One of the best bargains in gardening is planting bare root trees and shrubs. And now is the time to do just that.
Bare root trees are dormant, by definition, and not attractive in the usual way, but they are excellent candidates for addition to your garden.
I have often written of the advantages of buying mail order plants, to draw from a wider selection than local garden centers can offer. That’s still a good practice for many plants, although there are drawbacks, as well: mail order buyers need to confirm that the plant of interest is right for their garden, particularly in terms of winter temperatures. Some tropical plants will not survive even the moderate winters of the Monterey Bay area, and some require more winter chill than they will receive in our climate, and will not blossom or fruit well here.
Years ago, eager to start a small orchard of antique varieties of apple and pear trees, I ordered ten bare root plants from a mid-west nursery, only to watch them struggle and eventually fail for lack of winter chill. Purely by chance, one tree, a Cox’s Orange Pippin, managed to survive my garden’s USDA zone and is producing very tasty apples to this year. That tree stands to remind me to do my homework before ordering mail order plants.
The hazards of selection are less important during bare root season because local garden centers are able to stock very good inventories of bare root trees and shrubs that are right for the local climate.
Despite the best efforts of garden centers, the economics of stocking containerized plants limit inventories of plants in pots: they cost more to ship and require more space, and offered at twice the price of the same plant in bare root.
Conversely, mail order suppliers (which still might offer a greater range of choices) can ship wholesale orders of bare root plants efficiently to garden centers, but have to recover the greater costs of shipping small quantities of plants to retail purchasers. So, for individual gardeners, the mail order price could be higher than the garden center price.
Additional benefits of buying bare root plants include larger root mass, according to researchers, easier to move and plant without soil and container, and faster growth because they adapt easily to local soil as they come out of dormancy.
The range of options at a garden center could include ornamentals, fruit trees, roses and berries. Many other shrubs could be offered in bare root form, as well, with the same advantages, but I have seen little development of that market.
When selecting an ornamental or fruit tree, look for a straight trunk, evenly spaced branches (if any), good spread of healthy-looking roots that have been kept moist, and a complete lack of any wounds or disease.
Many garden centers also offer espaliered fruit trees that have been developed by grafting branches in the right places, rather than by the time- and labor-consuming process of training. Some espaliered dwarf apple trees include grafts of several apple varieties, to produce a healthy young tree that will both fit a tight space in the garden and produce a selection of applies that ripen at different times during the season.