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>>Cycads >>Cycad Help & Advice >>Potting Up Cycad Seedlings

Potting Up Cycad Seedlings
by Phil Bergman 

Community pot of cycad seeds.
(click photo to enlarge)



Potting up new cycad seedlings can be quite easy if you follow a few simple basics. Success is the rule, not the exception. Some important principles when repotting cycad seedlings are: Avoid damage to the plant’s roots, handle the seedlings delicately, visually inspect for rot, determine the correct pot size and soil to use, determine the proper soil level for the plant and follow proper watering and fertilizing suggestions.  Whether you're dealing with a rare Encephalartos or a sago palm, always be careful with the roots.

If you are doing your own germination, you must determine when the seedling is large enough to repot.  I prefer to wait until the first leaf has hardened. You can repot “pipped seeds”, but your risk of loss will be greater. The first leaf will typically emerge once the main root from the seed has developed. If, while in the community pot, you wait for each seedling to develop two or three leaves, the roots can become entangled and difficult to extricate. For this reason, I think a hardened first leaf is the ideal size for repotting.

Community pot of cycad seedlings.
(click photo to enlarge)


Cycad seedling
(click photo for detailed view)


Remember that the main risk to any cycad is rot. Rot can occur for many reasons. When you are repotting cycad seedlings, the main cause of subsequent rot is to damage the seedling’s root or roots. When a cycad seed germinates, it sends down a fairly long root that looks like a thin carrot. This root may extend down a few inches to as much as 12 inches. The plant will grow fine secondary roots from the main root. These secondary roots enlarge and eventually put out further orders of roots. The root mass will eventually fill a pot or extend into the garden’s soil. During this process, the primary root will continue to enlarge in size.

rotted seedling
(click photo to enlarge)


Choosing seedlings to repot.
(click photo to enlarge)


While repotting a new seedling, you must be very careful with this primary root. This root, known as the “primary tap root,” comes to a tapered point at its distal end and is fairly brittle. Being rough with this root may result in its breaking or cracking. Such injury becomes a route for rot, which can easily lead to the death of a seedling. Even small bruises to the root’s surface can lead to rot. Therefore, use care in removing the new seedling from a community pot or germination bed. I typically turn the community pot with multiple seedlings upside down and let the entire block of germinating soil carefully slip onto the repotting bench. I then gently break apart this soil to expose the roots of the different seedlings. If a small amount of germinating soil remains attached to the roots, leave it attached. Merely pulling a new seedling from a community will undoubtedly tear the primary or secondary roots and cause problems. It is preferable to gently remove the root structure(s) and then repot the seedling. 

Rotted seedling
(click photo to enlarge)


Removing seedlings from community pot.
(click photo to enlarge)


When you free up any given seedling, look carefully at the roots. Look for established root rot. This will appear as brown, black or discolored root tissue, as opposed to white or light tan (normal) root tissue. Infected tissue may be not only be discolored, but may be soft to the touch, somewhat mushy or rotten and collapsing. Any variation from normal appearing root tissue may represent a rotting problem. This rot can proceed up the root until it gets to the critical top of the root, resulting in the death of the seedling. Rot can be so severe that all you see is a “shell” of the root with an empty cavity inside. Treatment of rot involves dissecting away diseased tissue until you reach clean, firm, white root tissue. Cut the root in a transverse fashion. Then treat the cut edge with a powdered fungicide and seal it with a tree or root sealing substance. Typically I will not put a treated seedling into a cycad mix but rather into a pure pumice mix until new roots develop. 

rotted seedling
(click photo to enlarge)


1 gal pot (left) & Band pot (right).


When you have removed the seedling, you will get a feel for the container needed for repotting. You do this by checking the size of the roots. Cycads have relatively large root systems and respond to deep pots. The roots grow quickly and will extend deeply into the pots. Shallow pots don’t seem to give much long-term vigor to the plant. However, overdoing the pot size may lead to moisture accumulation in the soil and potential rot problems. I generally will pick a pot size that will give new soil depth below the terminal roots that is at least one half the overall root size. In other words, if the plants root were six inches long, I would repot into a pot that offers another three inches of growth room below the tip of the root. It is for this reason that many growers have converted to using the “band container” for new seedlings. It is a square container, which is 3x3x9 inches and offers room for further growth. An extra deep one gallon is good as well. However, a typical one gallon might be shallow for some new seedlings and is also less space efficient. This need for root room has led cycad growers to prefer deeper pots, such as tree pots, citrus pots and deep 15 gallons pots. As plants get larger and larger, giving more root room becomes impossible and the garden is the only solution. 

Bare root seedling.
(click photo to enlarge)


Cycad potting soil.
(click photo to enlarge)


Let’s say that you decided that a band container would do well for your seedlings. After gently removing one seedling, suspend the seedling into the container. In the picture here, we have used a band container. Hold the small caudex (the top of the primary tap root) about ˝ inch below the top lip of the container. Gently add your potting soil into the container until you have reached the ideal soil level. This level should leave bare the top of the caudex. Potting the seedling too high will lead to plant instability. Potting too deep will lead to rot of the crown of the caudex. Compress the mix gently so as to not tear roots below. Be aware that, when you repot an older, larger cycad that the soil level should expose much of the plant’s caudex. 

Repotting cycad seedling into a band (3x3x9 inch) pot.
(click photo to enlarge)


Try to water the newly repotted seedling as soon as possible. New potting soil is typically dry and can desiccate the roots, but don’t over water. In most areas, once or twice a week is adequate. Always check to see how moist the soil is; if the soil is still damp, it doesn’t need to be watered. Typically, new seedlings do not want full sun. If it is a sun-loving species, slowly introduce the plant into the sun over several months (as explained in our article on acclimation). You can wait longer until the plant is well established and perhaps on it’s second or third leaf. 

Do not over water. Avoid water on the crown of the plant as continually wetting may lead to rot. Rather, water the soil around the plant and not right onto the top of the plant.  Regarding fertilizer, we typically don’t fertilize new seedlings for several months. When the plant is more established, a slow release fertilizer with microelements is probably ideal for most growers.  As a seedling most cycad seedlings and sago palm seedlings should not be kept damp and moist, but allowed to dry out a bit.  This way you will eventually get nice healthy sago palms or rare cycad plants.

Compressing soil around the roots.
(click photo to enlarge)

Link to Website & Lots of Cycads for Sale

Regarding the soil mix to use on seedlings, please refer to our article on cycad soils. We do amend our standard cycad mix on seedlings and use a somewhat different mix on different genera.


Return to Cycads

Repotted seedling.
(click photo to enlarge)


Phil Bergman

Jungle Music Palms, Cycads and Tropical Plants
Nursery Location: 450 Ocean View Ave., Encinitas, CA 92024
Nursery Hours: 9AM to 4PM, Monday through Saturday
Nursery Phone: 619 291 4605
Email: phil@junglemusic.net







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