Get Bare In Winter

Besides the popular deciduous fruit trees and roses, several deciduous ornamentals, like these clematis vines, are also available bare root.

It may not seem like the middle of winter is a good time for much gardening, but now that any unsold Christmas trees have been removed from nurseries, bare roots plants are moving in. They should be available through the rest of winter, until warming spring weather prompts bloom and emergence of new foliage.

As the name implies, ‘bare root’ plants have bare roots. They are not contained within potting media (soil) in cans or pots. Some are wrapped in coarse sawdust to keep roots moist and contained without much weight. Others are simply heeled into damp sand at nurseries where they can be dug and wrapped when purchased.

Without cumbersome cans, bare root plants occupy less space in nurseries, so many more varieties of fruit trees, grapes, roses, berries and various ornamentals can be available bare root than could be available as standard canned stock during the rest of the year. Bare root plants have the added advantage of costing about half of what canned stock costs.

The main advantage of bare root plants though, is that they waste no time getting established in the garden. The process of getting dug, transported and replanted is done while plants are dormant. When they wake in their new homes in the spring, they immediately start to disperse new roots into the surrounding soil.

If bare root plants can not go directly into the garden once they arrive home, they should be heeled into damp soil or mulch and watered. If planting will be delayed only for a day or two, they can instead be put in a bucket of water to submerge the roots. Plants that are packaged in bags of damp sawdust can wait for more than a week in the shade.

Planting holes need not be any larger than the roots of the bare root plants. If soil is disturbed too deeply, it will only settle and possibly cause new plants to sink. Graft unions (which are evident as kinks low on trunks of trees, or where rose plants branch) should stay above the surface of the soil. Backfill soil should be amended only minimally, or not at all. Too much amendment inhibits root dispersion. (Roots may not want to leave amended soil.) There will be plenty of rain through winter. However, new plants should be soaked twice after planting to settle soil around the roots.

Finally, damaged or unnecessary stems can be pruned off. Bare root fruit trees come with more stems than they need, for padding in transportation, and to allow more options for pruning.

Winter Is For Getting Bare

Bare root plants do not look like much . . . yet.

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.

Forsythia

00108This may seem to be three months early, or an entire season out of season; but this is when bare root forsythia, Forsythia X intermedia, gets planted. Even so, the smaller of new bare root plants will bloom with only a few flowers early in their first spring, so will not produce their famously profuse and garishly bright yellow bloom for another year and three months. They will be worth the wait.

Flowers are small but very abundant. They bloom as winter turns to spring, before there is any new foliage to interfere with their splendor. Foliage develops as bloom finishes, and if the weather is right, it might get somewhat colorful in autumn. The simple paired leaves are about two or perhaps three inches long. Big plants should stay less than ten feet tall, but can get taller if lightly shaded.

Pruning should be done after bloom rather than before, and from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Dormant pruning, although more horticulturally correct, eliminates some of the canes that would otherwise bloom in spring. After bloom, older overgrown canes that are beginning to deteriorate should be pruned to the ground to promote development of new canes to replace them.

Horridculture – Multi-Grafts

P91116+++Bare root fruit trees will be available in about a month. It is probably my favorite time of year for going to nurseries. (Since I grow just about everything I want from bits of landscape debris, I do not often go to retail nurseries.) It is also rather frustrating to see what sorts of bare root material are popular nowadays, and what sorts are not. Horticulture has gotten so ridiculous!

Most of the formerly common cultivars of fruit trees that I remember are no longer available. They were common for a reason. They perform well here. Retailers used to select cultivars for their respective regions, instead of pimping out weird new but unproven cultivars, or just taking the same faddish cultivars that get sent to other stores within a vast chain of big box stores.

One of the weirdest of fads are multi-grafted fruit trees and roses.

Multi-grafts are certainly not new technology. Back when horticulture was taken more seriously, fruit trees for home gardens (which might be the only ones of their kind in their respective gardens) were sometimes, if needed, outfitted with a secondary scion of a pollinating cultivar. The pollinator could be pruned low and subordinated, as long as it bloomed with a few flowers.

Most of us preferred to simply plant two separate trees that could pollinate each other. If one was less desirable than the other, it was just maintained as a smaller tree so that it would not occupy so much space that could be utilized by more desirable types. Each tree had its own uncrowded area. If one succumbed to disease, it did not necessarily affect those associated with it.

Multi-graft trees are not so easy. If the trunk of a multi-graft pear tree gets infested with fire blight, all the scions grafted to it succumb. Because almost no one prunes them properly, the most vigorous cultivars dominate and crowd the less vigorous. Even well pruned trees are always asymmetrical because each cultivar exhibits a different growth rate and branch structure.

