One of my favorite garden events of the year starts soon: bare root season. Deciduous trees, including fruits, nuts and berries, plants such as roses, asparagus, horseradish, rhubarb and hops, are field grown and uprooted during the dormant season to be sold in nurseries that go to the trouble of erecting big bins full of sand or sawdust to keep the large root systems damp.
Why not just buy a fruit tree in a pot? Well, roots are key to a healthy, vigorous plant and bigger is indeed better. Bare root plants usually start coming into nurseries in late December and are available through January. Lucky us, bare root season coincides with our (hoped for) winter rains.
Buying bare root plants saves some money because the growers aren’t shipping pots of soil, just the plants. But the amazing variety of plants you can buy bare root is the real draw. Many fruit trees, with the exception of evergreen citrus, are available bare root and the number of cultivars is astounding. Apriums (a complex hybrid of plums and apricots) and pluots are fairly common. Pluots are more plum than apricot and have a smooth, plum-like skin, while an aprium is more apricot than plum and has a fuzzy, apricot-like skin. But have you ever heard of a pluerry? Neither had I, but it’s a mix of Japanese plum and sweet cherry — sounds delicious, huh? How about an azarole, which has blueberry-sized fruit with a sweet apple flavor? Or maybe you’d like to select from 50 or so apple varieties … so many, so little space.
When you decide to get a bare root tree be sure you’ll have time to plant as soon as possible. The roots must stay moist or the plant will perish. If you must delay planting cover the roots with a damp towel or blanket, compost, or heel it in by temporarily digging a hole and covering the roots with damp soil. You’ll want the roots to have good drainage. Be sure to look for the soil line where it was planted so you don’t plant too deep — typically the graft should be above ground also. Be sure to mulch the plant well, keeping it away from the stem. Water daily for the first two weeks, then taper down.
Fruit trees are rated by the number of chilling hours under 45 degrees they need to produce fruit. In our mild winters look for ones that are under 400 hours for good bloom and fruit set. Chilling hours are most important for stone fruits; pears and apples tend to be a little more forgiving.
If gophers are a problem in your garden you may want to plant in cages. The roots on a bare root tree can be quite long so you could consider making your own using small but sturdy chicken wire (or even hardware cloth) to line the hole to keep the little monsters at bay for a while so your tree gets a good start.
If you’re patient and have space to plant asparagus, this is the time to get the roots. We had asparagus at our little farm in Freestone and looked forward to the weekends in March and April when we’d gorge ourselves on this delicacy. They can take up to three years to produce in quantity, but then you’ll have lots every spring for a decade or two. One of our dogs had to be kept out of the vegetable garden because she loved dining on the asparagus!
My favorite summer fruit is available bare root, including the most delicious of apricots, Blenheim or royal, the wonderful suncrest peach as well as the delectable greengage plum, which grows in my garden. So, if you’re up for trying new varieties and want plants that will have the best possible start, check out the bare root offerings at your local nurseries.