CO-Horts Blog

Monday, March 1, 2021

Going Bare Root and Timing It Right

 Posted by Sarah Schweig, Broomfield County Extension

Bare root plants are sold without a container and, like the name implies, without any soil around their roots. They are dug up while dormant in the fall and kept in cold storage until time for shipping and sale. You may see fruit trees, ornamental trees and shrubs, small fruits, asparagus, various vines and other perennials treated this way. If you’re new to bare root plants, keep these basic pros, cons, and tips in mind.

Because bare root plants are field grown, they develop strong root systems compared to those raised in containers and controlled environments. A major advantage of this system from the consumer perspective is that bare root plants are relatively light in weight, making them less expensive to ship, and those savings are passed on to you. They do present some additional challenges, however, one of which is timing. Ideally, bare root plants should be planted within a few days of receiving them. Many catalogs and garden centers have options to pre-order bare root selections with a fairly small window of shipping, which hopefully aligns with the right time to plant. Some mail order retailers have an option to input your USDA hardiness zone and base your shipping window on that information. Purchasing when you’re ready to plant and your space is prepped will take away much of the stress of your bare root experience.

On the other hand, I passed an array of bare root plants for sale at a home improvement garden center over a month ago. The selection included everything from hardy kiwi to roses, raspberries, and strawberries. There was an enticing variety of options at the right price, offered at a time when gardeners are itching to get started with the season. The display was the gardener’s equivalent of checkout aisle candy, and I came pretty close. Considering I was there for drywall supplies and had a solid plan for my season already which included none of these plants, I can safely say I understand the impulse buy. Still it’s important to note that just because bare root plants are available, even locally, that doesn’t mean the timing is ideal.

Whether you purchased on the early side or the weather isn’t cooperating with your best laid plans, bare root plants will need some extra TLC until time to plant outside. They should be stored in a cool location until planting outside. The goal here is to maintain dormancy, and temperatures around 40 degrees are ideal. Because the plant is not actively growing, it won’t need much water. However, take care to keep roots from drying out completely. If you know it will be more than a few days before planting, another option is to pot up the plant in a container while still dormant, which will make for less work in maintaining the proper moisture levels around roots. Select a pot that’s large enough to accommodate the roots without too much disturbance.

You’re ready to plant outside as soon as you have decently dry, thawed, workable soil. Though properly storing your plants for an extended period can be a bit of work, the only hard and fast rule is to plant before any new growth starts. It’s a good idea to soak the roots for some time just before planting. Check specific instructions for your selection, but plan for a good drink of 10-20 minutes for smaller perennials, to several hours for larger woody plants. Just like the container, your hole needs to be large enough to place the plant in with minimal disturbance, without overcrowding or breaking the roots.

Bare root tree packed in sawdust (photo courtesy NCSU Extension)

Water the new planting well, mulch, and hold off (around a month) on any type of fertilizer. Slow leafing out is no need to panic, and a season or two delay in fruiting is possible, but
you should expect new green growth from your plant within the first season.

If you’re new to bare root plants, shopping can be a bit stressful because even with the plants in hand, the usual signs of plant vigor are absent in their dormant state. Keep these things in mind:

     There should be no signs of mold or mildew on the plant - check the packaging carefully, too!

     Give it a sniff - “earthy” smells are no problem, but there should not be any particularly strong smells. Anything that smells potentially rotten is a big red flag.

     Heavier is generally better - specifically, live roots and rhizomes will feel heavier than those that are no longer living and dried out. Often packaging will keep you from seeing or feeling roots before the plant is home, but one way to approximate this is to pick up a handful of plants of the same size. If one feels especially light in comparison, avoid it.

Take the plunge with bare root plants this season, and let us know how it goes!


  1. I purchased a couple of bare root apple trees about 4 years ago. They're doing well, and I have apples -- unless the frost gets the blooms.