The first time I bought a bare root fruit tree I thought I was getting ripped off. Seriously? Hand over cold hard cash for something that looked worse than a Charlie Brown Christmas tree? I don't think so.
But a funny thing happened to that sack of sticks. I planted it in about five seconds, and it grew and flourished. Within a season, it outshone my other fruit trees. And honestly, it was so inexpensive and easy to plant that — OK, I'll just say it — I became a convert.
Now, I love naked fruit trees.
Bare root simply means you're buying a tree that's dormant — that is, completely out of leaf — without an unnecessary bucket of soil underneath. Dormant trees are like sleeping babies; you can lift them up and move them, and they don't even notice.
These trees usually come with their roots wrapped in sawdust instead of buried in soil. This may look a little odd, but it makes it a breeze to transport and plant them. Why? Because you don't have to lug around (or pay for) a heavy container of soil. This allows us frugal gardener types to pony up for a larger tree. I've planted $20 bare root fruit trees that were well more than 6 feet tall right out of the chute.
Now is the time to start shopping around for bare root trees, which are typically available in nurseries in January and February. You'll know them when you see them. They're the outsiders at the nurseries — gangly bare branches rising out of sacks of sawdust. (They're often sitting next to their cousins, the bare root roses.)
Once you get them home, be extra sure that the roots don't dry out. Even on the drive home, be sure the roots stay moist. You can soak them in a bucket of water up to 24 hours. Better yet, "heel" them in a bare patch of soil somewhere until you're ready to plant.
"Heeling in" simply means you're planting your tree temporarily, such that you can easily dig it out a few days later when you're ready to place it in its permanent home. When you do plant your bare root tree, make sure the crown of the tree (where the roots meet the trunk) is not buried in soil and put any organic material such as manure or compost on top — not in the planting hole. Water it in and then let the rains take over.
But let's get to the good part. What kind of fruit tree should you plant? What varieties are out there? How do you know what works in your climate?
Horticulturalist John Valenzuela will answer these questions while extolling the advantages of bare root trees in his talk at 7 p.m. Jan. 3 at the Marin Art & Garden Center's Livermore Room. As chairman of the Golden Gate Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, Valenzuela has decades of experience growing a vast array of interesting edibles. Think Parfianka pomegranates and white sapote, Indian Blood peaches and Australian finger limes. Yes, we're way beyond apples and pears here.
Not that Valenzuela doesn't have plenty of advice for more familiar backyard fruit. He certainly does. But that's just the beginning.
"We live in such an amazing growing area that there is a world of edibles available to us," says Valenzuela. "It's really not so hard for a Marin gardener to eat something out of the garden all year long."
Valenzuela has many suggestions for gardeners in all of Marin's various microclimates.
"For gardeners who live in summertime fog, go for berries," he says. "Raspberries and elderberries love cool summers."
In the heat of northern Marin and pockets of West Marin, he suggests "Sweetheart" apricots, which have edible pits (like almonds), and perhaps a goji berry or jujube shrub. And for temperate central and southern Marin, he recommends dwarf black mulberries, loquats, macadamia nuts and strawberry guavas.
"Have you ever tasted the edible sweet stems of a raisin tree or cut into a yellow-fruited guava?" he asks.
For most of us, the answer is no. But that doesn't mean we're not up to the challenge! Armed with the basics of which edibles to try — and where to buy them — one can daydream of a garden filled with these tasty, unusual snacks. In the meantime, you can head to the nursery and check out all the bare root plants available right now.