Understanding Bare Root Plants: Care, Handling and More

Understanding Bare Root Plants: Care, Handling and More

Need help with understanding what to do with your bare root plants? We’ve pulled together a guide for you, including:

  • What are bare root plants?
  • Advantages of growing bare root plants
  • What to do if you’re not ready to plant your bare root plant
  • How to plant bare root plants
  • Types of bare root plants

What are bare root plants?

Plants are sold either potted or bare root. Bare root plants are plants that are sold without any soil around the roots. Bare root plants are dug up when they are dormant. Any soil is removed by washing, and the plants are kept cool and damp. When you order these plants, they are usually wrapped in plastic and may have a material like sawdust or sphagnum moss around the roots to help keep them moist. By removing the soil, the plants are lighter weight, making it possible to ship them to the location where they will be planted. The cost savings can be shared by both the grower and the gardener who has ordered the plants. The most common plants that are sold bare root are fruit trees, strawberries and raspberries, asparagus, ornamental trees and shrubs, bare root roses and some perennials.

potted plant bare root plant

What are the advantages of growing bare root plants?

There are several advantages to growing bare root plants. To start, growers will ship the plants to you, while the plant is still dormant, according to the grow zone and your location. The timing is important so that you will receive the plants while still dormant, but the area where you live is far enough into spring that the ground can be dug. Of course, they are not aware of specific weather conditions like days of spring rain which prevent immediate planting or a late snow or frost. Perhaps your work schedule prevents you from planting for a few days. This means you may have to plan on how you will keep your plant for several days until you can plant it.

As mentioned, the cost is a major benefit. This is especially apparent if you are purchasing a large number of trees or shrubs. For example, if you want to grow a hedge along your property line, you will need a large number of shrubs at the same time to keep the size uniform. Another example is the homeowner who is starting a home orchard or a rose garden. In each case, a large number of plants are needed and having lighter, easier-to-move bare root plants just makes things so much easier. 

planting bare root rose into soil

Another advantage is that you will have a lot more varieties available to you when you purchase your plants by mail order. The local big box store and even your local nursery will have to limit the number of shrubs or flowering trees for sale to the space available. Often, that means a much smaller selection of plant varieties to choose from. Order your plants as early as possible to have the best selection. A reputable nursery will not ship until you can plant in your growing zone. Many also have a warranty on the health of the plants you receive.

Finally, there is a major environmental benefit to the whole world when you purchase bare root plants. The bare root plants are grown in a field until they are dug for sale. A potted plant will be grown in a pot for at least part of its life and may be repotted into larger pots several times before it is sold. That requires a lot more plastic than is used for a bare root plant. After adding the labor costs, the watering and the soil, you can see the impact is far greater for a potted plant of the same size.

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What to do if you’re not ready to plant

The biggest danger to the survival of your plants is letting the roots dry out. If you must hold your plant for a few days before you can plant, follow these steps. 

  • Open the package and check if the moss or other packing material is damp. If it feels barely damp, add a little water and wrap it up again. Do not soak your plants at this time. 
  • Keep your plants in a cool, dark place until you are ready to plant. 
  • Do not allow the roots to freeze. 
not ready to plant

If you will be unable to plant for an extended time, you will have to plant your bare root plants in containers temporarily or you could use a method called “heeling in.” 

Heeling in is a process of protecting the roots by burying them. Your woody plants can be kept dormant for up to a month with this process. Start as you would if planting the tree or shrub and remove all packaging. Soak the plant. Dig a trench large enough to hold the roots of your plant. Lay the plant on its side in the trench with the canopy just above the ground. Fill in the trench with soil leaving the canopy exposed. Your plants can be kept this way for up to a month before planting.

Planting bare root plants

When you are ready to plant, remove the plants from the packaging and remove any packing material. Examine the roots and plant for any damage. Trim any broken branches or roots. There should be no signs of rot. Do not trim the roots to fit the hole. The hole should be large enough to fit the roots. Place the root portion of your plant in tepid water–one to two hours of soaking for woody plants and 15-20 minutes for perennials and strawberries or asparagus. A good soaking will get your plant off to a good start.

