How to tell if your citrus tree is root bound

Now is a great time to plant a citrus tree – but be careful of this one thing.
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Citrus trees are a popular choice for home gardeners and for a good reason.

WATCH: Charlie Albone’s guide to growing citrus

They not only produce a delicious array of refreshing fruits – from oranges, lemons, and limes to grapefruits and mandarins – but they look good and are easy to grow. 

It’s a win-win.

While now is a great time to plant citrus trees, if you’re buying from a garden centre, there’s one crucial thing to be wary of: the roots. 

One of the most common reasons your citrus tree doesn’t grow is the plant is root bound. 

How to identify a root bound plant

In her book Grow Your Own Mini Fruit Garden, Christy Wilhelmi emphasises the importance of scrutinising the tree’s roots to ensure you don’t buy a subpar citrus tree.

“When shopping for fruit trees at a nursery, don’t hesitate to extract the rootball from the nursery pot for a close inspection,” she writes. 

“Look out for circling or girdled roots, especially those protruding above the soil line, as they signal trouble below. 

“Avoid trees with roots tightly circling the trunk.” 

orange trees
(Credit: Getty)

How to tell if your plant is root bound

Root bound refers to the condition where a plant’s roots have outgrown its container, resulting in the roots becoming tightly packed and circling the bottom and sides of the pot. This can restrict the plant’s growth and nutrient uptake, leading to stunted growth, reduced vigour, and even plant health issues. In severe cases, root-bound plants may require repotting into a larger container to allow their roots to spread and develop properly.

Circling and girdling roots are common indicators of a root-bound plant when grown in containers or pots

Circling roots

Signs of circling roots appear when you can see the roots growing in a circular pattern within the confines of the container or pot. As the roots grow and encounter the container’s walls, they spiral inward instead of extending outward. 

This circular pattern constricts the root system, hindering the tree’s ability to absorb water and nutrients efficiently. Over time, circling roots can lead to stunted growth, stress, and, eventually, the tree’s decline.

How to fix circling roots

If circling roots are detected, gently untangle and spread them outward when replanting the tree in a larger container or the ground. 

citrus tree in pot
(Credit: Getty)

Girdled roots

Like circling roots, girdled roots encircle the base of the tree trunk. This encircling root can strangle the trunk, disrupting the flow of water and nutrients between the roots and the upper portions of the tree. 

How to fix girdled roots

Correcting girdled roots involves carefully uprooting the tree and removing the constricting root. In some cases, pruning or cutting the girdled root may be necessary. The tree should be replanted at the appropriate depth, with its roots naturally spread within the planting hole.

If you purchase a potted citrus tree from a garden centre and notice the plant is root bound, take it back and ask for a refund. 

citrus tree
(Credit: Getty)

So, which container should you use for your citrus tree?

Citrus tree roots require ample space to flourish. If you plan to grow your citrus tree in a pot, ensure that the container allows the roots to expand. As Christy Wilhelmi wisely advises in her book, “The happiness of your fruit tree begins with choosing the right container.”

“Start with the largest pot you can afford, ideally a minimum of 55 to 61cm in diameter and height.”

By following these tips, you can grow thriving citrus trees in no time. 

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