Buying Bare-Root Plants

During the dormant season, many field-grown, deciduous trees and shrubs are undercut, dug, and handled with little or no soil on the roots; hence the term bare root. Bare-root trees are dug in late fall and stored so that their roots are kept moist and their tops remain dormant. Bare-root trees must be planted while still dormant, and careful handling to avoid root damage is critical. Fruit trees and roses are commonly sold this way, but many other ornamental plants are, too.

Bare-root plants are available during the dormant season, usually beginning in January to March, depending on where you live. Once the weather warms up they begin growing, and must be planted quickly. To keep the roots from drying out, nurseries usually store bare-root trees and shrubs in beds of damp sawdust.

When selecting a bare root plant, look for the thickest stem or trunk. Since tops have sometimes been pruned, height is not a good indication of vigor. The roots should look plump and healthy. Many are necessarily cut or broken when they are dug, but the major roots should be intact. Since much of the plant’s energy is stored in the roots system in the form of starch, plants with larger root systems will get off to a faster start in the spring.

If the roots have just begun to grow, it’s OK, but plant the tree or shrub as soon as you get home. If the new roots have grown long enough that they begin to look like spaghetti, they will be difficult to handle, and many will break; new roots are brittle and fragile. Pass these plants up.

If you must store the plants for a time before planting, keep the tops cool and keep the roots from drying out. The traditional way to store bare-root plants is “heeled in.” In a shady spot, dig a ditch deep enough to hold the plants’ roots and wide enough to hold all the plants you have without crowding. Place the roots in the ditch and fill it with soil. They can also be stored in tubs of damp sawdust in the garage or basement.