How To Rescue Severely Pot Bound Plants

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 7, 20170

I sheepishly admit that I often find myself bringing home plants that I never would have chosen, even when they were at the peak of their performance. Perhaps it is the challenge of cheating death out of these weak little plants. I’m not sure. All I know is, I usually buy the greenhouse out of their clearance plants.

One year I enthusiastically purchased 15 half dead, overly pot-bound yarrow plants and carefully dispersed them in my wildflower garden, hoping that they would break up the monotony of the Black-Eyed Susans that had taken over.


As soon as I got them in the ground, we had a drought that lasted two weeks. I thought they were goners, but in my hopefulness, I dragged the hose down the hill and watered them every day, just in case. It took them a while, but they finally, slowly recovered from the shock of suddenly having room to spread their roots. Their glorious blooms helped me rationalize the risk I took.

It was not an impetuous plant purchase but an investment in plant potential. I felt so altruistic, I went back to the greenhouse and cleaned them out of their clearance irises.

I won’t say that every bargain bin buy has offered the same level of success, but I have learned a considerable amount about the hardiness of plants – which ones are worth the risk and which ones are not. I have also discovered that I could create a beautiful garden with plants that would be rejected by most landscapers as being too pot bound and well beyond all hope. Here are a few of the plants that did not disappoint:

Here Are A Few Of The Plants That Did Not Disappoint

Yarrow (Achillea)


Put aside your prejudice when it comes to this lovely plant. No longer is the hopeful gardener limited to the white yarrow of yesterday. This striking plant is now available in a pleasant pallet of colors, from pale pastels to vibrant crayon box colors.

The feathery leaves add an attractive textural background to the surrounding plants, while the subtle fragrance of the flowers attracts beneficial and beautiful insects to the garden.

Zones 3-9.

Full sun to full shade.

Height: 2-5′.



This semi-succulent plant comes in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. It is one of the most forgiving specimens I have ever seen. If even one branch of the original plant is alive, you will be blessed with a healthy and continuously spreading sedum plant. Fear not if it spreads beyond your intended bounds.

sedum notoriously has shallow roots and does not leach nutrients from surrounding plants. Lower growing sedums can actually be used as ground cover or as an effective green mulch

Zones 3-9.

Full sun to full shade.

Height: 2 inches to 2 feet.

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)


Sporting over 30 different varieties, this beauty has something for everyone. From vibrant yellows to warm orange reds, Rudbeckia adds a splash of sunshine to any spot. These upright coneflowers maintain their spot on the gardener’s top 10 list of favorite flowers to plant, thanks to their long bloom time (July to September) and perky, upright habit.

Be forewarned that these bright blooms are free seeders, producing thousands of mini offspring from just one plant. Deadheading is a must to prevent complete invasion.

Zones 3-9.

Full sun to full shade, although best flower performance in full sun.

Height: 2-7′.

Pinks (Dianthus Plumarius)


No Spring is complete without the heavenly fragrance of cloves wafting through the air, thanks to this little cottage flower. Don’t let the name fool you. Pinks come in a variety of colors, from white to pink to salmon to nearly-black red.

The silver blue foliage adds a touch of mystery to any garden border and very quickly forms a dense, evergreen mat. Rarely bothered by pest or disease, cottage pinks will remain a favorite for generations to come.

Zones 3-9.

Full sun to full shade.

Height 1-2′.



Deriving its name from the Greek word for rainbow, the iris has over 200 species to choose from. Incredibly hardy for such a delicate looking flower, irises will sprout from even a portion of a healthy rhizome or bulb.

The variations in bloom time among the different varieties ensures months worth of color and charm. They are well worth cultivating and can be tucked anywhere, including those hard to grow spots.

Zones 3-9.

Full sun to part shade.

Height 2-4′.

Easter Lily (Lilium)


Perhaps the most blessed of all bargain plants, Easter lilies make a graceful leap from pot to garden plant.  These lovely white beauties can be tucked into any spot within the garden, offering years of beauty and babies as it naturalizes to its surroundings.

Within a few summers, one bulb explodes into a full bouquet and can easily be divided and transplanted to other locations. Hunt for the after Easter sales when the blooms are mostly spent. Simply cut the stalk down to eight inches above the soil level and transplant to the desired spot.

Zones 3-9.

Full sun.

Height 3-4′.

The General Planting Steps For A Pot-Bound Plant

Most end of season plants will be pot bound to some extent. It is important to take care during the planting process to ensure the best growth results. Here are the general planting steps for a pot-bound plant:

  1. Water the plant profusely before taking it out of the pot. Allow it to soak in a pan of water for at least an hour. Most pot bound plants do not get the amount of water they need at the greenhouse and are starving for moisture.
  2. Dig a hole that is at least twice the diameter of the pot and twice as deep as the root ball.
  3. Fill the hole with water and begin adding loosened soil back into the hole until the soil and water mixture is the consistency of a thick mud pie. This step helps reduce shock in the plant.
  4. Remove the plant from the pot and cut the root ball into four equal sections, up to the base of the plant without actually dividing it.
  5. Carefully tease the roots apart (untangle) so that they are loose and free floating. This step is very important and worth taking the time, because it ensures that the plant will be able to take root in the ground and seek out nutrients and moisture.
  6. Set the plant in the hole on top of the mud, making sure that the roots are spread out in all directions.
  7. Fill the hole back in with the rest of the dirt. Most plants should be planted at the same level in the ground that they were in the pot, so adjust the dirt level accordingly, making sure to cover all the roots.
  8. Mulch the plant and water again, continuing to water daily until new growth appears.
  9. Supplemental watering may be needed throughout the coming weeks until your bargain plant has truly taken off.


No matter what your reasons are for buying bargain plants, a little care and a lot of love can really go a long way. Remember to have patience. As with even the best plants, bargain buys take time to get established. After all, the best things really do come to those who wait. When your neighbors stop by to tell you how beautiful your garden is, let it be our little secret that you got it at a bargain.

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