Dirt Therapy: Got the Winter Garden Blues?

Dirt Therapy is a regular column by GNTG founder, Marianne Taylor, appearing in the Capistrano Dispatch

Get outside and plant bare root plants while you still have time

You’ve worked diligently in your garden this past fall planning, preparing, pruning, planting and mulching, lying in wait for the glorious spring to showcase the fruits of your labor. With the work now done, it’s time to take a break and rest from your laborious efforts.

A gardener rest? Heck no! Say goodbye to the winter garden blues—it’s time to grab your gloves and mosey on over to your local nursery. This is the ideal time to stock up and save money on bare root trees, shrubs and rosebushes. But you better move quickly, as these hearty plants need to get into the ground during the cold days of January in order to thrive.

If you are not familiar with bare root plants, they are deciduous plants that have been grown in the ground and dug up while in their dormant state. The soil is removed from the root, giving rise to the term “bare root.” Bare root plants come in a variety of flora, from trees to shrubs to roses—popular varieties include berries, artichokes, grapes, wisterias and strawberries. Fruit trees come in bare root form, saving you money and giving you an abundance of produce in the summer. This is the perfect time to stock up on the varieties of plants that are readily available at half the cost.

What exactly is the process of uprooting and growing a bare root plant? After the plant is dug up, the top of the plant is pruned to a compact size and the roots are sized and pruned in balance with the top of the plant. Plants are gently packaged in moist sawdust wrapped in paper or plastic or sold in bulk containers with damp planting mix.

My two favorite local nurseries, Plant Depot in San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Hills Nursery, have knowledgeable and skilled staff to help you select the right plant for your landscape. Plants are sold online as well, but they’re best from the nursery so you can inspect the plant and root systems before bringing them home. One thing is for certain: once you’ve purchased your bare root plants, they need to be in the ground before the weather warms up. Sometimes February surprises us in south Orange County with a heat wave, so don’t wait.

There are many advantages to purchasing bare root plants. They are far more cost effective than a container plant, especially if your plans include a huge rose garden or a fruit orchard. If you purchase to online, bare root shipping costs are lower due to the size and weight of the plant. When purchasing from a local nursery, you can easily stack several packaged plants in the back of your vehicle. Most importantly, when buying a bare root plant, you can inspect the root system and ensure the roots are robust, well spread, undamaged and moist before purchasing.

The only disadvantage of bare root plants is that these small, pruned beauties-to-be may die due to improper or untimely planting. You must move quickly upon purchasing these gems and plant them as soon as possible. Our Southern California cool season has a small window of opportunity when planting with bare roots—it is best to plant in January and within the first few weeks of February. Remember, these same plants in a container can be planted all year, but you will pay almost triple the price or more.

Selecting Bare Root Plants:

  1. Make sure the plant is still dormant and doesn’t have too many newly sprouted leaves or stems on twigs. A little green is okay.
  2. Look for balanced placement of branches so the tree will grow evenly and not to one side.
  3. Make sure the root system is moist and not dried out. Check out the roots if it’s in a bulk bin.
  4. When in doubt, ask for help at the nursery. Personnel are well trained and will guide you through the selection process.

Planting a Bare Root:

  1. If you’re unable to plant the day of purchase, put your plants in a bucket of water in a cool shady place.
  2. Follow the planting directions from the nursery or the plant manufacturer for success. Moving quickly with the cool temperatures is the key.
  3. Check the soil weekly, making sure it’s is moist, not saturated. Also check that the plant hasn’t sunk below ground level, causing roots to drown and rot.
  4. In the spring, give new plants light fertilizer.

If you have never enjoyed the many benefits of bare root gardening, you’re in for a huge treat. Your garden will produce copious fruit and flowers this summer and fall and for seasons to come.