"It's bare root season," by the Whistling Gardener

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Northwest gardeners have a unique opportunity this time of year, it’s called bare root season and it only lasts through the end of March. Here is what it is all about.

Some shrubs and trees can be dug out of the ground during the dormant season and have all the soil washed off their roots without any negative effect on the plants.

They are subsequently shipped to garden centers where they are usually heeled into sawdust until either a customer buys them or they are potted up.

It’s pretty amazing to think that plants will put up with this level of abuse but under the right circumstances they don’t seem to skip a beat.

There are some very good reasons why plants are offered in this condition. For starters, they are less expensive than container grown plants because they are easier and cheaper to ship due to the lack of heavy soil.

Fruit, flowering and shade trees can be purchased often for 30-40% off the potted price you would pay later in the season. These prices alone should be motivation enough to get you out of that easy chair and down to the garden center.

Another big advantage of bare root is that because you don’t have a heavy root ball to deal with you can usually just dig a hole, drop in some organic starter fertilizer and shove them into the ground (a little extra compost doesn’t hurt either).

You also don’t have a pot that needs recycling. So they are light weight and easy to handle and even easier to plant.

The disadvantages of bare root are that they are only available in January through the end of March so you need to shop early for the best selection.

Because a significant portion of their root system was left back on the farm you also need to make sure they are carefully monitored during the first season.

Adding some organic fertilizer in the hole when you plant will encourage new root growth. Since the original soil was all washed off it is essential to add some soil microorganisms to help in reestablishing the root system.

Most quality organic fertilizers have microorganisms already added so by adding the fertilizer you are killing two birds with one stone.

And finally, sometimes the tops of the plant will need to be pruned to balance the loss of roots and encourage new branches. This needs to be done carefully and is usually best accomplished by a nursery professional. Be sure and talk to them about this before you leave.

Not all plants can be sold bare root. Dogwoods for instance are almost always sold in containers as are Japanese Maples, Witch Hazels, Magnolias and Stewartias.

This is probably because their roots are finer and more prone to drying out faster.

Evergreens, unless they are small seedlings, are never sold bare root because they have leaves year ‘round that need active roots to keep them alive. Bare rooting an evergreen will quickly turn it into a “never green."

So January through March is bare root season at your garden center and there are plenty of good reasons to plant this time of year. While you may think it is too early, bare root plants know it is the perfect time for transplanting.

Save some money, save some pots and save some sore muscles by planting bare root now.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at

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