even a few white roots show that a plant is alive.
This is how I prepared the baby for planting. Looking at this photo, I don’t think I even shook up the roots enough. I’m almost afraid to post this picture because my boss reads this blog.
Basically, you want to get the roots thinking about growing outwards, and to do so, you have to do rough-house them a little. Pull them down and apart, detangle them, break some if need be. One coworker of mine even grabs the foliage and shakes the root ball. You do a plant no favors by leaving its roots in the shape of the pot. You’ll come back a year later, tug on the plant, and it will come right out, with the roots still circling in their old pattern.
I am still working on being rough enough with the roots, but after watching my coworker shake a plant like a rubber chicken, I realized that being tough on them is best practices.
Today is November 11th, and it felt like one of the last safe days to plant perennials this year. (Fall is a great time to plant perennials, btw) There’s a long cold stretch coming and the ground will probably freeze, taking plant roots with it. I don’t know if the plants I planted today will make it, but they’re safer in the ground than in pots. Or at least they will weigh on my mind less when they’re in the ground.
For my own records, here is what I planted today:
New England aster (the star of the photo shoot)
White Culver’s Root
Crambe Maritima (Sea Kale, edible and perennial)
Garlic (in grow bags and in plastic pots as a trial)
Menton Tulip bulbs
Minnow daffodil bulbs
Hot pink species tulips (these tulips come back year after year, if you are still reading.)
Pansies in the front pot (another thing that will come back next spring)
Oregano in decorative pots and in the ground
Monarda fistulosa (Oswego tea, or bee balm)
A Blue Azalea that I liked at work (I bought this for my birthday and I am a Cancer crab, so that shows how long it’s been in a pot—yikes!)
Two geranium maculatums
Pussytoes (a native ground cover for dry, sunny spots)
And a blackberry bush!
Wow, I did a lot. It took me all day.