Plant Bare Root Plants Properly

90206thumbCompared to canned (potted) nursery stock, bare root plants have a few advantages. They are less expensive, easier to handle, more conducive to pruning into a desired form, and they disperse roots and get established more efficiently. One more advantage that is not often considered is that they are easier to install into the garden. For some, it is as simple as poking a stick in the mud.

Perhaps the only disadvantage of bare root plants is that they must be planted immediately, so that they get their roots soaked and settled into the ground into which they will disperse new roots. If planting must be delayed, roots can soak in a bucket of water for only a few days. Unless they are to live in big pots, potting for a season only delays and interferes with efficient root dispersion.

Only bare root trees that need root barriers (to divert roots from pavement) or mesh gopher baskets (to divert gophers from roots) will need planting holes that are as big as those for canned nursery stock. Otherwise, planting holes need be only as wide as the bare roots, and should be no deeper. If soil is loosened too deeply below, new plants will sink as loose soil settles. Graft unions must remain above grade.

Well flared roots can be spread over a cone of soil formed at the bottom of the planting hole. Conversely, cane berries, after their roots get loosened, can simply be dropped into slots formed by sticking a shovel into the ground and prying it back.

Soil amendments that are useful for providing a transition zone between potting media of canned nursery stock the surrounding soil are not so important with bare root stock. Bare root plants only want a bit of soil amendment if the soil is too sandy or too dense with clay. Otherwise, too much amendment can actually inhibit root dispersion by tempting roots to stay where the richest soil is.

Once planted, trees can be pruned as desired. Most come with superfluous stems to provide more options for pruning, and some stems will be damaged in transport. Fertilizer need not be applied until growth resumes in spring.

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Bare Root Season Is Now

80124thumbAutumn really is the season for planting. That is the general rule. One generalization about general rules is that they generally do not apply to all of the specifics. In other words, there are likely certain exceptions. In this case, there are some types of plants that should not be planted in autumn. The next best season for planting is probably winter, which happens to be ‘bare root season’.

Just before the last of the Christmas trees were being sold, and relinquishing their space in nurseries, bare root stock started moving in. Some bare root stock is prepackaged with its otherwise bare roots in bags of moist sawdust. Nurseries that provide large volumes are likely to heel in unpackaged bare root stock into bins of moist sand, from which it gets pulled and wrapped as sold.

As the term ‘bare root’ implies, bare root stock was dug as early as the onset of dormancy in late autumn, and deprived of the soil that it grew in. Because it is dormant, and the weather is cool and damp, it does not mind much, if it even knows at all. As it emerges from dormancy next spring, it resumes growth, and disperses roots into the new soil that it got planted into while dormant.

Bare root stock is significantly less expensive than canned (potted) stock because it lightweight and does not take up much space in the nursery. It is also more efficient, since it only stops briefly in retail nurseries, on its way from growers to its final home destinations. New plants start dispersing roots right away, instead taking time and effort to recover from earlier confinement of roots.

Deciduous fruit trees and roses are the most familiar of bare root stock. The bare root fruit trees include the stone fruits of the genus Prunus, such as apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine and almond, as well as pomme fruits, such as apple, pear and quince. Figs, pomegranates, persimmons, walnuts, mulberries, grapevines, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, cane berries, strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and a miscellany of deciduous blooming but fruitless plants are also available.

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.

Memorial Memorial

P81014The little Memorial Tree in Felton Covered Bridge park that I so frequently write about is not the first to be planted there in its parking lot island. It is actually the fourth! The first was a California black oak like the other four in the other islands. They were all planted with the original landscape. It did not live there long before getting run over by a car. The island was empty for many years.

The second tree (above) was an Eastern red cedar that I brought from Oklahoma. It arrived here very early in the morning on the last day of 2012, in a bag with a few others that I pulled out of the ground the day before we left. They may be nothing special within their native range, but they are very exotic to me. At the time, I had no plans for the small trees. I just wanted to grow them.

I was downtown and up late the following night when I realized that it was nearing midnight between 2012 and 2013. I took out a trowel, dug a small hole in the island, and planted one of the Eastern red cedars right at the moment that one year changed to the next. I did not give it any more thought than that. Otherwise, I would have preferred a native species like the Park was originally landscaped with.

Sadly, that tree lasted only a few months before succumbing to what dogs do to young trees in parking lot islands. It was a bare root tree, so was not very resilient.

