Bare root, you say? What in the world does that mean? Back in the day when plastic containers were not a thing, this was the way that trees were harvested, planted, or transplanted throughout the United States. Bare root trees are trees that are dormant and typically dug in the fall and stored in a cool, damp place without any soil around their roots until they can be planted again in early spring.
How is this better than a tree sold in a container?
One, bare root plants have more root mass. Their roots have been allowed to grow long and fibrous, whereas container trees typically have been cut to fit the pot and have nowhere to grow except round and round.
Two, bare root plants cost less. Without the extra cost of a plastic container, soil, and labor to put the tree in the pot, bare root plants cost a nursery less, and thus, the consumer can take advantage of this lower cost as well.
Three, bare root plants are easier to plant. A tree and/or shrub without any soil attached weighs very little and is much easier to transport and plant.
Are there any disadvantages to buying and planting bare root?
Time is of the essence with bare root plants. Once they leave the nursery, bare root plants need to get in the ground within a week. With no soil, the roots can dry out and die if left exposed for any time. Bare root plants need good soil moisture, so early spring is the best time for planting. Here in Western New York, as long as the ground isn’t frozen and the soil isn’t too wet and mushy, you can plant. And don’t worry if we get a freeze or a foot of snow after you plant your bare root. The roots are protected and insulated in the soil, and so long as the plant was planted correctly and there are no air pockets, it will survive and thrive in the coming years. In addition, some species of trees and shrubs may not be available or do not respond well as a bare root plant, and/or some nurseries may not have trees available for bare root retail sale at all.
Thank goodness that is not the case in Chautauqua County. Bare root plants are alive and growing strong at the Chautauqua County Soil & Water Conservation District. Their 2024 annual tree and shrub sale has begun, and we encourage everyone to take advantage of this wonderful event. (See https://soilwater.org/annual-tree-shrub-sale.) Seedlings are an inexpensive way to replace trees that have been damaged, harvested, or lost to disease. Orders are on a first come, first serve basis and need to be placed by April 1st. This year’s catalog offers 31 species native to New York, with 25 of those being native to Chautauqua County.
In addition, Turnbull Nursery and Garden Center’s “Bare Root Barn,” located in North Collins, NY, has an incredible selection of mature-sized native bare root trees, shrubs, and small fruits in stock from mid-March to May 1st. (See https://www.turnbullgardencenter.com/bare_root.php.) An updated catalog will be available online in February. Customers can call in orders or go to the center and purchase bare root plants in person during March and April. If the weather is not conducive for planting, the nursery will hold your plants for you in their underground storage. As soon as your ground is ready for planting, pick up your plants and get them planted in the ground immediately!
So why not . . . dare to go bare this spring!
For assistance with choosing which native trees and shrubs to plant and/or bare root planting instructions, contact Chautauqua Watershed Conservationist Carol Markham at 716-664-2166 ext. 2005 or email@example.com.
Article by Carol Markham, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Conservationist
Photo courtesy Turnbull Nursery