Learn More About Container and Bare Root Planting Instructions Here

Dig the holes wide enough and deep enough that the roots of your plants are not crowded or bent in order to fit. If possible, leave a cone in the center of the hole with the top being at ground level. Drape the roots over the cone and start filling in the hole, lightly packing the soil so that there are no air pockets around the roots. Continue filling until the soil is level with the ground. Your plant should be at the same level or slightly higher than it was growing at the nursery. Water in well after filling the hole. If you are planting a large shrub or a tree, water when the hole is half full and again when the hole is completely filled. The idea is to give your soil a good soaking to remove any air pockets.

Once your bare root plant is safely settled into its soil home, choose a good quality mulch and layer it around the plant at about two to three inches thick. This will help hold in moisture and prevent weeds. When laying the mulch, be sure to taper the mulch toward the plant. It will help prevent disease while still protecting your plants. 

placing mound soil onto root

If you’re planting a tree, your tree will probably require staking. The tree will not be anchored in the ground until the roots grow beyond the hole you dug. Stake your tree so that your tree will be stable against the prevailing winds. The stakes should be anchored in the soil beyond the dug hole.

If this is your first time with bare root plants, there’s one key thing you need to do once you’ve planted them: Absolutely do not let your plants dry out before they are established. Deep soaking is preferable to frequent light watering, and during the heat of the day, sometimes a good soak twice a day is helpful. Once your plants are established, you can ease up a little on the watering. The general rule of thumb is that you should water if there is less than one inch of rainfall in the week.

So how do you know if your plants are set in the ground? Your bare root plants are fully established when they are fully leafed out and are setting blossoms.

Common types of bare root plants

New to gardening and wondering what types of plants typically ship like this? We’ve made a quick list of plants that are most likely to arrive bare root.

most likely bare root plants
  • Roses. Whether you’re looking for miniature roses, shrub roses or climbing roses, more often than not, they ship bare root. This helps the rose adapt to its new location more easily and allows the rose to be shipped in a snug container to protect it from being jostled around. Still feeling a little unsure about your bare root roses? We’ve got a great video you can watch about unboxing and planting bare root roses. 
  • Perennials. From hollyhocks to daylilies and peonies, many perennials are often shipped bare root. Typically, deciduous-type plants ship bare root, so don’t be surprised if you order one of these online and they arrive without soil.
Shop Our Perennials for Sale
  • Fruits. Some of our favorite fruits of the summer ship bare root. Strawberries, grapes and raspberries come to mind. Fruit trees like apple trees and pear trees also ship bare root. This makes it easier and faster to get them into the ground and start enjoying them sooner. 
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  • Asparagus. Love the crisp snap of asparagus? If you’re adding them to your garden, expect them to arrive bare root. They are typically packaged in a small bundle to keep them safe when shipping from the nursery to your garden.
  • Artichokes. This tasty vegetable is a great example of a plant that does better if it ships bare root instead of as a seed. Best of all, artichokes grow in most U.S. zones from zone 4 to 11, though typically they do best in zones 7-11. If you are in a colder zone in the U.S., try planting your artichokes a little earlier in the season, roughly three to four weeks before the last frost date you’re expecting for the season. 
placing rose into soil

Enjoy your bare root plants

While they might look a little different, and it might feel a little bit intimidating, plants, trees and vines are all shipped bare root because it’s what is best for them and for getting them to you and into your garden. Treat them the same way you would treat a potted plant without having to worry about some of the disadvantages of potted plants (root rot from too much watering or pot bound roots). If you do nothing else, just make sure to keep them damp and never let them dry out. This way, you’ll be able to grow beautiful flowering trees, delicious fruits and vegetables and perennials you can enjoy for years to come in your garden. 

Bare root and Container Plants Care and Instructions

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