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How To Prevent And Fix Root Bound Cannabis

When cannabis is grown outdoors in garden beds, plants can normally spread their roots without restriction. However, when we grow cannabis in containers, plants becoming “root bound” can become a problem. Find out what root bound means; how to recognize it, and what you can do if it happens to you.

Most cannabis cultivars, at least in colder climates, grow indoors in a tent or in a dedicated grow room. Growing indoors in containers means there is the risk of your plants becoming root bound. When this happens, it can lead to all sorts of growing problems. Let us take a closer look at what “root bound” means. Learn how to recognise the signs, so you can fix the issue and prevent it from happening in the future.

WHAT IS ROOT BOUND?

When your plants are root bound, it means that the roots have outgrown their container and don’t have any more room to grow. This of course happens when your containers are too small for any given reason. Outdoors in garden beds, plants becoming root bound is less likely, although it can happen when roots hit restricting barriers such as pipes or large rocks underground.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF YOUR PLANTS BEING ROOT BOUND?

A healthy root system plays a vital part for your plants’ growth. After all, it is with their roots that plants take in water and nutrients.

Plants becoming root bound can lead to all sorts of issues. Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms that your plants may be root bound:

Nutrient Deficiencies

Your plants may show symptoms of nutrient deficiencies. Among these signs could be yellowing, spots, or crumbling and wilting leaves. If you can exclude other issues such as incorrect pH, nutrient issues, and overwatering, your plants may indeed be root bound.

Containers Drying Out Too Quickly

When you find that the soil dries out after only a day or two and you need to water very often, it means that your plant needs more water than the container can hold.

Plants Get Way Too Big And Unsturdy

When your plants have grown too tall for their container size, they may easily tip over. This is usually a sign that your plants have become root bound, and that you should transplant them into bigger pots.

Other potential symptoms include:

  • “Nutrient burn” without excess nutrients: If you spot the signs of nutrient burn, but you are feeding your plants only lightly.
  • Smaller buds with stunted growth: If your buds grow smaller, or your plants’ overall growth is slower than usual.
  • Sick plants, wilting, drooping: If your plants have a sick appearance or start to wilt or droop unexpectedly.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU SUSPECT YOUR PLANTS ARE ROOT BOUND

If your plants show one or more of these symptoms, you need to look at their roots to see whether they have become root bound. To do this, you will need to remove them from their containers. Sometimes, it may be quite obvious that your plants have outgrown their containers, say when you see the roots through the holes at the bottom. Time to give your plants a new and bigger home!

HOW TO SAFELY REMOVE PLANTS FROM THEIR CONTAINER

You want to be careful when you remove plants from their containers in order to not damage the roots.

Get a good grip on your plant’s stem, right above the soil line. Rest your hand on top of the soil so that the stem is between your fingers. Carefully flip over the whole plant and then try to pull off the container. Most of the time, the container should come right off.

If you have troubles pulling off the container, carefully squeeze the container a few times around the side. This helps to loosen up the soil inside.

If your plant is still refusing to come out, take a long knife and use the back edge to slide around the inner edge of the container. If your plant is so severely root bound that nothing will help to remove it, consider breaking open the container as your last option.

FREE THE ROOTS: HOW TO LOOSEN THE ROOT BALL

When you have managed to pull out your root bound plant from the container, the roots will be running in a tight circle in the shape of the container. The roots are trapped and unable to grow freely any longer. Before you replant into a bigger container, you should try loosening the compact mess of roots so they can spread out again. You can carefully do so with your fingers.

PRUNING THE ROOTS

In severe cases of root bound plants, you may not be able to loosen the root ball with your fingers alone. You will then have to prune the roots to free them. By using a sharp knife, cut a few top-to-bottom incisions into the outer layer of the tightly-packed root ball. But be very careful and only cut thin roots. Do not cut any thick tap roots! 2-3 incisions evenly spaced out around the root ball should be all that you need to free the roots so that they can grow outwards again.

REPLANTING YOUR CANNABIS PLANT INTO A NEW CONTAINER

Take a new container with enough room so that your plant’s roots have plenty of space to expand. Fill the container with some soil, make a hole, and then align your plant in the middle. Make sure that your plant is at about the same soil level as you had it before. Likewise, ensure that you do not pack the soil too tight; the roots should be able to grow freely without trouble. After you have placed your plant in its new container, water the soil. At this point, you can also add root stimulant to help with things.

Your previously root bound plant is now happily sitting in its new and big container, but it is going to be quite sensitive for some time. To help it to recover from the transplant shock, you should keep stress levels low for a few days. Feed it only lightly and if you can, turn down your lights a notch or two as well. You will know that your plants have fully recovered once you see new, healthy growth. When this happens, which can take between a few days to a couple of weeks, you can return to your normal lighting and feeding schedule.

