Practical Permaculture – Rehabilitating Discount Plants


The Pineapple Sage had been dropped at the greenhouse and was appropriately free… The Aster was purchased at a local plant sale… It was the last one left and was no longer on the table… I inquired… Bargained… And walked away with a $1 plant that was destined for the dumpster… 4 Summers later and it is still one of my favorites…

So you bought a root-bound, overgrown, stretched or stunted plant from your local nursery. Maybe a friend of yours purchased a plant early in the season, and let it sit in its pot for the entire Summer only giving it away when all hope seemed lost. This is a great way to acquire plants on the cheap, most nurseries are gearing down for the winter and are typically happy to offer discounts on remaining stock as it is simply going to end up in the dumpster.

Not every plant you come into contact with will be salvageable, often times you will have to take 5 “compost” plants in order to get 1 good one… Beggars can’t be choosers… But beggars should know when to turn down an entire lot…


This “Aural Gold” Heucherella was a gamble I won… Nothing was growing in the pot and it had no tag… A close inspection of the roots revealed the plant was alive… I made an offer… And walked away with a pot full of potting soil for free… This was the result after 3 months…

Choose Wisely

Annuals should not be taken past a certain point in the year, for the sake of this article I’m going to say July 15th – July 25th is a good cut-off date. Annuals planted after this date, although they will grow, typically never recover from the shock of being transplanted in the dry heat of the late summer months. Given the short lifespan of annuals, they do not recover from stress the way perennials do.

Perennials on the other hand, should be considered year round as long as you are comfortable with taking a gamble. Many perennials can survive drying out to the point of complete defoliation, a survival adaptation that is all too often mistaken as the death of a perfectly good perennial.

Soak Plants Overnight

The very first thing you should do when you get your new plants home is soak them. I prefer a five gallon bucket containing roughly 4″ of water, a small amount of general purpose fertilizer can be added but always measure on the side of caution. Place the plant, pot and all, into the bucket and simply leave it there overnight.


Plants purchased for a discount at the end of one season… Often come back the next year as extremely healthy plants… Often… All the plant wants is a new home…

Keep Stressed Plants out of the Sun

A compromised plants symptoms are always magnified in the sun. Root bound or sick plants often quit taking up water, this is only magnified when the sun is rapidly evaporating water from the leaves. Transplanting, or the constant desiccation of the plants roots can cause major damage to a plant’s ability to absorb moisture from the soil. While the roots are healing, the plant must be babied, sometimes removal of foliage is necessary to lower the required water intake. Many plants will appear to die, it is often worth waiting a week or two before disposal as these plants will suddenly spring back to life.

Plant Them

As long as the ground is not frozen solid, you should go on ahead and plant those perennials. Plant roots are often protected from the elements by the little fact that they are underground, exposure to the cold and often bone-dry conditions of winter can certainly kill even the hardiest of perennials when exposed in a pot. At the very least, bury the entire pot. Many landscapers will similarly cover trees and perennials in a mound of mulch when the need for long-term storage presents… This is called mounding over…


One of the easiest… And most effective things you can do to a root bound plant is cut an X in the bottom of the tangle… Then it can be easily pulled apart…

Severely Root Bound

So after reading the last paragraph, you ran out into your backyard with the intention of finally planting those left over perennials. When you went to pop that plant out of the tattered and torn black plastic pot, you suddenly realized all of the soil in the pot appears to be gone, and now you are left with a twisted mess of a root ball. Do not fret because all is not lost, this is actually one of the most common and talked about subjects in the industry.

You have several options… But this is the best… I prefer to cut an X into the bottom of the root ball roughly 2″ deep, I then slam it off the ground a few times. Once the roots have loosened up a bit, I like to rip them apart with my bare hands like a caveman… But any tool that can be used to accomplish this is fine… Not to mention more civilized. The ultimate goal of what you are doing is to open the roots up, allowing them to grow out into the soil, damaging them also tends to stimulate rapid recovery growth.

Diseased or Infested

This is always a tricky one, no one wants to be responsible for bringing unwanted pests and disease into your neighborhood. Unless you are a very experienced gardener, I would always err on the side of caution. Plants that are infested at a nursery, should stay at the nursery. Likewise, plants that are obviously showing signs of disease, such as spots, odd coloring, mold or mildew should be refused… Any nursery that does anything, other than immediately discard obviously sick plants should be questioned. My advice, stay away from them unless you have a way to quarantine them, better to just avoid the possible disaster.


I have been dragging this plant around for years… I purposely keep it root bound in order to control size… It still requires a new pot every few years…

What about houseplants

Many of my houseplants were actually found on the side of the road on garbage night. You would be surprised how many of these seemingly dead plants came alive just by the simple act of me repotting them. Houseplants tend to be forgotten, and many people don’t realize that in order to keep a houseplant healthy, it needs to be repotted every couple of years.

Sometimes a pruning may be in order, that’s right, just like if it were growing outside. Sometimes, this pruning needs to be brutal in order to stimulate some new growth. A potted plant should be thought of as a complete system, what you do above the soil affects below, and vise versa. If you prune the leaves, an equal amount of the root system will be aborted… Likewise, If you prune the roots, the associated branches and leaves may also abort…

Every plant is different, so it would be hard for me to write about each one in this short article. What I will say is this, a houseplant is a houseplant because of its ability to survive in low-light conditions while living its entire life in the confines of a pot, when it starts to look unhealthy, your first move should be repotting it in fresh soil… 9 out of 10 times this will solve all your problems.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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3 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – Rehabilitating Discount Plants

  1. evolution says:

    Great information, thanks!


  2. Cathy says:

    Excellent information as always Chris. Thanks!


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