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What is a Root Ball?

By Amy Hunter
Updated May 16, 2024
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A root ball is the name given to the part of a plant that contains the root. When you purchase a plant that is already growing it can come in a variety of ways. You may get a bare root plant, one that is in a pot, or a plant that has its roots enclosed in soil, in a burlap or plastic sack.

If your plant arrives with bare roots, you will not have a root ball to contend with. Either of the other two methods will include one. The root ball consists of the roots and the dirt that surround them. When you are ready to put your plant in the ground, it is important to treat the root ball carefully.

If the root ball is damaged during planting, the plant may not recover. The method of planting differs slightly, depending on whether you are transplanting a shrub or flower from a pot or one that has the root balled in a sack. Before you begin transplanting, have everything you will need ready. You will need a pair of work gloves, a shovel, a bucket or pitcher of water and some organic matter to give your plant the best chance of success.

Begin by digging the hole for your plant. If the plant was in a pot originally, the hole should be deep enough that the plant is replanted at the same depth as it was in the pot. If the plant was in a sack, it should be planted deep enough that all of its roots are buried, but not so deep that it has any branches on the ground. The hole should be one and one half the width of the root ball.

Once you hole is prepared, you may want to add a little organic matter to the bottom so that there is some loose and nutritionally dense soil available to the new transplant. Now you are ready to put your plant in its hole. If the plant was in a pot, grasp the plant close to the soil and gently pull it from the container. If the plant was in a sack, untie and remove the sack from around the root ball.

Gently, using your hands or a trowel, tease apart and loosen the root ball. The roots often become compacted when left in these containers for an extended period of time, and need encouragement to grow out and down when transplanted. If you skip this step, the plant’s roots may never spread into the surrounding soil.

Finally, refill the hole. Mix some organic matter in with the soil as you refill the hole. Gently tamp the soil down around the plant, leaving a small depression around it so that water can pool after a rain. This slight depression will allow the plant to soak in water rather than it running off, taking the top soil with it.

After you have completed the transplanting, water the plant thoroughly. If the weather is dry, you may need to water the plant several times a week while it transitions into its new home. By investing some time when transplanting, your plant will grow better and be more likely to thrive in the years to come.

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Discussion Comments
By Planch — On Oct 28, 2010

This may be a silly question, but what are the benefits of transplanting a plant with a root ball as opposed to with bare roots?

It seems like all a root ball does is make life harder for the person transplanting it. I mean, I guess I could see it making the transplant a little smoother for the plant, but it's a plant -- isn't is going to grow in whatever dirt you stick it in?

I'm not really the gardening type, but I'm trying to get into it -- so what's the story behind the root ball? Surely there's a rationale -- can you tell me what it might be?

By FirstViolin — On Oct 28, 2010

What can you do if the root ball is too big? I mean, you can't exactly change a root ball like you would a tire.

Is it possible to trim a root ball, or is that bad for the plant? I know you can sort of tug on the roots, but I'm a little wary about actually cutting anything when I don't have too -- I've killed off way to many plants that way!

So what can you do with the plant after the ball comes out of the ground and you realize that there's no way that's going to fit in your new pot or place in the garden?

Are there any good gardening tips that you can give me when it comes to situations like this?

By Charlie89 — On Oct 28, 2010

Great article -- one other tip for transplanting plants with a root ball is to remember to break up the root ball a little bit before you put it in -- don't just plop it in the hole.

This isn't quite as applicable with trees, but with smaller plants, especially flowers, you really have to do this.

A lot of times, smaller plants like pansies and herbs with root balls are packed into plastic trays, which molds the root ball into its shape.

This works fine when the plant is in the tray, but when you put it in the ground, it can delay the plant starting to take.

So when you have a smaller plant like that, be sure to rough up the edges of the root ball and even break it a little bit to make sure that the roots aren't just caught up in themselves -- you have to make sure they can get to the outside dirt easily, or you could be stuck with a dud transplant!

However, it's easy to do, and very helpful -- a great gardening tip to remember.

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