There’s something about walking through a nursery and seeing all those beautiful trees and shrubs. Do you hear them calling your name? I do. It’s irresistible and easy to envision any or all of them coming home to live in my garden. For many though, it’s another thing entirely to have the same appreciation for plants and trees that are sold as leafless, soilless sticks taking up precious space in your garden. Yet with proper care, bare root plants as they are referred to in the trade will deliver spectacular results, without many of the problems commonly found when bringing home the more seductive potted options. Home gardeners just need to see past the awkward stage to get there. (For the remainder of this article, I’ll refer collectively to bare root trees and shrubs as simply, bare roots).
Bare roots get their name from the fact that they are sold dormant, and without a container or soil. To be sure, they’re not pretty to look at in this state, yet they are every bit as qualified to adorn your garden or landscape. In fact bare roots can often be the better option overall.
Bare roots will never be pot bound (a common problem for container grown plants), nor will they arrive with any hitchhiking pests or diseases from tainted soil, or foliage. In addition, you can usually find much greater variety options through mail order companies specializing in bare roots. Most have been field grown for over a year or more before harvesting during the dormant period. The soil is washed clean from the roots and the branches are usually pruned back for ease of storage and shipping. In storage, they’re kept cool to keep them dormant—which is exactly how you want to receive them for planting in spring. It eliminates transplant shock, making the transition to your garden trouble free.
Planting bare roots is simple. Even so, there are a few important steps to take to ensure the best chance for success.
Upon arrival inspect each plant to ensure they appear in good condition and that the roots have been kept moist, typically with moist shredded paper. It’s best to plant right away. However, if you will be delayed, remoisten or add additional moistened paper around the root area, close up the plastic bag and store in a cool location for up to several days.
If planting will be delayed by more than 10 days, transfer your plants to a temporary in-ground holding area and heel then in. The term refers to digging a narrow trench in which to bury the roots. You can lay the plants at an angle in the soil and cover the roots. Keep them moist and transfer to their permanent home when able.
When planting bare roots in their permanent home, soak the roots for several hours in a bucket of water first. Dig the hole about two times as wide as the roots when you spread them out.
Next pile a mound of the excavated soil in the center of the hole for your plant to sit. Position the base of the plant onto the center of the mound and drape the roots over the mound. Root to soil contact is key. Your goal is to provide a solid base for your plant to sit, while making sure the roots are evenly spread and in contact with the soil base. It is also important to ensure that the highest point on the trunk where the roots meet is no deeper then the surrounding grade when resting on the mound. Then back fill with the remaining soil. There’s no need to amend the planting hole with non-native soil. Studies show plants establish faster using just the original soil.
The final step is to thoroughly irrigate now and for several weeks to come during establishment. It’s especially important at the time of planting to saturate the planting hole, so as to settle loose soil and eliminate any air pockets. Add a three-inch layer of mulch over the soil to help retain moisture. In just a few short weeks, you should see new growth emerging as you bare root breaks dormancy followed by rapid growth.