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Why bare root plants might be best for you and your garden

In the Garden

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Saving money, finding the right variety of plant, and getting the highest quality plant are three critical aspects of selecting plants for the yard and garden.

While we may have the “get out and start planting bug”, it’s important to know what we are buying rather than making an impulse purchase. When purchasing most deciduous plants (deciduous – means they lose their leaves in the winter), I like to buy them bareroot.

Examples of bare root plants include anything from grapes, to roses, to apple trees. I like bare root plants because they are normally cheaper than a potted plant, and I can see if the plant is healthy from top to the root bottom.

Additionally they haven’t become root bound like most potted plants are. They also will root out and become established more quickly in comparison to a potted plant. They also have less likelihood of developing a strangling root than a potted plant. A strangling root occurs when a plant is grown in a pot and one or more roots encircle the base of the plant, and as it grows the circling root will get larger and strangle the main plant itself until it dies years later.

If you buy a bare root plant, realize that you need to get them planted as soon as possible to help them have the best chance for survival and establishment. Bare root plants don’t have a long shelf life after purchase, and it’s best to dig the hole first, and then go shopping for the plant you want, rather than the other way around.

Rose Bush

Here are a few tips when selecting bare root plants:

  • Choose plants that have large root systems. For example, avoid buying a large tree (like 6 foot tall) that has had its roots chopped down to practically nothing and shoved into a bag. Instead choose a tree with a large root system, with both the large anchorage roots and the smaller feeder roots. This will be the more successful overall and quicker to root out and get established.
  • Buy from a reputable nursery. Not all bare root plants are created equal, and not all are handled as carefully as they should be during shipping and stocking. Many times they can have the bark scraped off and be damaged quite badly, and since this is a long term investment, you want to get it right the first time. A weak, spindly, or damaged plant is not the way to start your tree or shrub growing experience. Roses for example are graded as a #1, #1 ½, or a 2. The best rose to buy is a #1, and the rest are of lesser quality. Unfortunately, plant retailers often don’t show what grade or quality level a bareroot tree actually is. So as a consumer a good rule of thumb is that, a reputable nursery will generally not sell low grade or lower quality trees and shrubs. It hurts their reputation, and they want you to come back again for quality plants in the future, rather than having you as the customer feel like you bought a poor quality tree that struggled to grow or subsequently died.
  • Double check that the plant you are about to purchase will actually survive and overwinter here in our climate. And if it’s a fruit bearing plant, that it will produce fruit in our climate. For example, there are stores that will sell Fuji apple trees bareroot, (and while the tree itself will survive), that particular apple variety doesn’t produce fruit in our climate. Another good example is don’t buy blueberry plants as they will die during the first growing season in our climate, as they are need a much lower pH than we have in east Idaho.
  • Inspect the plant thoroughly and avoid buying trees or shrubs that have visible disease issues or dieback. As demonstrated in the bare root roses YouTube video above, sometimes bare root plants will break dormancy during shipping and sitting in a store waiting to be purchased. Sometimes, if the plants have been leafed out for too long without being planted, (and weren’t watered enough) then they have already spent their energy, and will not have enough remaining energy stored up to leaf out again. At this point the plant is generally considered dead, and you don’t want to purchase it.

For further gardening question please feel free to call Lance at the Fremont County Extension office at (208) 624-3102.