Air Prune Beds 

Simple 1' x 2' air prune beds.

Have you ever thought about starting plants for your own food forest, or growing trees and shrubs with the intention to plant them out somewhere else? Have you ever wanted to grow hundreds of trees and shrubs in a small space, then gift them to families and friends? Or maybe you’ve thought about starting your own nursery? The thing with tree seeds is that they can be easily planted in pots, but they then become root bound, making for tough times down the road. They will recover in time, but the roots will need a period to adjust, which can set the growth back quite a bit. This is where air pruning or root pruning comes in handy! This has nothing to do with making actual cuts to the roots, but it has everything to do with the natural processes of tree growth. Here, we’ll talk a bit about how to build an air prune bed and to grow hundreds of easily transplanting plants!

The Growth Process of a Tree

If you know anything about the growth process of a tree or a shrub--or most plants that aren’t annuals, or even some annuals as well--you’ll know that one of the first things that a seedling undergoes after germination is sending out two shoots. One becomes the trunk or main foundation of the tree, and the other is the taproot. A taproot is a long and strong central root, sort of mirroring the trunk of the tree. Taproots help to keep a plant in place, anchoring it so it doesn’t get washed or blown away. They also dig deep into the Earth, retrieving trace minerals and nutrients that aren’t accessible at the surface, but instead lie far beneath in the substrata. These are ingenious adaptations made by many plants, no doubt ensuring their survival and a main part of why they are here today! However, if you are trying to transplant a tree, the taproot can be quite the nuisance. They can grow quite fast, and are usually longer than the main stem in the younger ages, and if you break one while trying to dig up the plant, it will severely damage the plant, stunt the growth and in some cases it will prove fatal to the plant.

Air Pruning or Root Pruning

If this is sounding a little bit daunting, or if you’re thinking you may have to dig a very large hole, don’t fret just yet! You may be lucky enough to have very loose and friable soil, or even very sandy soil, or maybe you’ve built your soil up enough to the point where it is rich and loose. If so, then that is great! You may be able to dig up and transplant trees quite easily. Although not everyone is that lucky. We’ve learned the hard way, our hard clay soil is not ideal for most trees. Trees will grow and survive, but they won’t really thrive here, especially in the young stages of growth. Here’s where air pruning comes into play.

When a tree root (or any plant root for that matter) comes into contact with oxygen, it slows down growth, and the plant puts energy into other roots, or the above ground portions. Plants are smart, and they know what to do and when to do it, they know that if they hit a pocket of air, there’s not likely to be much soil after that. Root growth will still continue, albeit at a much slower rate. Now we can use the intelligence of plants to our advantage, much like pruning undesired or unproductive above ground limbs can influence the plant to put more energy into fruit development. The key to working around the deep taproot is to introduce the roots to oxygen without digging up the tree, and the way to do this is to build some air prune beds and plant some seeds in them! Oh, and you have to build them, because they won’t be available at your local gardening supply store.

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