Even before the last of the Christmas trees vacate nurseries, bare root nursery stock begins to move in, and will be available through winter. As the name implies, ‘bare root’ stock has bare roots, without media (‘potting soil’) or cans (pots) to contain the roots. Many are temporarily heeled into damp sand from which they get dug and wrapped in newspaper when purchased. Others are packaged in damp wood shavings or coarse sawdust contained in narrow plastic bags.
Bare root plants do not mind the lack of media because they get dug, shipped, sold and finally planted into their permanent locations all while naturally dormant through winter. They were in the ground when they went dormant, and will be back in the ground in their new homes by the time they wake up in spring. Because they have not already developed a densely meshed root system within a limited volume of media, they happily disperse new roots directly into the soil where they get planted.
Because they lack relatively bulky cans, bare root plants need less space in nurseries. Many more varieties of deciduous fruit trees, grapevines, roses and berries can therefore be made available. They also cost about half as much as common canned nursery stock.
If bare root plants will not be planted immediately, their roots should be heeled into damp dense mulch (not coarse chips) or soil, and watered. They can be soaked in buckets of water if planting will be delayed only for a day or two. Packaged plants need not be heeled in, and can wait in the shade for more than a week.
Planting holes do not need to be any wider or deeper than the roots. If the soil is loosened too deeply, in will likely settle and cause the new plants to sink. Graft unions must stay above the surface of the soil. (Graft unions are evident where rose plants branch, or as kinks low on tree trunks.) If backfill soil is amended at all, it should be amended only minimally. Otherwise, roots may not want to disperse very far. New plants should be soaked twice in order to settle soil around the roots, but if it rains soon enough, they may not need to be watered again until they start to grow in spring.
Once planted, most bare root plants need some sort of pruning. Fruit trees typically have more stems than they need to maximize the options for their first structure pruning.