Trimming citrus roots

ladylisoletteApril 9, 2007

Hi there, I am new to the forum, and I have searched for the answer to my question and I can not find it anywhere (here or anywhere else).

I have two citrus trees, a ponderosa lemon and a variegated calamondin. Since I live in PA both of these plants need to stay in pots. The problem I am having is both plants are out-growing their pots and I need to find a way to "bonsai" them to stay in the pots I have for them. The pots they are in are pretty big and the reason they need to stay in them is because that is the biggest I can handle carrying in and out of the house for summer and winter seasons.

I have heard of trimming roots to keep plants, in general, happy in pots. Does anyone know how I would go about doing this? I heard one source say to trim 1/3 of the roots, but they were not talking about citrus trees. I know there is a tap root I need to be aware of, but would this mean that I cannot trim that one?

My ponderosa is pretty hardy and I am not too worried about it bouncing back from me trimming the roots, but my calamondin can be finicky sometimes and it was an expensive plant that I really love. Thank you in advance for all of your help and advice.....


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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Citrus, in general, and Calamondin, in particular, make very good bonsai specimens. Thus, they would likely respond very well to moderate root pruning. I wouldn't suggest that you go for a 1/3 removal at this point, however. Might be a bit excessive for plants that have been growing for some time without the benefits of root pruning.

Collect your tools first: clean, sharp hand pruners in case you have some large diameter roots you need to get rid of, and I use a small pruning saw for the fine roots. You want something that will cleanly cut the roots, not smash and hack them. Then, build your potting medium and have it ready. Be sure to always add extra coarse amendments for long lived container plants: perlite, granite grit, bark fines, aquarium gravel all work well.

Remove the plant from the container and begin raking away the old soil with a small hand rake or even an old fork. You can even tease away the soil with a pencil or your hands. Place some of the new soil in the bottom of your container...enough so that the plant won't sit too high or too low. Use the pruners to remove any large diameter roots that may be in the way and the saw to slice a bit from the sides and a few inches from the bottom. Don't go over board, you won't need to and you shouldn't. Work swiftly so that the roots do not desiccate. This is not a job to start....only to finish later in the day. If you have to leave the plant out, prepare to mist it and cover it.

Replace your plant into the container, adding new medium around the sides, tamping in gently with a pencil or chop stick. After re-potting, water thoroughly to make sure that the medium settles in completely....add more mix as needed.

A lot of wonderful plants have been killed by folks who think that you make bonsai by taking mature plants and remove most of the roots so that you can stuff them into tiny containers, lol! All YOU need to do is remove enough of the root system to give your plant some growing (and breathing) room.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2007 at 12:49PM
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Thanks Rhizo...This all falls in line with what I was thinking, but with it being the first time I am doing it, I wanted to get other opinions. I will not be putting it in a smaller pot, it will be in the same pot it is in now, but like you said, I want to give the plan breathing room.

I also know that I need to do this all in the same time period....I would never leave either of the plants go mid-re-potting being as they both are doing well and I really enjoy having them. The calamondin was also expensive for me, and I wouldn't want to lose it.

Thanks again for your help and your time in answering my question!


    Bookmark   April 11, 2007 at 4:06PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Shannon, I've done countless root pruning 'procedures' on mine and others' plants. Not to worry. It's a very important job when one wants to maintain a plant in the same container for a long time. Most people have a vague understanding that bonsai survive (only) by routine root pruning, but few 'get' that they should do the same for their own favorite house plants. It's something that can truly revitalize languishing old plants!

Good luck with your plants....let me know if you have any questions.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2007 at 4:44PM
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bencelest(z9 CA)

Thanks Rhizo.
I learned something NEW today.
I'll do that to some of my citrus. Some of them need it so badly.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2007 at 6:09PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Just to give you 'courage' to take on this task, here's a bit of information that will make sense to everyone.

The part of the root system where ALL plants can take up water and dissolved nutrients is at the very tips of the youngest part of the root system. Those root hairs do nearly all of the work! These need to be replaced continuously by the plant, as they don't live for very long (the root hairs). For a plant that has been containerized for too long, it becomes mighty difficult to continue to keep making new root tips...the roots simply run out of space! Plants become forlorn, non-productive, and just plain unresponsive to all that we might do!

Not only does pruning create more space for the production of new roots, but the very act of pruning helps those root initials to branch out even more! We know that pruning promotes new growth above does just the same thing below ground.

So! Root pruning is an invigorating, life-promoting maintenance task. I even do it for those plants that I am potting UP to a larger size, just to encourage increased root branching.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2007 at 10:13AM
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Do you have a suggestion on what kind of saw or pruning sheers to get? I know I can get hand pruning sheers at just about any gardening store, but I was unsure about a saw.....any further advice you could give would help. I am looking to do this next weekend....

Thanks again!


    Bookmark   April 14, 2007 at 3:16PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Your hand pruners should always be those with a scissors action between the two blades, rather than a style where one blade meets the other blade right in the middle. As a matter of fact, all pruners and loppers should be those with a scissors action. If you don't do a lot of hand pruning on, price doesn't matter.

Also, you probably won't even need a saw to do your root pruning, unless the root ball is in a very solid mass. At that point you'll need to saw slices away like pieces of cake. I use a very small Felco pruning saw (see attached), but I honestly expect that you can find small folding saws anywhere. Don't get one with a curved saw blade, which is how pruning saws are often made. But, sharp scissors might be all that you need for a fine root system.

Again; unless you do a lot of pruning, don't spend a lot of money. I keep the saw employed a great deal, probably more than my loppers. I find it easier to use than any pruning tool and does a better (and faster) job, as well.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   April 15, 2007 at 4:31PM
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smaller citrus need to be budded onto flying dragon stock or you are going to be pruning away precious buds each year.i have grown citrus for 25 years.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2007 at 7:49PM
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