Planting bare-root stock comes with some serious advantages, not the least of which is that bare-root plants generally cost from two-thirds to half as much as plants sold in a tub or can with a soil-packed root ball. And they’re not nearly as heavy to lug around.
But don’t dawdle. Bare-root season is finishing up this month, so if you’re thinking about planting trees, shrubs, or vines, now is the time to buy. Call ahead to your favorite nursery to see if they sell bare-root plants, and ask when they think they’ll be out of bare-root stock for this season.
Almost any type of plant with a strong root system can be sold with bare roots, which simply means that after they fell dormant last fall, they were dug up by the supplier, the soil washed off, and were placed in cold storage so they wouldn’t break dormancy. They would, however, have had their roots kept moist because — and this is true for you the homeowner as well as the nursery person — roots that dry out are roots that die out.
Before you go to pick up your stock at the nursery, or before they arrive if they’re being shipped, take a few shovels of the soil in which you’ll be planting them and mix it in a bucket of water to make a thin slurry. You want the plants to get to know that soil, unimproved with compost or fertilizers of any kind, because that native soil is going to be their new home and they need to get used to it.
When you get your bare-root plants home, or if they’re shipped to you, open the wrapping around the roots immediately. You may find that moist excelsior has been stuffed around the roots, after which they’re wrapped in stiff paper. Remove all that and grab your pruning shears. Cut off any broken roots and cut back any that are extra-long. Snip back the tips of about half the remaining roots, just by an inch or less. This signals the plant to make rooting hormone. Then set the plant in the bucket of soil and water slurry so the roots are covered.
If you can’t plant the bare-root stock right away, you should heel it in. Just dig away enough loose soil in your garden so you can set the roots in it, then cover them over with soil and water them. This is just a temporary home until you are ready to plant them in their chosen spot. The sooner the better.
If you dig a planting hole and fill it with rich soil mixed with compost or other actively decaying organic matter, or dig in chemical fertilizers like Miracle Gro, you may figure you’re giving the plant a good start — but you’re not. If the plant could talk, here’s what it would say to itself, “Oh boy, I sure like this rich soil in the planting hole, but when I reach the regular soil outside of it, it’s pretty poor by comparison. I think I’ll keep my roots in the planting hole.” And so its roots will just circle around and eventually the plant can become rootbound in place.
But if you soak your bare-root stock in the bucket of water for a few hours or overnight, then plant it in a generous hole — the bigger the better — in your native soil, it will have to struggle and search for nutrients and water, sending out feeder roots and water-seeking deeper roots much farther, giving you’re a larger, healthier, and sturdier root system and consequently, a better plant.