Why We Should Think About Roots Roots matter, both in gardens and in life. By Elizabeth Waddington Elizabeth Waddington Facebook LinkedIn Writer, Permaculture Designer, Sustainability Consultant University of St Andrews (MA) Elizabeth has worked since 2010 as a freelance writer and consultant covering gardening, permaculture, and sustainable living. She has also written a number of books and e-books on gardens and gardening. Learn about our editorial process Published February 8, 2022 03:00PM EST Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Thomas Barwick / Getty Images When we think about our gardens, and our lives, what is most visible to us is often foremost in our minds. But in gardening, as well as in sustainable living, it is important to look beneath and beyond what's obvious, to delve deeper to get back to the roots, both literally and metaphorically. Understanding Roots in a Garden In the most literal sense, we forget the roots of the rhizosphere at our peril. No matter where and how we grow, we need to remember that many of the most important processes and occurrences take place below the surface of the soil. Whenever we choose plants for our gardens, siting them in specific places and combining them in specific ways, we are relying upon the complex processes that take place below the ground. Roots are the conduits through which plants take up water and nutrients, the way in which they interact with the complex soil web. The form, growth, and size of a plant's root system, therefore, is one important thing to consider. And yet, when choosing and combining plants, the hidden world below the soil is all too often overlooked. A plant's roots are as distinctive, and characterize the plant just as much, as what we see above the ground. vavlt / Getty Images So, understanding plants' roots can help us to understand their needs, such as where to place them. Roots reveal which plants will be overly competitive with one another and which might make for good companions. For example, we might place plants with deeper tap roots around a fruit tree as part of its guild. A deeper rooted plant may not compete as much with a shallower rooted species and can be used to draw up nutrients from further down in the soil. Looking at the roots of plants not only helps us understand how to combine them, it also shows how a specific plant may be of benefit—not just to the system overall but to us. Roots can be edible or medicinal. They might be used for dyes. But beyond this, looking at roots can help us to understand how we can sequester more carbon, prevent soil erosion and runoff, and boost fertility and soil health. The patterns of root systems in nature inspire and teach us as we create and maintain our gardens. By taking a peek below the surface, we gain insight into a hidden world and build garden ecosystems that really can work harmoniously and stand the test of time. Getting Back to the Roots in Sustainable Living Just as we trace back and look deeper in our gardens, so too can we gain deeper insight into other areas of our lives by getting back to the roots. In many ways, our gardens—and nature in general—provide us with better understanding and lessons in how to live more sustainably. Like plants, the societal systems around us—everything we buy and all the services we engage—have roots which stretch back in time, as well as around the globe. Using our investigative faculties to delve deeper as we make everyday decisions can help us to trace supply chains back to their origins, to dig up the hidden secrets from the murky depths. Aldo Pavan / Getty Images Whether we look at the historical injustices which shape our world today, or the non-sustainable and unethical practices in our modern world, we learn a lot by paying closer attention to societal patterns and tracing things back to their roots. Thinking about our own roots will help us to live in a more eco-friendly way. No matter where we live, we all build our lives on the shoulders of those who came before us, and this carries a weight of emotional and cultural "baggage." Prying into our own roots on a journey of discovery can help us to learn both positive and negative lessons from the past. And this will help us find a firm underpinning, a foundation or root system of our own, for the world we want for tomorrow. Looking at and thinking about roots is crucial, both literally and metaphorically. Whether it's in our gardens or, in a broader sense, our lives and societies, getting back to the roots will help us all grow the future we wish to see.