How can we get a diverse collection of plants that won’t cost a fortune or break your back?
When we buy trees or shrubs we usually get them in one of two forms, Balled and Burlaped (B&B) or Containerized. The advantage to these types of plants is that they can be planted throughout the growing season.
BALLED & BURLAPPED (B & B) – Plants which were grown in the ground and have been dug up so that the soil around the roots remains undisturbed. This ball of soil containing the roots of the plant is then wrapped up in burlap.
A downside to B&B plants is that the majority of the roots are often cut off. The plants are also HEAVY as you are not only moving the plant, but also a bunch of soil.
CONTAINERIZED PLANTS – Are plants grown in plastic pots filled with potting soil.
There is another way that trees are sold, that is bare root.
BARE ROOT TREES – are grown in the field like B&B, but when they are harvested they leave the soil behind.
They can only be dug when the plants are dormant. They are then stored in a cooler to keep them dormant with their root systems in tightly sealed plastic bags to keep them from drying out.
They are then shipped to the customer who plants them immediately.
The trees most commonly sold as bare root are fruit trees. Roses are another plant that are commonly sold bare root.
Nurseries also buy bare root plants from wholesale nurseries and grow them a few years before selling them as larger plants.
So why you should consider bare root trees and shrubs?
Bare root tree advantages
100% of the roots are exposed when you plant
This makes pruning diseased, broken, or girdled roots easy. It also helps you avoid some common problems with B&B and containerized plants, such as:
- Sandy root balls having the water sucked out of them by the surrounding soil
- Roots that circle around instead of growing out into the surrounding soil
They are cheaper to buy
You are not paying for the nursery soil and the costs of moving it. Thus bare root plants can be one quarter the price of B&B plants.
Bare root trees weigh less
They are easier to handle and plant, due to their lighter weight. Bare root trees and shrubs weigh about 10% of their B&B counterparts. A 5 or 50 lbs. shrub, which would you rather haul around your yard.
Bare root trees are easier to plant correctly
Since you can see the root system, you can plant the tree at right depth. This avoids the issue of trees being planted too deep.You also don’t have to remove burlap, metal baskets, rope from root ball after you have gotten it planted.
Of course there are some cons to planting bare root plants.
Cons to planting Bare Root trees and shrubs
Finding the plants
By far, the biggest problem with bare root plants is finding the plants you want. A smaller number of nurseries sell plants bare root. Most sources will be mail order.
Need to stake trees
You don’t want your trees blowing over!
Roots can be damaged
You can damage bare root plants roots systems pretty easy as they are exposed to damage as well as the roots dying from drying out.
If you are not planting them right away you will need to store them in a refrigerator.
Some species do not tolerate being planted bare root
If you can find the plant sold bare root it will probably be one that does well being planted bare root. The Cornell guide listed at the end of this article also has a list of trees that do and don’t transplant well bare root on pages 12 and 13.
Limited window of time to plant
Usually you can only get and plant them in early Spring when they are still dormant. This is the reason that bare root plants went out of favor in the 1950’s and B&B and container plants are most common now.
However, thanks to Todd Jacobson at the Morton Arboretum, I recently learned of a method of extending the time you can plant bare root trees. It is called the Missouri Gravel Bed (MGB) system. It allows your to buy bare root trees in the Spring and plant them later in the season.
Basically it is planting your bare root trees in the Spring in a bed of pea gravel. You then water them until you are ready to plant later in the year. All the while they are in the pea gravel growing small fibrous roots.
When you are ready to plant them in the landscape in their permanent spot, you wash the pea gravel out of the roots and then plant them in the ground. Supposedly you can do this anytime that first year before the ground freezes.
I will be trying this, this year. This could solve a major hurdle in using bare root trees and shrubs. Below is a short video from the University of Illinois extension on the subject.
For more information
Cornell University has an excellent free guide, Creating the Urban Forest: The Bare Root Method.
If you just want directions on how to plant trees bare root, see these instructions from the Arbor Day Foundation.
If you want a more information on Missouri Gravel Bed system, see the University of Minnesota booklet All You Need To Know About Community Gravel Beds
Here is a few mail order nurseries that sell bare root trees and shrubs.
A source for cheap and small bare root trees and shrubs are state and county conservation district tree sales. If you do an internet search for your county, state and “conservation tree sale” you should be able to find your local sale as long as you search near the end of winter.
To find larger varieties of bare root trees in your local area, you can contact local nurseries and ask if they sell bare root trees or know who does. As an example, here is one in my area that has an annual bare root tree sale:
If you know of any good mail order sources for bare root trees or shrubs, including growers of specialty plants please add them and a link in the comments below.