The third tree (below) was a native bigleaf maple that was planted the following winter between 2013 and 2014. It did not get much more planning than the Eastern red cedar. I found it growing on the side of the road where it would have been killed by vegetation management within the utility easement. Like the little Eastern red cedar, I pulled it up and planted it bare root. It was a better choice in some ways, but would have needed to be watered by bucket for the first few years. It survived through the first year and half way through 2015 before it too succumbed to what dogs do. I was being optimistic by thinking that a bare root tree would survive that.

The fourth tree is the little native valley oak Memorial Tree that is there now. I found it for just a few dollars at a local nursery. It was planted in the winter between 2015 and 2016, so this was its third summer. It was a canned tree, so started with more of a root system than the previous two trees that were planted bare root. Nonetheless, life out in that exposed parking lot island is not easy. The tree was severely damaged by weed whackers both in 2016 and in 2017, so barely grew, and is recovering slowly. It is quite well rooted now, so should have a much better season next summer.

https://tonytomeo.com/2018/09/22/illegally-planting/ – This is a link to one of the more recent articles about the Memorial Tree. It includes a link to another previous article, which also links to other older articles. I really do not remember how many updates I have written about the Memorial Tree.P81014+

Proper Bare Root Planting Technique

80124thumbBare root plants are less expensive, easier to handle, and easier to prune into a desired form than canned (potted) plants are. Also, they get established into the garden easier. Yes, even with less roots, they disperse their new roots directly into the surrounding soil more efficiently than secondary roots escaping from crowded roots that had been confined to cans of media (potting soil).

Bare root plants have no incentive to stay confined. They get planted while dormant, and wake up surrounded only by their new soil, with nothing else to get in the way. Canned plants might have been circling their roots within a limited volume of media for a while, trying to find a way out. Once they get in the ground, they may not like what they find there, and try to stay close to the familiar.

Bare root plants should not get too much of a good thing. The need only minimal soil amendment. They might like a bit of organic matter to retain moisture and to keep the soil loose while they get oriented to their new home. A bit of fertilizer would be nice too. Yet, new bare root plants should not get so much amendment that they do not want to disperse their roots beyond the planting hole.

Planting holes do not need to be very big at all. They should be wider than the roots can be spread, but not deeper. Loosing the soil and adding amendments below will cause new plants to sink. Graft unions of grafted plants must remain above grade. Plants with big roots, like fruit trees and roses, prefer their roots to be spread out over a cone of soil in the center of their planting hole.

Most bare root fruit trees are sold with more branches than they need, so should be pruned after planting. Some might get pruned by half. The superfluous stems are there both to cushion the trees in transport, and also to allow more choices for pruning. Some of us want to prune down to lower branches, while others want to prune up to slightly higher branches. Berry canes need very small planting holes, and get pruned back to only two or three buds above ground.P80115

Bare Root Stock Is Here

80117thumbChristmas tree lots at nurseries come and go at a good time. Cut and live Christmas trees become marketable just as retail sales of other items is declining. Although autumn is the best season to plant many things, not many of us want to be out in the garden as the weather gets cooler. As Christmas trees get sold and relinquish their space, bare root nursery stock becomes available.

Smaller bare root plants might be available first, because they can be brought in before leftover Christmas trees get recycled after Christmas. These include grapevines, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and perennials like rhubarb, asparagus and strawberries. Roses might be included too, but because they are so numerous, they often arrive with fruit trees.

Deciduous fruit trees are the majority of bare root stock. They include stone fruits, pomme fruits, figs, pomegranates, persimmons, walnuts and almonds. Stone fruits are of the genus Prunus, including apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine and almond. Pomme fruits are apple, pear and quince (pictured above). The flowering counterparts to some of these fruit trees may be available as well.

The flowering counterparts are those that are grown for colorful bloom rather than fruit production. Flowering stone fruit trees, such as the famous flowering cherries, produce no fruit. Flowering crabapples produce small and potentially messy fruits. Flowering quinces are actually a different genus than the fruiting types. Most are fruitless. Flowering pears are not often available bare root.

While dormant in late autumn, bare root plants are dug and deprived of the soil that they grew in. They get planted into their new homes before they wake up in spring. Some are packaged in damp sawdust. Others get heeled into damp sand. The advantages of bare root stock relative to canned (potted) stock are that bare root stock is less disfigured, lacks disfigured and circling roots, gets established in a new environment more efficiently, is easier to transport, and is significantly less expensive.

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.