There are more varieties available than ever — but do not plant that box!

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MANY NURSERIES CARRY a great selection of bare-root plants in winter. These plants are dug from fields; the soil is then washed from the roots before the plants are packed in sawdust or other moisture-holding material and shipped.

Traditionally, the only plants available bare-root were fruit trees and roses. Now local nurseries carry a much wider selection of trees, flowering shrubs, grapes and cane fruits.

There are several advantages to planting bare-root. Bare-root plants are lighter and easier to handle. And because pots and soil are not required, they generally cost less. Bare-root plants enable you to avoid long-term problems because you can inspect the roots and remove or cut back any that are kinked, damaged or rotted.

Best of all, the root systems generally develop much faster than those of potted plants. That’s because the roots don’t have to make the difficult transition from the soil in the rootball to a different kind of soil in the planting hole.

Normally, bare-root plants come with the roots in a plastic bag filled with sawdust. Be aware, however, that some stores sell them with the roots contained in boxes. The directions tell you to leave the box in place when you plant. The idea is that the box will rot, and the roots will work their way into the soil. Remove the box. The box makes it impossible to inspect and hydrate the roots before planting and, in my opinion, is likely to impede root growth.

Bare-root plants can be planted any time the ground isn’t frozen, but must be planted before the plant breaks dormancy. If you are not ready to plant, store your bare-root plant in a shady, cool location, and make sure the sawdust remains moist. Right before planting, soak the roots in a bucket of water for about two hours to rehydrate. Dig a wide planting hole, and spread out the roots. Incorporate compost by working it into a large area, rather than only into the planting hole. Use care not to plant too deeply. The top roots should be just below the soil surface. Planted deeper, the roots might suffer from a lack of oxygen, which could put the el kabotski on your new plant.

As the last step in the planting process, pour the water you used to soak the roots into the planting hole, and gently plunge the plant up and down a couple times. That will remove any air pockets and will firm the plant in enough to prevent the need for staking. Wait to apply an organic fertilizer until early March. Then stand back. Your bare-root plant will grow so fast, it’s liable to knock you over.

By the way: Bare-root also is a great way to buy perennials. You can order rare and unusual ones from online nurseries, and you’ll also find a great selection at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival, Feb. 7-11 at the Washington State Convention Center.

Don’t make the mistake of leaving them sitting in their packing bags, because they’ll soon shrivel up and die. It’s risky, however, to plant them directly into your garden. If we experience harsh conditions in spring, there’s a good chance you’ll never see them again. Instead, plant them in quality potting soil in gallon nursery pots. Keep the soil evenly moist, and place the potted plants outside on mild days, but bring them back into the unheated garage during freezing weather.

Allow the plants to grow in the pots until they establish a healthy root system. Then, when you plant them in the garden, work organic flower food into the planting hole and keep the soil evenly moist for a couple of weeks to get your new plants off to a good start.

You’ll know it was worth the extra effort when gardening friends and hummingbirds “ooh” and “ahh” uncontrollably when they see the rich coral, tubular flower clusters on your Dicliptera suberecta (Uruguayan Firecracker Plant) burst into bloom.