Many of my garden plants have spent more than a year in my care, and it became apparent this spring that several of them needed transplanting. I could see that the rosemary stood taller than its blue planter, the thyme had spilled over the edges of its pot, the oregano towered above its aqua home, lavender loomed large and several succulents seemed in need of transport.
I did what any responsible plant parent would do: I headed to the pot store (no, not that kind of pot). There I basked amid row after row of beautiful vessels of all shapes and sizes, picking out the new homes for my growing green family. As I chose one, I tried to pick it up and realized – these pots get very heavy as they get bigger. Will I even be able to carry a bigger pot when they grow out of these, I wonder? Then the thought left me as we loaded up 10 bags of potting soil and compost into the back of my husband Curt’s truck and lugged it home.
Ensconced in the side yard with my new purchases, I surveyed the plants and new pots, and grew a bit anxious. The rosemary plant already stood almost two feet tall. How was I going to remove it from its current pot without hurting it? Looking at its lush narrow leaves, I could almost hear it crying out “No! Please stop! Please!”
Ignoring the imaginary please in my head, I took a trowel and began to loosen the soil around the edges of the rosemary plant. As I did so, I could feel the roots clinging against the sides beginning to tear. I winced and gently continued. The pungent smell of the herb mingled with the dirt. I turned the bright blue pot to an angle with my right hand and with my left, I grasped the base of the rosemary bush as best I could. I lifted the pot and turned it slowly upside down. The plant refused to come out.
Once again I took up my trowel and dug deeper in the pot this time, paying attention to every movement along the edges as I went, shaking the base, hoping I wasn’t breaking anything. I tried turning the pot upside down a few more times, but Rosemary refused to emerge. Finally, the last time, I sat on a chair, balanced the pot on my thighs and gave the pot a good smack on the bottom with my right hand as I pulled the plant away from the pot with my left. With a lurch, the plant sprang from the safety of its old pot, drenching my lap with dirt, the bound roots exposed to the light of day.
I moved quickly to loosen some of the roots, removing small drainage stones from the base. I placed it in the new pot, realized the plant sat too low, removed it and added more dirt. I put it back in and Rosemary listed alarmingly to the left. I removed it again and threw some more soil to the base, arranging it with my hands. Finally, the plant sat in its new home, level with the top of the new planter, still needing soil in the crevasse between its old boundaries and the new ones.
I plunged the trowel into the dark soil and pulled the rosemary branches back to fill in. Dirt spilled everywhere, darkening the green, the patio, my gloves. I realized that I needed to slow down, take small bits of dirt that wouldn’t overflow the narrow space.
Finally I stood back, covered in sweat and soil. and took a deep breath The rosemary needed water stat to ensure that it didn’t go into shock. I ran for the hose and brought it back to the new pot for a long drought.
I repeated the process with each plant, holding my breath with all of them. As I worked, I thought about the precarious process of growth. The plants seemed perfectly comfortable in their present containers. Being ripped from home on a pleasant morning, having your roots shaken out, shedding leaves and being dropped into an unfamiliar place before being drowned in water doesn’t really sound like a lot of fun. Growth is messy and painful, for people and plants.
Yet I realized as I worked that when I pulled each plant out, the roots had started to swirl around the bottom of the container – in other words, they were “root bound.” Even though these plants looked happy on the surface, their roots suggested that they needed more space to grow effectively. If I had left them in the smaller pots, they eventually would have withered and died.
I hope that I can keep that in mind when life seems tough, when it pulls my roots out of their soft, comfortable places and puts them in unfamiliar soil. It may take time, but eventually something new may grow.