Buying Plants

Buying Bare-Root Plants

The term bare root refers to a plant that has no soil around its roots when you unpack it, though there is often a bit of moist packing. Plants sent by mail order are often packed bare-root. You can occasionally find perennials in garden centers that are packed this way. They should be dormant but ready to grow new leaves when planted.

Bare-root packing works perfectly well and is in no way harmful to the plants, as long as the roots have remained moist in transit. The plants should have well-branched roots, including the smaller feeder hairs. If you find the roots are bone-dry when you receive your shipment, there is some cause for concern. If this happens, thoroughly soak the plant roots in a container of water for about an hour. Plant them outdoors, and most will revitalize. Report any plants that do not show signs of new growth after three weeks, explaining that they arrived in dry condition. Plant supply houses are so experienced in packing bare-root plants that there is seldom a problem. When there is, it's usually because the shipment was somehow delayed in transit.

Ideally, bare-root plants should be planted immediately after arrival. If that's impossible, unpack them right away and place their roots in a container of water (do not submerge the tops). This will hold them a day or two at most. To hold them longer, plant them in a temporary garden spot in loose, moist soil mixed with builders' sand or perlite; be sure to plant them in their permanent spaces within a week or two. If you must delay planting longer than that, pot the plants in containers and grow them as potted plants until you are ready to plant them in the ground.

Most perennials are best transplanted in the spring or, as a second choice, in the fall. Bearded irises, oriental poppies, and peonies usually fare better if moved only in the fall.

Place bare-root plants at the same depth as in the nursery -- look for the soil line on the stem as a guide. Those that arrive as dormant roots have no stems or top growth as indicators. In these cases, specific planting instructions will usually accompany your shipment.

When planting bare-root plants, don't just dig a small hole and jam the roots into it. Thorough preparation at planting time is a guaranteed timesaver. Make the hole large enough so you can carefully spread the roots out in all directions. You may need to place a pyramid of soil at the bottom of the hole, under the center of the plant, to have it at the right depth, with the roots spread down and around the mound. Then fill in the hole carefully, getting rid of all air pockets, which can cause the death of roots.

Unlike bare-root plants, potted plants come in containers. Some plants are small and young, while others can be older and quite large. On the next page, learn how to get the best results when buying and transplanting potted material.

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