Welcome to my WTF Gardening series, where I take common gardening terms and explain them for those who are new to the world of plants. Find the entire WTF Gardening series here.
‘Bare root plants’ refer to plants that are sold without any soil around their roots, unlike a plant sold in a pot or as ‘plugs’ (young plants grown and sold in modular trays with soil around their roots).
Why would you buy a bare root plant?
Soil is kind of essential for many plants, so it’s understandable if you’re a little concerned about buying plants that don’t come with any soil! However, don’t be worried – plants can survive for a little while without a growing medium, certainly for the time it takes to be delivered to your home from a plant nursery.
There are a couple of reasons why you might prefer to buy bare root plants over those that come already planted. These are:
- Cost – bare root plants often cost less to buy, as they come without soil and therefore cost less to pack and ship. They’re also space saving, so nurseries can buy a lot of these plants in bulk and therefore sell far more than they would potted plants.
- Performance – potted plants can go through shock when going from potting soil to local soil, whereas bare root plants can adapt to local soil quite quickly. In addition, bare roots plants are planted during a dormant period, so this means they get a few weeks of root growth in advance of spring, and this leads to a more robust plant.
In terms of disadvantages, you’ll find that bare root plants are only available from retailers for a limited time during their dormant period, which means you’ll have to be quick to snap up a bargain! Following that, you’ll need to plant them as soon as you’ve bought them, as they must be planted before new growth starts to come through.
How to care for bare root plants
What time you buy and plant bare root plants depends on your climate, but generally, late winter to early spring is the best time.
As mentioned, you need to plant as soon as you buy or receive your plants through the post. If you can’t plant straight away, leave the plants in a cool, dark place in a container full of moist wood shavings or potting soil until you’re ready. Don’t let the roots dry out, but make sure they’re not too wet, either!
When you’re ready to plant, make sure to inspect the roots and prune away any that appear dead or damaged. If the plant is too damaged, contact the retailer for a replacement.
Soak the plant in water for an hour, and add in a liquid fertiliser to give the plant a boost.
If planting in a pot (for example, if the plant is tender and it would be too cold for it to be planted into the ground yet), fill a container partway with some soilless potting mix, add in the plant and cover it with more potting mix (if there’s any foliage, make sure it’s sat above the potting mix). The container should be just big enough so that you don’t have to bend the roots of the plant.
Water the plant, then don’t water again unless you see new growth, or if the soil becomes very dry.
If planting bare root plants in the ground, soak the plant in water for an hour, then dig a hole that is wider than deep, and that has a mound in the middle to support it. Sprinkle in some miccorhizal fungi to help give the plant a growth boost. Then, place the plant in the hole, its roots spread out over the mound, rather than vertical. Cover the plant with soil, making sure the crown is level with the soil.
Water well, then water weekly if it hasn’t rained (or more frequently in warmer weather).
Need more help? Watch my video below for a tutorial (skip to 2:12 for the segment on bare root plants)!
What type of plants are available as bare root?
You can buy a wide range of plants as bare root plants. These include:
- Shrubs and hedging
- Deciduous and evergreen trees
- Fruit bushes, canes and trees
Some bare roots plants are available for pennies (literally!). Look around your local garden centre or nursery, or browse reputable retailers online to grab the best deals!
Have you had any experience with bare root plants? Share your wisdom in the comment box below.
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.