HOW TO PREVENT YOUR CANNABIS PLANTS FROM BECOMING ROOT BOUND

Preventing your plants from outgrowing their pots and becoming root bound is not difficult. Simply choose large enough containers from the start so this won’t ever happen. If you plan to replant during a grow, up-pot into bigger containers before it’s too late. Don’t wait until your plants have outgrown their current containers.

Learn about root bound cannabis plants and how to prevent it from happening in your grow-op.

Root Problems

Table of Contents

Cannabis Plants With Root Problems Show Many Symptoms

  • Cannabis may appear overwatered or droopy
  • Curling or cupping of leaves
  • Wilting – either individual stems wilt or the whole plant may wilt
  • Slow growth, or staying very small for weeks
  • Leaf yellowing, or sometimes even other colors like purple or red
  • Brown spots / Burnt spots
  • Other strange nutrient problems
  • Brown or slimy roots – this is often a sign of root rot
  • Smelly runoff water (smells rotting or musty)
  • Leaves may start dying and falling off rapidly
  • Plants drink much less water than usual

Example of extreme overwatering on an adult cannabis plant

This seedling was being grown in pure perlite, which is not a suitable growing medium for cannabis, and as a result the roots were not getting the proper levels of air and water. This seedling needs to be transplanted to soil or coco (or even into hydro) in order to get better.

This clone was give the same amount of water from when it first sprouted. As the plant started getting bigger and drinking more, this wasn’t enough and became chronically underwatered (a different type of root problem, with similar symptoms). What this particular plant needed was to be given more water at a time. One warning flag was that the plant was drying out every day (you should only have to water your plant every few days, if it’s drying out in just one it likely needs more water at a time). It’s always a good idea to listen to your plants when deciding when to water, as opposed to following a set schedule. Each plant and environment is different, and what works for some plants may not work as well for others!

The cannabis plant below did not have any drainage holes (water could not drain out the bottom of the pot). Notice the strange twisting of some of the leaves. When roots are left in stagnant water for too long, they cannt get enough oxygen and tend to develop root problems.

More overwatered marijuana seedlings – these were overwatered since theyf first germinated. If leaves are drooping down in normal heat, but still seem kind of “fat” it’s often something with watering or roots!

Example of a cannabis seedling with what appears to be a nutrient deficiency, but the symptoms are actually caused by overwatering / root problems

This particular type of cupping of the leaves below is common among cannabis plants with root problems. In this case, the plant had no drainage from the bottom of the solo cup, so water was just pooling at the bottom for the roots to sit in. Once the grower poked holes in the bottom of the cup, this problems went away (the cupped leaves didn’t recover, but new leaves started growing in happy and healthy).

Sometimes leaves will tend to cup or curl down due to root problems, like the plant above, but sometimes the curl upwards too, like the poor plant below (this was caused by poor drainage and plant was overwatered, leading to a pretty severe case of root problems):

This next plant was also overwatered and had no drainage. Notice how dark the soil is and the green algae growing all along the top of the soil – these are more signs the plant has been overwatered for quite a while. You should never water your plant when the soil is still wet at the top, and if you notice lots of algae growing on top of your soil, it may be a sign that you’re overwatering on a regular basis.

The grower went away for a few days, so they chose to overwater their plant in hopes it would be enough water until they got back. While they were gone, they had a huge heat wave. So this plant was subjected to overwatering plus heat. A few days later, when the grower came back, they saw that the leaves were cuppping upwards and had turned lime green. The stems and veins of the leaves were turning red. You can see the soil is still dark and wet because the plant stopped drinking after developing root problems.

Another plant from that same batch which reacted differently

Chronic overwatering in thick soil led to these symptoms. The main thing that alerts you to the fact that the yellowing is caused by overwatering is the fact that it’s droopy. It’s very easy to overwater young plants when you have a small seedling in a big container. When that’s the case, don’t soak the whole growing medium. Water in just a circle around the plant until its leaves are up and growing fast. At that point you can start watering more thoroughly 🙂

The following seedling is almost a month old, but it’s been overwatered its whole life. As a result, it’s stunted and small. The biggest hint that the roots are at fault is the fat, droopy leaves. The fact that it’s a small plant in a big container also makes it more likely for plants to develop root problems.

The strange yellow and red growth in this picture has been caused by giving the plant too much water, too often. Overwatering can often causes what appears to be nutrient deficencies in young plants! Older plants tend to just droop, but especially seedlings can have really odd reactions to overwatering.

The plants below developed root rot in a hydroponic setup. This is usually triggered when the roots can’t get enough oxygen, usually due to high temps or poor oxidation of the water. Notice the strange burnt appears on some of the bottom leaves. They turned almost white. The whole plant was drooping, especially towards the bottom. The roots turned brown (pictures below).

