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Bare-root stock plants help you shake the winter doldrums

Posted 2/27/2009

By Wendy Hanson Mazet

Winter temperatures have settled on the area yet again, but don’t let those brief snow storms bring you down. Roses, fruit trees, shade trees, flowering shrubs and berries are now available as bare-root stock at our local nurseries and home centers.

Bare-root is a term used for plants that are grown in fertile fields and removed from the ground in the fall or early winter when they are fully dormant. The plants are then cleaned of the soil, root pruned and packaged. It may be difficult to get excited about a nursery filled with leafless plants, and you may be asking, “why consider bare-root?”

Well, there are some key advantages.

  • Plants typically cost 40 percent to 75 percent less than the same plants available in containers.
  • There is a greater selection and more varieties to choose from.
  • Bare-root plants adapt and establish more quickly to native soils than containerized plants.
  • It is easy to assess and choose a tree with good branch structure.
  • You get to see the root system and avoid pot-bound, kinked or girdling roots.

Now that you are intrigued, here are a few tips that will help you choose the right plants for you, plus some specific tips for selecting roses. If you like roses, the selection is amazing when purchasing bare-root stock from local stores or catalogs.

Plants in general: What to look for:

  • Choose plants with strong healthy stems and plump buds.
  • Read the plant tags to be sure the plant is appropriate your zone. In our area, the average minimum lows are minus 20 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The Truckee Meadows is considered USDA zone 5 and Sunset Western Garden Book 1A - 1B.
  • The packages should feel moderately heavy and moist. A dried out plant will feel light.

Roses: Choosing the right grade

Plants are sold by grades, marked No. 1, 1.5, or 2 and priced accordingly.

  • No. 1 roses are the best quality
  • No. 1.5 rose are middle of the road and still a good choice
  • No. 2 roses are considered the poorest or weakest

Canes and buds:

Choose plants that have at least three strong canes. Canes should be plump and green with smooth, healthy bark.

Things to avoid:

  • Plants that have leafed out. Plants should be dormant. When they are leafing out or sending out new shoots, this warns you they are no longer dormant. These plants can be very sensitive to freezing temperatures.
  • Water-logged, excessively dry or ripped packages. Plants are typically wrapped in plastic or cardboard with the roots surrounded by peat moss, wood shavings and cardboard.
  • Plants with “die back,” or dead canes or branches.

Be cautious of plants, specifically roses that have been dipped in wax. (Waxing is a common practice used to prevent evaporation of moisture from the canes during storage.) Do not try to remove the wax. If planted in a partial shade location, it should eventually degrade and break away from the canes. In some cases, waxing has caused a greenhouse effect on roses planted in full sun in Nevada and burned the canes.

Once you have unwrapped the your bare-root plant you should see brown and white healthy roots. Return any plants that have excessive black, slimy, withered or dry roots.

Once you have decided what you would like to add to your landscape and have the location chosen, you can enjoy early season shopping. Bare-root plants are designed to be planted in winter and early spring, so it is best to plant them within a week or two of purchase. Follow the instructions on the packaging. Trees, shrubs and roses need to be soaked in water to hydrate root systems and rinse away the foreign packing material. It is advisable to root prune any damaged or broken roots. This will also stimulate new root growth. After planting, keep the plants moist and wait for rising spring temperatures to awaken them from their winter sleep.

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