Success with Bare Root Plants

By Jim Janke | Jan 28, 2013

This is the time of year when gardeners pore through nursery catalogs, looking at the latest and greatest varieties and deciding what to add to their landscapes. Most of the trees, shrubs and vines, and many of the perennials ordered from catalogs arrive “bare root”, which means they were dug up when dormant and refrigerated without any soil around the roots. The main advantage of bare root plants is shipping cost, because a plant with a large root ball weighs many times what the equivalent bare root plant does.

If you are planning to order bare root plants from catalogs (or from the Master Gardener plant sale, see below), here are some hints to get them off to a good start.

First, inspect the plants when they arrive. A dormant plant is basically asleep, and may look totally dead (but the potential for becoming a great plant is there.) Check for mold or mildew on the plants or packaging. If the plants smell earthy, that’s ok, but no rotten odors should be present. The main stem should be intact, and most side branches should be unbroken. The root system should feel heavy, not light and dried out.

Bare root plants should be planted as soon as possible, before new growth occurs. But if you have to store them before planting, pot them in potting mix or bagged topsoil. Store in a cool place like an unheated garage, where they will get some light but will be protected from extreme cold. Do not let the roots dry out or the plants will die.

When it’s time to plant, soak the roots in water – 30 minutes for small perennials, several hours for trees and shrubs. Don’t soak overnight or you may actually drown the roots and kill the plant. Dig a hole that is deep and wide enough for the roots to completely spread out, then break up the soil in the bottom of the hole with a garden fork to promote good drainage. Add organic matter to the soil from the hole, and mix in a handful of rock phosphate or superphosphate. Do not add any other fertilizers at planting time.

Remove any dead or damaged branches and roots, then set the plant in the hole at the same level it was grown in the nursery. Planting deeper than this will suffocate the plant. Spread the roots out evenly, and fill the hole, maintaining the plant at the correct level. Don’t pack down the soil, or root growth will be stymied.

Water thoroughly. Mulch the area around the plant, but do not allow the mulch to touch the stem.

Stake bare root trees by hammering the stake in the ground outside the area of the hole you dug for the plant, or the stake won’t be stable.

Water deeply on a regular basis for the first 2 years. Don’t fertilize until you see significant new growth, then feed lightly on a monthly basis until mid-summer.

This year the Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association plant sale includes berries, asparagus, and several varieties of fruit and nut trees at extremely reasonable prices. All of these plants are shipped bare root. Call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575 for an order form; place your order by March 15 for pick-up on April 13. Or email and we’ll reply with an order form you can print out. 

Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. © 2013 NC State University.