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Everything You Need to Know About Bare-Root Plants

Martha Stewart Living logo Martha Stewart Living 8/13/2020 Caroline Biggs
a little boy that is sitting in the grass: Getty / Halfpoint Images © Provided by Martha Stewart Living Getty / Halfpoint Images

If you aren't familiar with bare-root plants, now is the time to get to know them. Identifiable by their exposed roots, these iterations are dormant perennials or shrubs that are dug up and stored without any soil around the base. "When the plants stop growing, they can be dug up and removed from any soil medium and stored in a cool, dark place, so long as they are kept relatively damp," explains Christopher Landercasper, director of farming operations for Sonoma's Best Hospitality Group. "They are essentially hibernating for the winter, and upon reintroduced to healthy soil and warm temperatures in the spring, they 'wake up' and start to grow again."

a little boy that is sitting in the grass: From the best soil for planting to watering tips, a professional gardener shares some insight. © Getty / Halfpoint Images From the best soil for planting to watering tips, a professional gardener shares some insight.

Since bare-root plants are lighter and easier to handle and inspect, Landercasper says they're an efficient way to purchase popular perennial vegetables, fruits, and herbs—think peaches, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, asparagus, strawberries, and walnuts, as well as flowers like roses—in your own outdoor area. We asked him to share some tips about how to grow bare-root plants at home, and here's what he had to say. 

Related: How to Identify Your Garden's Soil Type

If possible, plant them immediately.

Landercasper says timing is crucial when it comes to planting bare-root plants. "Plant them as soon as they are removed from cold storage if possible, or when they arrive (if you've had them shipped)," he says. "The longer they are out of refrigeration the more likely they are to have difficulties growing once you plant them."

Keep them moist and out of the sun before planting.


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If you can't plant your bare-root plants right away, Landercasper says to make sure to keep them moist and away from any exposure to sunlight until you can. "In just a few minutes, warm dry air and direct sunlight can severely damage the root system," he explains. "If I am planting a whole new orchard, even if I have the holes prepared, I only bring out a few plants at a time and leave the rest in the shade."

Trim the roots before planting.

If you aren't trimming the roots of your bare-root perennials before planting them, Landercasper says you're making a mistake. "To encourage new root growth, cut just the tip off of the longest and strongest roots right before planting," he says. "The plant seems to respond positively to a trimming and starts developing new roots more quickly."

Plant them in fertilized soil.

When it comes time to plant your bare-root perennial, Landercasper suggests digging a hole that is twice as deep and twice as wide as the root system. "Amend with organic fertilizer if needed, and add compost or mulch on top," he says.

Mind the grafts.

If you plan on planting a bare-root fruit tree, Landercasper says there's a good chance it will be grafted, meaning the roots have been joined with the trunk or stem of another plant for better growth. "Try to make sure the graft point is above the soil level by at least two inches when planting a bare-root tree," he says. "This is the most vulnerable point of a young fruit tree and keeping it above soil level helps to stop fungi and bacteria from infiltrating."

Water them carefully after planting.

Since bare-root plants are more fragile than most other transplants, Landercasper says watering them can be tricky at first. "Try to water them enough not to wilt, but not so much that the soil loses the space for air," he explains. "Plants breathe through their roots, so if the soil is oversaturated, they won't get enough air, and if they have too little water, they can fail quickly. Once they are established you can resume a regular watering schedule."

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