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.

Bare Plants With Bare Roots

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Dormant plants do not miss soil.

Knowing how colorfully bulbs will eventually bloom can initially make planting them disappointing, since there is nothing to see for all the effort. Planting bare root plants is not much more rewarding. The bare stems are a bit more proof of the effort, but will do nothing until they break dormancy in spring. Now that Christmas trees have vacated nurseries, bare root plants will be arriving, and will need to be planted before winter ends.

As the name implies, bare root plants have bare roots, without the soil they were grown in. Better equipped nurseries ‘heel in’ bare root plants in moist sand, which simply means that the roots get buried temporarily. When purchased, the plants get pulled from the sand and wrapped for the trip to their new home garden, where they get planted permanently into real soil.

Alternatively, bare root plants can be prepackaged in bags of moist sawdust. They only need to be removed from their packaging and sawdust before getting planted into the garden. Mail order plants, including plants purchased online, often get packaged even more simply, with a damp bag around the roots, maybe with a bit of gel or damp paper. The plants are safely dormant, so are not even aware of what is going on.

The main advantage of bare root plants is that they cost about a third of what typical nursery stock in heavier cans of media (soil) cost. Because they are so much less cumbersome, several bare root plants can be purchased at a time, and brought home in a small car without much effort. Since they lack the luxury of the soil they were grown in, they immediately disperse their roots directly into the surrounding soil.

Roots of bare root plants should be spread away from each other at planting. Soil amendment is nice, but should not be so copious that roots will not want to disperse outside of the amended soil. Even if rain is expected, newly planted bare root plants should initially get soaked so that soil settles around the roots. Grafted plants should be planted with the graft union above grade.

Fruit trees such as apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine, almond, apple and pear, as well as roses, are the most popular of bare root plants. Flowering crabapple, flowering cherry, poplar, willow, lilac, forsythia, wisteria and grape are also available.

Bare Root Season Has Begun

00108thumbBefore all the Christmas trees were sold and relinquished their space, the smaller types of bare root stock started arriving in local nurseries. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, currants, grapes, strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus, may have been available for a while. More substantial bare root stock, such as roses, fruit trees and ornamentals, may already be arriving.

Bare root stock is known as such simply because its roots are bare. It gets dug as dormancy begins in autumn, and separated from the soil it grew in. It remains dormant as it gets transported to nurseries, and then to home gardens where it ultimately gets planted. It is completely unaware of the otherwise unsurvivable processes until it wakes up to resume growth in a new home in spring.

The roots of some of the smaller bare root plants and roses, as well as some fruit trees, are bagged in damp sawdust. Most bare root fruit trees, as well as some of the smaller plants, are merely heeled-in to damp sand, and upon purchase, pulled from the sand and bagged without packing material. Roots can soak in water for a few days prior to planting, but will not survive dry exposure.

There are several advantages to bare root stock. It is significantly less expensive than canned (potted) stock. It is also easier to get from a nursery and into the home garden. Branch structure can develop directly in a garden, rather than adapt from how it developed earlier in a nursery. New roots disperse directly into the soil, so need not recover from former confinement within a can (pot).

The more popular bare root fruit trees that are now becoming available are stone fruits, pomme fruits, persimmons, figs, mulberries and walnuts. Stone fruits are those of the genus Prunus, which contain single large seeds known as stones. These include apricots, cherries, plums, prunes, peaches, nectarines, almonds and their weird hybrids. Apples, pears, and quinces are pomme fruits.

(Almonds are nuts that are actually stones of leathery fruits that dry and separate from the stones as hulls.)

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.

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.

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.