Do you prune phal roots to fit a smaller pot?

mehitabel(z6 MO)October 18, 2007

I saw Bob Gordon's *Culture of the Phalaenopsis Orchid* mentioned at Bedford Orchids as the best book dealing with phals. So I found one on Amazon.

He points out that big pots = big problems. Well, we knew that. However, he added that it's a self-solving problem because a plant in a big pot will soon have no roots and have to be moved back to a tiny pot.

That caught my attention because I do seem to have to do that to one plant or another every couple of months. Why I'm so addicted to rooting hormones. So I took it to heart.

He recommended *pruning phal roots* so they will fit in a smaller and shallower pot. In fact, he also recommended "lowering", ie cutting off the lower part of a long leafless stem -- you've all seen them. This is to allow the plant to fit properly in a more shallow pot.

He added "saving extra roots is a common mistake of beginners". He prunes them all to 5" max, to just fit a 5" deep azalea pot. It was a new take for me on the overpotting problem. I just had never thought of a pot that fit the existing roots as possibly too big.

So I've been repotting a few each day, lowering the too-long stems and pruning those long roots. Hoping to prevent the setbacks. It's very hard to get myself to do it. Like a true novice, I treasure every inch of those long roots. But he's right, as soon as they're cut, they fit into a pot at least a size smaller.

Since I didn't have the benefit of learning by apprenticeship-- all by books, I'm wondering what you old phal hands do?

Someone named Jerry Meola who sold phals said here a couple of years ago that he pruned roots on phals all the time, and they just branched and got thicker.

Anyone else?

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Is he saying to cut off healthy roots? Sick or healthy plant?

Is this about convenience, esthetics or is this about growing something wild in captivity?

If anyone suggests cutting off healthy roots so they fit in a certain pot size, if I am reading correctly, I'd have to wonder who's best interest this is in?


    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 6:15PM
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highjack(z6 KY)

Phal roots split and divide all the time so I guess it would work fine. I know I watched a vendor take an overgrown catt with roots draped everywhere, whack them off to about 2-3" and stuff the plant in the pot. I guess it is the same principle. At least the long exposed roots confined to a pot after enjoying freedom, won't be rotting off.

I haven't been that brave yet.


    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 6:26PM
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I've done it, mostly out of annoyance, and the plant went fine until it contracted a nasty case of scale.

Either way, the pot on this plant was crumbling, so I yanked it out and decided to repot it. It was in one of those tall, tall pots and the only pots I had on hand to put it in were your typical clay pot. In order to get the phal into a pot to accomadate its tubular root ball, I'd have had to put it in an 8" pot.

Since I wasn't overly fond of this plant to begin with, I stretched the roots out, wrapped what I could into a reasonable length ball, and hacked off everything else.

I don't think I'd be motivated enough to do it to a farm of phals, and I don't know that it'd improve your plants. I doubt it'd cause any problems; and, if it makes your life a ton easier to have them in smaller pots because you're an overwatering fiend, or somesuch, what the heck? Hack away.


    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 7:12PM
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richardol(Santa Royale CA)

If the plant has lots of roots I prune long roots so they don't wind around the bottom of the pot.

I always cut the bottom of the woody stem up to where the roots are growing.

    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 7:40PM
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jerry_meola(SW Florida)

Cutting healthy roots to a smaller size or removing them altogether is an old style of maintaining orchids.

I find many plants will eventually chook themselves to death if you allow the roots to get too large.

Extra long roots have a tendancy to crack and rot, even with the best care. Also to long and water is harder to move to the plant along the root and eventually the plant discards the root.

As long as an orchid has new active root growth the removal of older roots will encourage more and faster growth of new roots.

While I prune drasticly myself I do not usually recommend it to hobbyist. As a commercial grower if I kill a couple of plants it is not important, but your favorite plant is something else.

If you repot regularily, you will be removing the same amount of roots a little at a time.

My Vanda supplier recommended my removing a plant from the basket by 'cutting off all the roots' they would 'grow right back'.

Cattleya also do well with extensive pruning. All cattleya roots rot. As a famous grower once said if the fungus grows faster than the Cattleya the orchid dies and if the Cattleya grows faster it lives.