Multi-graft rose standards (trees) just look weird and freakishly unnatural. Pruning must ensure that one cultivar does not crowd out the other, just like for fruit trees. The multi-graft rose in the picture above was planted with three others just like it. Two of them crowded out one of their two scions. It would have been easier to simply plant two in white and two in burgundy.

Multi-graft plants are useful only if ground space is very limited, but air space is not. For example, such a tree planted in a hole in a deck can extend limbs over the deck where other trees can not live. If maintained properly and separately, each part can produce its share of fruit in season. I once did this with a pear tree that was espaliered on a fence over a concrete driveway.

Winter Is Bare Root Season

80124thumbWhile dormant for winter, some types of plants get dug from the soil and sent to nurseries as ‘bare root’ stock. Some get packaged with their otherwise bare roots contained in bags of damp sawdust. Most just get heeled into damp sand in the retail nurseries where they get sold. These simply get pulled from the sand when sold.

At their new home gardens, bare root plants simply get planted where they will sleep through the rest of winter. In spring, they wake up and start to grow as if nothing ever happened. How sneaky! They do not need big holes for their bare roots. Their graft unions (the ‘kinks’ at the bases of the trunks of grafted plants) must stand above grade. Roots only need to be spread out laterally.

Soil amendment should be minimal. Too much soil amendment promotes root growth around the trunk, which can inhibit root dispersion elsewhere. Too much excavation and amendment below the roots may eventually settle, so that graft unions sag below grade, and get buried. A light dose of fertilizer a bit later promotes early root growth, even while the branches are still bare.

Bare root plants are much more portable than canned (potted) plants. Several can be wrapped and sent home in a small car, or even through the mail; which is why so many bare root plants can be purchased online. (Climate zones should be considered when purchasing online.) Because they occupy less space than canned plants, many more varieties are available in nurseries.

Because they are so easy to handle and process, bare root plants cost about a third of what canned plants cost. Mail order plants from growers often cost even less than those that must be sent to retail nurseries first. Bare root plants are at least as reliable as canned stock, disperse roots more efficiently, and are less likely to be infected with disease when they arrive.

The most popular bare root plants are roses, cane berries, grapevines and fruit trees, like apricot, peach, nectarine, cherry, plum, prune, almond, apple, pear and persimmon. Flowering crabapple, flowering cherry, poplar, lilac, forsythia, wisteria, rhubarb, strawberry and asparagus are also available.

Bare Root Stock Has Advantages

31225thumbAnyone who has had undergone surgery knows the advantages of unconsciousness. Any frat boy who woke up after a night of overly indulgent inebriation, with his face adorned with objectionable graffiti, knows the disadvantages. A lot can happen while one is unaware that it is happening. This is exactly why so many bare root plants become available while they are dormant through winter.

Bare root plants get dug and deprived of the soil that their roots grew in, leaving the roots bare. Some get their roots packaged into bags of damp sawdust. Others get their roots heeled into bins of damp sand in retail nurseries. Roots are only bagged or heeled in to stay fresh. They get pulled from their sand or separated from their bag of sawdust when ultimately planted into the garden.

It might seem violent, but it all happens while the plants are dormant and unaware of what is happening. They go to sleep happily rooted into the ground wherever they grew, and then wake up in a home garden somewhere else. It only takes a short while to get reoriented before they develop new foliage and new roots as if nothing ever happened. The whole process is surprisingly efficient.

Canned (potted) plants are actually less efficient in some ways. They are bulkier and therefore more difficult to bring home from the nursery. Their confined roots are more likely to be disfigured or binding. (Roots that wrap around the inside of a can will constrict on themselves as they grow.) The media (potting soil) could contain disease. Worst of all, canned stock is much more expensive.

Bare root plants are remarkably easy to plant. Their planting holes only need to be big enough to contain the roots. Soil amendment should be minimal. If too much amendment is added, or holes are too deep, new plants are likely to sink. Graft unions (the distinctive ‘kinks’ just above the roots) of grafted trees must remain above grade. Roots should be spread out laterally and downward.

Smaller bare root plants like cane berries, grapevines, gooseberry and currant are already moving into nurseries where Christmas trees are relinquishing their space. Fruit trees like apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine, almond, apple, pear, quince, fig, pomegranate and persimmon will arrive next, followed by blueberry and roses. Poplar, flowering cherry, flowering crabapple, forsythia, lilac, wisteria, rhubarb, strawberry and asparagus might also be available.