Plants need to breathe


Plants breathe through their roots. If there’s a piece of knowledge that separates “green thumb” gardeners from the rest of us, it’s that one simple idea. Plants breathe through their roots. Roots need contact with air. I belabor this point all day long, to young and old, novice and professional, farmer and city slicker. Give me a podium or a microphone or a circle of eager students, and I’ll preach that one single take-home message. Plants breathe through their roots. Did I already say that?

Next time you buy a pot-grown plant of any kind, take a good look at the “soil” in the pot. It’s barely there. It dries out in a flash, and then it’s just fluff and air. Why? Because growers know that plants breathe through their roots. The more air is in the pot instead of dirt, the faster the plant will grow and bloom and sell and turn into cash, so the grower can sell it and plant the next one. Growers are intent on making a profit, and they do whatever it takes to get their crop big and healthy and colorful and SOLD, which means they stay awake nights trying to figure out how to get more air and less dirt around the roots of their plants.

This is the opposite of what many gardeners do once they get the plants home. With best intentions, inexperienced gardeners dig a nice deep hole, place the plant in it, cover the roots with dirt and then fill the hole with water to the tippy top. When they see the plant start to wilt (a stress symptom of drowning), they figure more water would help so they add some. Every day. Until the plant is dead for sure.

It’s hard to measure the right amount of water. The grower’s secret is the right soil texture (we call it “fluffy dirt”) to capture just the amount of water the plant needs, and let the excess water drain away by gravity. That’s what the drain holes in the bottom of the pot are for; excess water falls out the bottom and is replaced with (guess what?) air. The grower counts on drainage to get rid of the extra before it drowns the plant. For home gardeners with poorly drained heavy soil, the solution is to plant high enough in the hole so that at least some of the roots can stay above the water level.

Of course newly installed plants need watering, especially on hot, breezy, sunny days. Every plant has its own watering needs and you must pay attention in the beginning. Just remember that overwatering kills many, many more plants than thirst. Most plants prefer their roots to dry out between waterings, rather than being constantly soaked. Symptoms of dryness and overwatering can look very similar. If you’re not sure, simply poke your finger down into the soil at the base of the plant.

Would you like to have success with plants? Be a “green thumb” and have people admire your magical gardening ability? Remember these simple ideas:

1. Plants breathe through their roots (yes, I said it again).

2. Fluffy dirt (soil mixed with air) is the grower’s secret.

3. Plant just deep enough so the top of the pot soil or root ball is level with the ground around it.

4. Never, never, NEVER cover the top of the pot soil or root ball with dirt.

5. Nothing you can pour on the top will fix a smothering, drowning plant.

6. All of the above is twice as true for dogwoods.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at For more information is available at or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

By Steve Boehme

Contributing Columnist

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