The Bare Necessities: Everything You Need To Know About Bare Root

Imagine stepping out into your garden to harvest nectarines from a tree heavy with ripe fruit or waking up to see clouds of soft pink blossoms on a line of dwarf flowering cherries.

Late winter and early spring is definitely a time for imagining the beauty and abundance of the NW garden in spring, summer, and fall. It's also the perfect time to make those fantasies a reality.

This is our "Bare-Root" season at Swansons and it means now is the best time to find an extensive selection of fruit trees, flowering ornamental trees, and shrubs, all at a great discount. Many of the varieties of fruit trees and berries that we have in stock now won't be available later in the year!

All our bare-root plants are 40% off while supplies last!

But what is bare root exactly and why can we offer it at such a good price? Read on to discover everything you need to know about bare root.

What is Bare Root?

Let's get down to the root of the issue - pun intended ;). Bare root means that the plant has not been potted; instead, plants are harvested from their growing beds in the fall and the soil is removed from their roots. They are then bundled and kept dormant in cool warehouses until they are ready to be shipped to us beginning in late January.

When they arrive at the nursery, we cover the roots in sawdust to keep them moist and prevent them from drying out. Bare-root plants are ready to be planted immediately into the garden or into a permanent container while they are still dormant.

Why Bare Root?

They may look kind of funny now, but there are many advantages to choosing bare root.

Optimal Growth. Bare-root plants can more quickly acclimate to new soil conditions when planted and get a vigorous head start on growing. The roots are placed directly in contact with native soil upon planting and the plant can start building a strong root system right away, before they have to deal with producing leaves and flowers.

Great Value. Many of the trees and shrubs available in bare root are already good-sized plants. Because they can be efficiently harvested, stored, and shipped, we are able to offer them at great savings. Buying bare root is extremely advantageous whether you need a large quantity of plants for a big landscaping project or just a few plants for your garden.

Amazing Selection. Our selection - especially of fruit - is at its very best for the entire year. Do you dream of planting an Asian pear tree? Grapes? Currants? Blueberries? All of the above? We now have plants and varieties that may not be available at other times.

This is also the time to find espaliered fruit trees, those lovely tiered trees that look so charming growing along a fence or garden wall.

Most of our espaliered trees have between two and four different varieties of fruit grafted onto each tree. For example, an apple tree might include 'Jonagold', 'Liberty', 'Yellow Delicious', and 'Gravenstein'.

These fruit combos are also available in non-espaliered trees. Try a semi-dwarf combination plum with four varieties that ripen at different times for a long-season harvest! 

Many fruit trees require a different variety to pollinate. However, espaliered and combo trees already have different varieties grafted onto them, so you don't need to plant more than one tree!

We are especially excited to offer a few truly unique specimens: 'Fruit Cocktail' and ‘Fruit Salad’ trees. These trees have a mix of different fruits grafted onto one tree! Seriously. Quite the conversation sparker, don't you think?

If space is at a premium, choose a columnar fruit tree, specially bred to grow in an upright column with high yields of fruit without a lot of branch width.

Beyond fruit trees, you will find all kinds of berries (marion berries, anyone?), ornamental shrubs such as hydrangea and red twig dogwood, and flowering trees like ornamental cherries.

How Do I Plant Bare Root?

Planting bare root is no more difficult that planting any tree or shrub. Really, you can summarize the process in 4 steps. Until you are ready to plant, keep the roots of your plants covered in sawdust and moist (or soak overnight). Bare-root plants are dormant and can handle being outside in freezing temperatures, but be sure to defrost the sawdust before trying to remove it from the roots to avoid breakage. You can also prune out any damaged roots before planting.

Illustrations by Dan Gilchrist

Step 1

Dig the planting hole as deep as the roots and at least twice as wide. Loosen the sides of the hole with a shovel or spade fork, especially if your soil is heavy clay. Amend the removed soil with up to 20% garden compost. You can also add a complete fertilizer (such as Dr. Earth) to the mix, according to label directions.

Step 2

Form a cone of loose soil in the center of the hole and spread the roots over it. Position the plant's height so that the crown (where the roots meet the trunk) is at or slightly below the soil surface. If the trunk has a conspicuous graft, it should be kept at least 1 inch above the soil surface.

Step 3

Fill the planting hole and cover the roots with the amended soil. It's beneficial to mix the amended soil with native soil along the sides of the planting hole as much as possible as well. Tamp down gently to keep the plant firmly in place.

Step 4

Slowly and deeply soak the area with water. Newly-planted trees and shrubs need consistent deep watering for at least 2 years. Learn more about best watering practices.

After your plant is watered in and settled, you can also build up a ring of soil at the edge of the planting hole to form a saucer which will help hold surface water in the root zone. Mulching with 2-4 inches of compost will also aid in keeping the soil moist and weed-free. Keep mulch at least several inches away from the crown to prevent rot.

Don't forget Swansons' experts are always here to help answer any questions you may have about planting and care, whether in person or on social media through our Grow With Us project.

Note: Bare root is only available at Swansons this time of year (February- early/mid March). Learn more about growing fruits and berries here.