Roots are a disposable items to a plant, like our hair and nails. In the wild on tree branches, the discarded roots do not rot the rest of the plant, but when forced into pots it is a breeding ground for disease.

    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 9:57PM
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whitecat8(z4 MN)

Hi, Mehitabel,

Not an old Phal hand, by any means, but have gone through a couple of phases w/ this.

As a complete orchid newbie, my old bonsai pruning methods kicked in, and people here were horrified that I'd trimmed Phal roots so they'd fit in the same size pot, rather than potting up. I freaked and quit doing that right away, worried everything would die. It didn't.

Months and months later, one genuine old hand said to soak Phal aerial roots in water for a couple of hours, and they'd be pliable enough to wind around in the pot. After 48 hours in water, roots on mine still cracked as they went into a much larger pot that accommodated the spread of the aerial roots. These Phals had more aerial roots than those in the sphag. The feel and sound of the snapping was just awful.

After a few pots like this, I realized their shelf needs were increasing exponentially. They then got potted down. Roots cracked some more - none snapped in two. When they were repotted a year later, many of the cracked roots had kept growing, and many had grown roots from the crack, or both.

None seemed to suffer, maybe because they didn't stay in those huge pots long.

On all orchids, including Phals, I've learned to cut off the underground stem that has no roots growing from it. Again, no damage to growth that I can tell.

During a potting class at Orchids Limited, Jason Fischer divided a huge Catt and then rammed a couple of metal supports down in the pot of a new division. The class gasped, asking what happened if you hit a root. Jason said no matter, the plant would barely notice.

This was a Catt, but since then, I've been less worried about root damage to almost any orchid, thinking mine are in paradise, compared to what could happen to their roots in the wild.

The current phase is to take into account the plant's height and width, as well as root mass, when deciding on the size of pot, sometimes winding the roots around inside to fit a smaller pot.

Hope this is helpful.


    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 10:24PM
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howard_a(z6 NYC)

What a greenhouse grower in most any part of the world can do to a phal or catt for that matter is very different from what the indoor grower can do. Most of the experts who write culture manuals for the rest of us have ideal conditions for their plants and the health and vigor of the specimens they care for lead to certain practices which may or may not work as well for those whose plants are growing at the lower limits of light and/or temperature. I work hard for the roots that my orchids make and I don't part with them lightly. I fill up large pots with styrofoam peanuts even putting several up against the bottom of the plant. Keeps the area dry enough for me. Phals that are very well grown do not lose leaves nearly as often as is accepted by the general run of growers. Before my recent disaster I had a phal with five pairs of leaves. If it weren't for the width and thickness of them you would have thought it was an Ascocenda. When leaves are held onto like that there isn't so much issue with the main stalk growing too long to fit into the pot.


    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 10:56PM
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Your top growth has to match the bottom. Take too much off the bottom, you will lose leaves. You can lose the entire plant if too many roots are removed. Anyone who 'grows' knows the importance of balancing the roots to the leaves. As Howard states, commercial growers with optimum conditions, can get away with drastic root pruning, but the average home grower should be cautious. Whitecat had experience with bonsai, which trains you to understand the delicate balancing act between 'top & bottom.'

    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 11:31PM
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whitecat8(z4 MN)

Howard, that's a good point about the difference between plants being on the edge in a home and truly being in paradise in a greenhouse.

Mehitabel, does Gordon describe his frame of reference?

Jane, thanks for the confidence, but because I'm new to orchids, the jury's out on the eventual effects of all my phases. :)

Good discussion.


    Bookmark   October 19, 2007 at 12:34AM
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mehitabel(z6 MO)

Well, this was a good discussion and covered a lot of good points. Thanks, everyone for the replies. You've given me a lot to think about. And thanks, Jane and others, for urging a little prudence. I do go overboard from time to time.

I think my original post was misleading, as I didn't mean removing roots to fit them into a tiny pot. Gordon recommends pruning so they are shorter and will fit into an azalea pot, 5" deep.

