Planting Bare Root Stock Properly

It looks like sticks in mud.

Bare root season began as the Christmas season ended. Literally, as the last Christmas trees relinquished their space in nurseries, bare root stock occupied it. Most of this stock grew in Oregon, where winter weather is cooler, so was ready for digging and relocation prior to arrival. Now that it is here, the season for planting bare root stock is quite limited.

Almost all bare root stock is deciduous. It defoliated through autumn, so the stems are as bare as the roots are. Most bare root stock is fruit and nut trees, such as almond, apricot, cherry, plum, peach, apple, pear, persimmon and fig. Grape, currant, gooseberry, wisteria and rose are ready for planting bare root too. All are dormant, so unaware of the process. 

They do not stay dormant for long though. They must be planted in their new homes prior to the end of winter, when warming spring weather stimulates new growth. They can not sustain such growth if their roots are unable to disperse into soil. This is why the season for relocating and planting bare root stock is so limited to winter. It relies on cool weather. 

Fortunately, planting bare root stock is surprisingly simple. Soil amendment that prompts root growth away from confined root systems of canned (potted) stock is not so important. Since new roots grow directly from formerly bare roots into surrounding soil, amendment is only helpful for soil of inferior quality. Fertilizer will not be helpful until growth resumes. 

A hole for planting bare root stock needs to be just big enough to contain the flared roots. It must be shallow enough to suspend any graft union above grade, without loose soil to settle below. Watering is only needed to soak and settle soil around roots, and will not be needed again until after the rainy season. Pruning removes crowded or damaged stems. 

Of course, not all fruit trees are conducive to planting bare root. Evergreen plants are not as dormant during winter as deciduous plants are. Their roots are therefore less resilient to separation from the soil. Pitahaya, avocado and some citrus, which can be marginally vulnerable to frost in some climates, are more vulnerable after autumn or winter planting. 

Bare Root Stock For Winter

Bare roots might fail to impress.

Dormant pruning happens during winter, while the plants that benefit from it are dormant. Obviously, it would not be dormant pruning otherwise. Such processes are less stressful to plants while they are inactive and essentially anesthetized like a surgery patient. This is also why fresh bare root stock becomes available and ready for planting during winter. 

Bare root stock grows on farms for a few years. Any grafting is part of the process. When stock is sufficiently mature, growers dig and separate its roots from the soil that it grew in. Much of the stock goes to retail nurseries for heeling into damp sand for sale. Some gets neat packaging with damp sawdust around its roots. Some goes out for mail order sales.

Regardless of the process, it all happens quickly and early during winter dormancy. Bare root stock must then get into soil again, quickly and before the end of winter dormancy. It will not survive if it resumes growth without soil to contain new roots. Planting should be as soon as possible, so that roots can settle in with rain, and be ready to grow by spring.

Bare root stock is less expensive than canned (potted) stock because it is so lightweight and easier to process. Since it occupies less space than canned stock in retail nurseries, more varieties of bare root stock are available. Bare root stock is easier to load into a car, and plant into a garden. Once in a garden, it disperses roots quickly and more efficiently.

Deciduous fruit trees are the most popular bare root stock. Of these, most are stone fruits or pome fruits. The stone fruits, of the genus Prunus, include cherry, plum, prune, apricot, peach, nectarine, their hybrids, and almond. Apple, pear, and quince are pome (pomme) fruits. Pomegranate, persimmon, fig, mulberry and walnut are somewhat popular as well. 

So much more than deciduous fruit and nut trees are available as bare root stock. Grape, kiwi, currant, gooseberry and blueberry are deciduous fruiting vines or shrubs, not trees. Blackberry, raspberry and strawberry are evergreens. Rhubarb, asparagus and artichoke are perennial vegetables. Rose, wisteria, hydrangea and so many more are fruitless ornamental plants.

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.

Bare Root Stock Makes Sense

Snowball bush is available bare root.

Winter has potential to be a slow season for gardening. Simple gardens may not require much dormant pruning. Established gardens may not require much planting. Where winters are cold and perhaps snowy, no one wants to go outside anyway. Those who go out may not be able to accomplish much. Nonetheless, winter is the season for planting bare root stock, which is now available.

Bare root stock starts to move into nurseries before the last Christmas trees move out. Growers start to dig and package it as it goes dormant for winter. They separate it completely from the soil it grew in, leaving the roots bare. Some bare root stock is available with bags of damp sawdust protecting its roots. Most goes into bins of damp sand to protect the roots while at retail nurseries.

Unlike canned (potted) nursery stock, bare root stock must get into the garden as soon as possible. It will not survive long if it gets warm enough to start growing prior to planting. Nor will it survive if roots desiccate. Unbagged bare root stock can soak in water for a limited time. For planting, roots should flare outwardly. Soil amendment should be limited. Graft unions must be above grade.

Bare root stock is lightweight, compact, and easy to handle in bulk. Therefore, it is less expensive than canned stock. It is also easier to get home and plant. Because so many individual plants fit into limited space, many more cultivars are available from nurseries. Even more are available by mail order. Bare root stock disperses roots and gets growing more efficiently than canned stock.

Deciduous fruit trees might be the most popular bare root stock. This includes apple, pear, persimmon, fig, mulberry, walnut, pomegranate and the stone fruits. (Apricot, cherry, peach, plum, prune and nectarine are stone fruits.) Grape, currant, gooseberry, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry bare root stock are also available. So are perennial rhubarb, asparagus, artichoke and strawberry.

Ornamental bare root stock includes rose, snowball bush, forsythia, wisteria, flowering crabapple, poplar and many more.

Planting Bare Root Stock Properly

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Bare root roses bloom next summer.

Most of the advantages of bare root stock are obvious. Bare root stock is less expensive and easier to work with in regard to installation and pruning to a desired form. What some of us may find difficult to understand is that it actually gets established into a new garden more efficiently than canned (potted) nursery stock does. As incredible as it seems, there are a few simple reasons why.

Instead of dispersing roots within the confinement of cans, bare root stock disperses roots directly an extensively into the soil into which it gets planted. Their initial deficiency of roots encourages them to do so quickly. Roots of canned stock must recover from confinement. Their new roots may be hesitant to leave the comfort of the extra rich medium in which their original roots developed.

The holes dug for planting bare root stock need not be much wider than the roots can be spread apart, and no deeper. If too deep, newly planted stock will sink as the loosened soil below settles. Grafted plants must not sink enough for their graft unions to be below grade. A cone formed of firmly pressed soil at the bottom of a planting hole can be useful for spreading roots out evenly over.

Rich soil needs no amendment. If compost is added to loosen dense soil, it should be as minimal as practical. Too much amendment will tempt roots to stay close rather than dispersing remotely. Fertilizer is not necessary immediately after planting. However, because the soil does not stay very cold here, and roots start growing before spring, mild fertilizer can be applied shortly afterward.

Finally, most bare root stock should be groomed and probably pruned after planting. Fruit trees are often sold with only minimal prior pruning. Superfluous stems function as packing material that buffers the ravages of transportation, and also provide more options for preliminary structural pruning. Aggressive pruning of plants that benefit from it concentrates resources for growth in spring.