The plant on the right is healthy, and the plant on the left has root rot. It’s interesting how the symptoms from root problems are often similar, whether the problem is in soil or hydro!

More side effects of root rot

Root rot! No wonder the leaves were having so much trouble on top.

Possible Triggers For Root Problems

  • Heat – cannabis is more likely to have root problems at higher temperatures
  • Cold – cold roots are unhappy roots – cold shock can cause wilting and other problems
  • Over-watering potted plants – too much watering tends to cause root problems
  • No drainage hole at the bottom of the container – if water can’t get out and water is sitting at the bottom of the pot, the roots can “drown”
  • Muddy or thick soil – if your soil is muddy and thick instead of rich and fluffy, it may mean the soil doesn’t hold enough oxygen to support your roots.
  • Small plant in a big container – When a seedling (or small plant) is in a big container, it often has trouble getting enough oxygen at the roots. Until the plant has grown bigger and started to fill up the container, it’s important to avoid overwatering. It can help to water just a little bit at a time, in a circle around the seedling, until it starts growing faster.
  • Plant has “overgrown” it’s container (become rootbound) – The roots of a rootbound plant have started circling the outside of the container, causing watering and nutrient problems even if you’re doing everything right. When this happens, you may need to transplant to a bigger container to stop the plant from being “choked” by the roots.
  • Big plant in a small container – any time you have a big plant in a small container, even if the plant isn’t root bound, you increase the chance of underwatering since the plant quickly drinks up all the water in the soil!
  • Hydroponics – Root problems are caused when there’s not enough oxygen in the water, usually caused because it’s either too hot or there isn’t enough bubbles/aeration

Certain strains are more prone to root problems than others, but good root practices will allow every plant to thrive!

How to Treat Root Problems:

Step 1: Identify what may have caused the root problem (refer to list of possible triggers above)

Step 2: Address this underlying issue

  • Happy temps – Make sure your grow area maintains a comfortable room temperature during the day, and is a few degrees cooler at night. Learn more about how temperature affects your cannabis plants.
  • Only water your plants when they need it. How often should I water my potted cannabis plants?
  • Make sure potted plants have plenty of drainage, and there must be drainage holes at the bottom. If soil or growing medium holds a lot of water, consider mixing in 1/3 to 1/2 extra perlite to “loosen things up” and improve drainage at the roots.
  • Put plants in the right sized container to give the roots the best environment to spread out and grow. You may need to transplant to a bigger container if your plant has gotten too big or its roots are rootbound.
  • Brown, smelly roots? Learn how to get rid of root rot

Step 3: (Optional) Provide your plant with a beneficial bacteria like Hydroguard to help roots recover quickly (more info about root supplements below). Hydroguard will help fight root rot by creating a colony of good organisms to outcompete the root rot.

You May Not Want to Use Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) for Root Problems! H2O2 is temporarily effective at best when it comes to root problems. By it’s nature, even commercial grade H2O2 will be completely gone from a water reservoir after about 24 hours as it reacts with the water to form oxygen (decomposes) until the H2O2 is completely gone.

If H2O2 is added to a water source, it kills most of the bacteria in the water, including any good bacteria, but will not usually be able to kill all bacteria, so some bad bacteria will still be left to repopulate. Because of it’s nature, hydrogen peroxide does absolutely nothing to fix the underlying issue that causes root problems, and it kills any postive bacteria in your soil or water so sometimes it can actually make things worse. I think of H2O2 as a temporary bandaid.

I personally recommend using a supplement called Botanicare Hydroguard for root problems because I’ve used it successfully to get rid of a terrible case of Root Rot

Note: Botanicare used to have an awesome root innoculant called Aquashield, but in our tests Hydroguard works even better to create healthier roots and get rid of root rot!

Hydroguard is also much cheaper than most other similar root treatments and is proven to work well at supporting root health in cannabis. Take a look at our root rot page to see pictures of how Hydroguard was able to completely cure a terrible case of root rot.

Other examples of beneficial root supplements include Piranha, VooDoo Juice, Great White (Great White has great reviews, yet is obscenely expensive), Subculture B, Rooters, and Plant Savers. Most of these can be used with both hydro and soil grows. I personally recommend Hydroguard because I’ve used it successfully to treat Root Rot (and it’s also very affordably priced, you can use it throughout your grow without breaking the bank).

One important thing to note is that after you treat the cause of root problems, the old damaged leaves may never recover! With recovery, you should be looking for the problem to stop spreading, and for new leaves to be growing in green and healthy.

Root problems can cause wilting, drooping, nutrient issues, spots & other strange symptoms. Learn the common root problems and how to treat & prevent them.