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.

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.

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.