Turkeytaker, I wouldn't have called myself an overwatering "fiend" exactly, but I do err in that direction. :)

Whitecat, your comments about the bonsai reference affecting your attitude toward this were very interesting. Also about the huger pots. The frame of reference is: the volume of medium is too much in a bigger pot, the inside of the medium stays too wet, and the roots will rot. A smaller, shallower pot is the answer to preventing rot. An azalea pot is 5" deep, so to fit them into an azalea pot, he prunes them to 5" when potting.

Jerry, haven't seen you here for a couple of years. Glad to hear your additional comments on this. Your explanation of long roots cracking and being less useful makes perfect sense-- I've seen an occasional long healthy root, but yes, most of them are damaged or rotten in various ways. Your point about losing a precious plant was taken to heart.

Howard, as it happens, I found I don't like using peanuts. I've used them a few times, but I don't like seeing them thru the sides of a clear pot. They're just ugly to me. They also make the pot lighter, and that interferes with me knowing when to water. I put a 2-3" net pot in middle of the pot instead.

Richard, Brooke and Clara, your experience is always helpful.

Well, the experiment was already launched. I'm marking the plants I handled that way, so I'll know what happened within a few months. I don't think I'll lose any, because I think I was reasonably prudent about it. But some 6" got repotted down to 5".

And truthfully, conditions are much less than ideal, of course. I call my light room "phal heaven", but that's compared to what the catts thought about it. They complained non-stop. And the blooming ones get less heaven than that, especially as the winter actually comes on.

Thanks again for the replies.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2007 at 10:55AM
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Mehitabel, What a great post!!! I recently had a large phal (you responded to my post about stalled spike nubs) repotted for me. The pot seems so HUGE, I don't think I will ever figure out when this one is TRULY dry. It had great roots but now I can't see any of them! I am afraid they are rotting away in no man's land. I think I am back to square one growing phals. I love roots- the more the better!!!Now,I am seriously considering repotting(stalled nubs and all) Ah the madness!

    Bookmark   October 19, 2007 at 9:45PM
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mehitabel(z6 MO)

t-bred, I don't think I could resist the temptation to look at the repot someone did for me. Especially in sphag, I don't think de-potting to look sets phals back.

I'm with you about the more roots the better. You're absolutely right. Every time I've had a plant that looks really great, it always had great roots. And no growth has always been trouble underneath.

Actually I started the pruning enterprise after finding a beautiful big Br Sara Gold I got from Odom's that had healthy roots when I got it in July, and had a stalled nub

I found this gorgeous thing (had been so big and such gorgeous roots I put it in a 6" pot), had lost a lot of roots.

So this plant fulfilled Gordon's prophecy, and I started to take his advice a little more seriously, and decided to pot down from 6" to 5" when I could, and insert a 2" net pot in the middle for aeration. I just thought *maybe* the road to better roots was to get them into a smaller pot.

If you do repot, I'd be curious what you found.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2007 at 12:30PM
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paul_(z5 MI)

Shallower pot? Does make some sense but I still recall a phal I had in a 2-3 gal pot (I got it that way in an os auction) ... there was no rot problem there -- the pot was literall full of roots. :)

Mehitabel, if you don't like packing peanuts you can always use wine corks. ;D

    Bookmark   October 20, 2007 at 9:23PM
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While repotting a mature, previously flowered hybrid phal in May, I inadvertently lopped off ~ 40% of the root system. In retrospect, it was a good mistake! It is growing better now than ever before. It had a good root system before my error; now, it has a TERRIFIC set of roots!!

The plant is in New Zealand Sphagnum moss in a shallow 5" slotted, clay pot. Beautiful, fresh roots are forming.

My initial plan, before repotting, was to NOT flower it this year. I can't wait for fall, 2008 when I initiate flowering again.

Hefty trimming isn't so bad, after all!


    Bookmark   October 22, 2007 at 7:47PM
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mehitabel(z6 MO)

Thanks for the information, Stitz. I love sphag in clay pots for phals. The roots are always beautiful.

After thinking about this some more, I decided that I have been keeping too many broken and half-decayed roots, and that the long, long roots do tend to get broken, as Jerry said.

So I'm doing some (hopefully, very judicious) pruning and repotting. Have a couple more days to go. We'll know by Spring what the results were.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2007 at 9:16PM
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