Finally it’s here! Bare root planting season has finally arrived. I love planting vegetables and flowers from seed, to watch them sprout, root and grow into fully developed plants. I feel something very satisfying about the whole process. Taking a full grown plant (or a mostly mature one) from a dormant state and moving it to a new, permanent location, all while it slumbers unknowingly, feels even more satisfying. It’s a huge thrill, like taking apart your best friend’s 68’ Mustang and rebuilding it overnight on top of his flat roofed garage. And then, while standing back and admiring your work, you realize that it just might cave in the roof, a thought that never crossed your mind while working out the details. Yup. That’s the thrill I’m talking about. You’ve felt it, haven’t you? Success, but is it going to last? With my help, I’ll show you how to do it right the first time, and how to shore up the roof, just in case things start looking a little shaky.
The first step to bare root success, is to start with good root stock. Whether we are planting a new fruit tree, raspberries, or even onion plants, a good portion of your success depends on the quality of the roots you are planting. Make sure the bare root plants have been attended and cared for properly at the nursery by looking for a few key elements. Are the roots covered with soil? Has the soil been properly hydrated to keep the roots from drying out? How much have the plants started growing out of dormancy? All these factors can effect your transplanting success. Onion plants with dry roots can be easily rehydrated, but raspberries, if those tender root hairs dry out, they are dead before you even get started. Sometimes it really does depend on the type of plant.
After selecting your healthy root stock, I always plan on rehydrating the root systems of the plants for at least 24 hours before planting. No matter how careful the nursery has handled and cared for the root stock, I like to rehydrate the plants in a water/root stimulator mixture for 24-48 hours to give the plants the best head start they can have. I use Kangaroots, a natural, organic root stimulator with beneficial microbes and mycorrhizae that will boost a plants root system from minimal root system to hundreds of fibrous roots in just a few days. Those plants need that instant boost of roots to compensate for the damaged or lost root system from when they were harvested originally. Soaking those dry roots can really invigorate them to take hold in their new environment.
After rehydrating the roots, take care not to damage the exposed roots as you transplant. The best way to ensure the roots avoid damage is to 1) dig larger (wider especially) holes than what you think the plants might need, 2) incorporate a light compost or planting mix (about 30%) into the existing soil that you removed from the hole and use that mix to make a cone of soil that will support the exposed roots as you backfill the hole, and 3) gently place the roots over the supporting soil and backfill gently, removing as many rocks and other abrasive materials as possible. When planting, most gardeners dig the holes just barely big enough to accomodate the root system, and the rest dig the holes too small. Make the holes at least 2 times wider that the roots at their most extended point, and deep enough to accomodate the plant and where the crown should be situated after backfilling. I recommend a light planting mix or soil building compost to mix into the soil from the hole, sifting out the rocks and other “goodies” that might scrape or damage the tender roots. And definitely don’t forget to shovel soil gently into the hole - I know, these plants are dormant, but they already lost a sizable portion of their roots when harvested, and if you damage the roots more, the tops will never recover from the additional stress.
After backfilling the hole, water thoroughly with the Kangaroots or other similar root stimulator for the first 2-3 waterings. Never water just because you think they need water - actually check the soil to see if the plants need it. In many instances, newly planted plants die from too much water as opposed to not enough. When you think the plants need water again, stick your fingers into the soil, if it’s still moist down where the new root system is acquiring moisture, then wait another day and check it again. All of this depends on the size of the plants, new trees will be able to go multiple days if not a week or so between watering, while bare root strawberries might dry out in just a few days. Just remember to check the soil first before adding more water, especially if you have heavier, clay soils.
Lastly, remember that to grow into a 5-6 foot tree, or into a 4’ tall raspberry plant, it takes a lot of roots to sustain that growth. When harvested, these bare root plants almost always have lost a large percentage of their root system. It is impossible for a tree that has lost 50% of its roots when dug, to sustain all the leaves and branches that is previously grew. In almost every case, you will have to prune the top of the plant to compensate for that loss of water and nutrient absorbing capacity by an equal amount. Some growers do this for you - grapes that may have grown 4-5 feet tall are trimmed to 10” tall when harvested. That beautiful Honeycrisp apple with perfect shape that you selected, however, may have lost 40% of it’s roots and hasn’t yet been pruned. It’s unrealistic to believe that it’s compromised roots will be able to sustain all that beautiful growth from last season. Prune, prune, prune! You may not like it’s shape afterwards, but at least half the branches won’t die on it (after which you’d have to prune it anyway).
Following these easy steps, you can experience the thrill of transplanting bare root plants with impressive results. You may never achieve perfection when transplanting, but with the right methods and tools, it will give you the best chance to aspire to that goal. Bare root plants will save you a lot of money up front, and when planted properly, will give you harvests a plenty. Get out there and get planting!