Walk into your local nursery in February and you'll likely be greeted by bare sticks poking out of bins filled with moist sawdust. It is hard to imagine the life these sleeping plants hold within, just waiting for warmer, fairer weather to break dormancy and grow. However, the savvy shopper knows to look beyond appearances to see the savings they offer. Within a month or two, container plants will be priced anywhere from 10% to 70% more than their bare-root counterparts, to cover additional labor and material costs. If you purchase from a mail order source, you'll also save on shipping costs. Bare-root plants, dug without soil around their roots and packaged in plastic bags or tall containers filled with damp sawdust or organic matter, weigh less than container plants.
Bare-root plants offer other benefits, too. Many gardeners contend that bare-root plants establish more quickly in the garden since there is no transition from potting soil to garden soil. This is especially advantageous for hard to establish plants, such as our native madrone, Arbutus menziesii. Additionally, bare-root plants are rarely root-bound, a common problem with container-grown plants. Lastly, nurseries can offer a greater variety because bare-root plants take up much less space than the same number of plants in containers.
Are you convinced of bare-root benefits yet? Good!
From February through March, a large assortment of plants is available bare-root: ornamental trees and shrubs, fruit trees, roses, cane berries and other fruits, vegetables, hops, and perennials. Towards the end of bare-root season, choices are more limited, but nurseries generally reduce prices to clear out their stock. However, a bargain may not be a bargain if plants have broken dormancy and begun to leaf out and grow since they don't establish as quickly as plants purchased and planted before breaking dormancy.
Selecting Your Plants
Success begins with healthy specimens purchased from reputable nurseries and mail order businesses. Select plants in good condition at the nursery, and open and inspect mail order packages as soon as they arrive. Stems should be strong and undamaged (a few broken branches on fruit trees is acceptable). Roots should be firm, moist and heavy. Avoid plants with dry, light and brittle, or slimy and squishy roots. Plants and packaging should be relatively mold- and mildew-free; a little mold is okay but mold on 50% or more of the plant greatly reduces your success. You should detect only earthy smells, not off or rotten odors. Avoid plants that have been stocked and stored indoors unless they are refrigerated to stall emergence from dormancy.
Keep roots moist and plant as soon as possible. You can store packaged bare-root plants in their original packing medium in a cool, dark place if you will be planting within a few days. If you are unable to plant immediately, heel them in or pot them up.
Heeling in is a temporary planting solution that is useful when you are unable to plant immediately. In a sheltered shady spot, dig a V-shaped trench, wide and deep enough to accommodate plants' roots and long enough to prevent crowding. Place plants with their roots below ground level and refill the trench; do not pack the soil down. Water thoroughly. Check soil moisture and water as needed. You can heel plants in for up to 3 months (sometimes longer). When you are ready to plant, carefully remove the soil from the trench and lift out the bare-root plants. Then follow the planting tips.
At planting time, give a clean cut to any damaged or dead roots. Do not cut back healthy roots. Soak woody plants in water for 1-2 hours, herbaceous plants for 30 minutes. Dig a hole twice as wide and just as deep as the root system. A hole with a slighter wider bottom encourages roots to grow outward. Build a cone of soil, firmly packed, in the center of the hole to support the base of the plant. Spread the roots around the cone as evenly as possible and untwine roots to prevent girdling; cut circling roots if necessary. Partially fill the hole with native, not amended, soil. Tamp soil down gently and water, allowing air pockets to collapse and the soil to settle. Lay a shovel handle across the top of the hole to check final soil level and adjust the plant as necessary. The soil level should be even with or slightly lower than the root flare on woody plants and the root crown on herbaceous plants, and below the graft union on fruit trees, roses and grafted ornamental trees. Finish filling the hole and tamp soil down, making sure all roots are covered and in good contact with the soil. Water thoroughly and mulch, keeping mulch away from the base of the plant.
Recommendations regarding fertilization at time of planting vary. Definitely do not mix raw manure or chemical fertilizers with the soil as you plant as they can burn and damage the roots. If you feel you must fertilize, opt for a slow-release organic fertilizer.
Pruning woody plants should be kept to a minimum, limited to cutting broken, diseased and crossing branches. The exceptions are fruit bearing woody plants. Pruning is more extreme (steel yourself for what comes next). On fruit trees, prune just above the height where you want the lowest branches to grow (generally 30-40 inches above the ground). Prune canes of berry plants, such as raspberry and blackberry, to 6-8 inches above the ground. Gooseberry and currant branches should be cut to 4-6 inches lengths. For grapes, prune off all but one of the canes; prune that cane back to two buds.
Unless your newly planted bare-root tree is planted in a windy area, staking isn't necessary. Evidence shows that unnecessary staking of young trees results in trees that are taller and thinner with deformed xylem (the supporting and water-conducting tissue) and less root growth.
The weather may be cold and dreary and springtime seems ages away, but a little dose of bare-root plant shopping and dreaming will brighten the day.
For specific cultural care information, contact your local OSU or WSU Extension Master Gardener program.
by Lisa Albert
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