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Putting Down Roots

A potato with toothpicks holding it sprouting roots in a glass jar.

Roots are an essential organ of the plant. Understanding how roots function related to plant growth and development is the key to successful gardening.  

Roots anchor plants to the soil or other objects, transport water and nutrients, as well as store many important compounds for plant growth and development.  

For most garden plants, a more extensive root system results in larger, healthier vegetative or top growth. There is a strong connection between roots and other important plant parts, such as stems, leaves and fruit.  

Vegetables, flowers and herbs have diverse root morphology, ranging from extensive fibrous roots, tap roots or storage roots. Some vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, have storage roots that develop other fibrous roots to support the growth of sprouts or slips, which are used for transplanting the sweet potato.  

Roots, unlike leaves, do not photosynthesize and thus, don’t need light or carbon dioxide. Roots do undergo respiration though, which requires oxygen. A garden soil that is loose and friable will have abundant oxygen for plant roots. Heavy, clay or compacted soil drains poorly and has limited oxygen, which restricts root growth.  

Raised beds promote root growth of many garden plants. Vegetable plants that have limited roots will not produce large flowers or fruit and are susceptible to drought stress. Vigorous vegetable transplants will have an abundance of roots, which are often white in color, resulting in plants that rapidly start growing after planting.

By Lewis Jett, WVU Extension Service Specialist – Commercial Horticulture