It’s time for bare root planting

Have you been thinking of adding a fruit tree or two, some roses, or other productive plants to your garden? This is the perfect time for plants that are sold in “bare root” form.

Most deciduous fruit and nut trees are available bare root: almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, walnuts, and more. Other ornamental shrubs, fruiting vines, and perennial edibles are also available bare root: artichokes, asparagus, cane berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries), grapes, kiwis, roses, etc.

Commercial growers dig these trees and plants from the ground in late December when they’re dormant. The soil is washed off the roots, then the plants are bundled or packaged and shipped to local nurseries without pots. The roots are covered with a loose, moisture-retaining material such as peat moss, sawdust, fine wood shavings, or shredded paper to keep them from drying out.

The bare root season is short, lasting only from January through mid-February, so take advantage of this opportunity before it’s too late! (If you miss local bare root offerings, you might still find some plants by mail order through growers in colder climate areas of the country.)

There are several advantages to buying bare root plants:

  • Optimal Growth.  Bare root plants acclimate more readily to new soil conditions than do actively growing plants. Also, since they have no leaves or flowers to maintain, they can put all their energy into developing a strong root system after planting.
  • Low Weight.Because there is no heavy pot filled with soil, moving the plants from field to store to planting location is much easier.
  • Wide Selection. The variety of fruit trees and roses available now is much greater than during the warmer months of the year. Shop soon for the best selection.
  • Great Price.It’s much more efficient for growers to harvest, store, and ship plants in bare root form, and there is no supplemental cost for pots, planting soil, or the labor involved in potting. Therefore, it’s less expensive to get a bare root plant to market, and those cost savings are passed along to the consumer.

Before buying a bare root plant, inspect the root system carefully. Look for a healthy root system with an abundance of well-branched feeder roots. Avoid plants with dry and shriveled roots, rotting roots, badly kinked or broken roots, or roots that circle and girdle the base of the plant. If the roots are covered with plastic, examine any visible roots and make sure that the packaging is intact to prevent dried out roots.

Check the upper part of the plant too. The bark should be undamaged, and the trunk or branch structure should be sound. Rose plants should have at least three healthy canes. Some herbaceous (non-woody) bare root plants, such as artichokes and asparagus, are sold as funny-looking root balls without any top growth; don’t worry, new leaves will emerge a few weeks after planting.

Another consideration for stone fruit trees (with a single, large, hard seed) and pome fruit trees (with a core of small seeds, such as apples, pears, quince) is chill hours. These trees need a minimum number of hours below 45°F in order to break dormancy and achieve good flower formation and fruit set. In San Joaquin County, our average annual chill hours are about 1100 (data from 2013-2017), so check the plant label to make sure you buy appropriately.

It’s usually better to purchase from reputable nurseries with knowledgeable staff than from discount stores and big box chains. Unscrupulous retailers have been known to remove leaves from bare root plants so that they looked dormant when they aren’t. Emerging leaf buds or flowers mean that plants have come out of dormancy, and picking off their new growth robs the awakening plants of valuable energy.

Bare root plants should be planted in their permanent location as soon as possible after purchase, but rainy weather or busy schedules can interfere with the best of intentions. If immediate planting isn’t possible, you’ll need to keep the roots of your chosen plants from drying out or freezing. Loosely wrap the rootballs with wet burlap or newspaper, or place them in a pot full of fine, moist, sawdust or compost. Keep the plants outdoors in a cool location; avoid warm, bright places because they might think it’s spring and come out of dormancy.

Bare root fruit trees with opaque plastic packaging that prevents root inspection. These trees were improperly displayed in a warm, bright, interior location. (Photo © Kathy Ikeda)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best way to temporarily store bare root trees is by a process known as “heeling in.” Dig a shallow V-shaped trench in a protected, shady area of your yard. Remove any packaging from around the roots, then place the rootball into the trench so that it is entirely below ground, with the tree lying down against the side of but outside the trench. Cover the rootball with loose soil or sawdust, then water it lightly but frequently to keep it moist, not saturated. A wheelbarrow in the garage works well as a temporary storage “trench” too.

When you’re ready to put your bare root plants in the ground, choose a sunny location with well-drained soil. Prune out any damaged roots. Dig shallow holes only as deep as the rootballs, and 2 to 3 times as wide. While you’re digging, dunk the rootballs in a bucket of water to rehydrate them. (Don’t leave roots submerged for more than a few hours, because they need oxygen to survive.)

Trees should be planted with the graft union above the soil level and the crown or root flare at ground level; if planted too low, the crown will rot, and if too high, the rootball will dry out. Other bare root perennials should be planted on top of a cone of packed soil within the planting hole, with the roots spread out over the cone and the crown of the plant at ground level. Once the plants are in place, backfill the holes with native soil, gently tamp it down to eliminate any air pockets around the roots, then water.

There are many important considerations when planting a bare root tree or perennial, far too many to cover in detail here. Consult these excellent resources before you buy and plant your bare root treasures:

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

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