Thursday, March 3, 2011

The secret life of plant roots

A simple container used to observe plant roots.  This was just an old broken aquarium that we had on hand.  I simply drilled holes in the bottom for drainage, filled the aquarium with vermiculite (though any potting soil mixture would probably work), and planted a seed next to the glass.  The aquarium is wrapped in aluminum foil to prevent light from accessing the soil and roots, thus algal growth on the aquarium wall is prevented.

A more close up picture of roots growing from a squash seedling in the root viewing chamber.

For quite sometime I have been fascinated with plant roots.  They secretively hide underground yet have such obviously huge influences on how and where plants grow.  For years I have been observing how plant roots grow.  I have dug up a number of plants which is way more work than I really want to do.  I have also observed roots where they have been exposed by road cuts and stream banks.  But recently I made this rooting chamber which is much easier then digging or searching for exposed roots.  (Other people have probably done this type of thing before, I just haven't found any examples of it.)  This little project is so simple anyone can do it, yet its simplicity lends anyone to being able to discover all kinds of new and valuable scientific information.

Here is what you need to do:
1. Find an old aquarium, one that you can drill holes in the bottom will work best.  If you can't find an aquarium any clear container with vertical sides should work.
2. Drill holes in the bottom for drainage.
3. Fill with potting soil of some type.  In my example above I used vermiculite.
4. Plant a seed you are interested in right next to the glass.
5. Wrap outside of root viewing chamber with aluminum foil to prevent light from accessing the soil.  This will prevent algal growth on the chambers side which would prevent you from seeing the roots.
6. When you want to see how your roots are growing, remove the aluminum foil and record your observations.

Another idea I have had is to plant a seed between two pieces of glass that are only 1/2 inch apart or so.  This would force the roots to grow right up against the glass instead of spreading out through the aquarium, possibly making for better root observation.

All kinds of valuable plant projects can be done by anyone using this simple root viewing chamber.  Obviously, different species of plants will have different rooting patterns.  Different plant species could have either shallow or deep roots, one or more taproots or none, fine or thick roots, extensive or few roots, fast or slow growing, or any combination of these traits.  Understanding these root facts can help us know how to grow plants in the garden or landscape, or they can help us understand why certain plants grow in certain locations in nature.  More complicated projects could be done by identifying how plant roots are affected by interactions with other roots or with fungi.  By identifying how plant roots grow you can begin to make very valuable scientific decisions and explanations for the garden, agriculture, landscape, ecology, or just general scientific understanding.  There is a lot of potential that anyone can tap into with a little work.

Recently I read the book, "Roots Demystified" by Robert Kourik.  This is a pretty easy read with lots of extremely valuable information on gardening and landscaping with roots in mind.  The book will give you a greater understanding and appreciation for the unseen root portions of plants.  Roots, for most plants, collect nearly all moisture and nutrients the plant needs to flourish.  Therefore, our green thumb is dependent on our knowledge of plant roots.  So green-up your thumb by adding to your knowledge of plant roots!

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