Gardening on a budget? Try bare-root plants this spring

Published Apr 16, 2017 at 9:00am

Garden catalogs are out and garden websites are starting to send out promotions. It’s a great time to begin your plans for what you would like to see in the garden this year.

During difficult economic times, smart shopping is important.

Blooming plants can be quite expensive, especially when starting a garden from scratch. Consider buying bare-root plants as an inexpensive alternative. Some of the most gorgeous plants, shrubs, vines, roses and even fruits can be started from bare root.

Many different varieties are available from reputable sources and allow you to add what you may not be able to because of cost and/or availability from a garden center.  

Don’t be alarmed;
it’s just dormant

It can be a little unnerving if you’ve never purchased bare root plant material before. There’s not much to look at! In fact, to the untrained gardener eye, it can look like a shriveled up piece of dead material! However, a bare root is basically a plant in its dormant stage.

The fact that the plant is dormant doesn’t mean it’s dead; it is not actively growing making it easier to ship. Once you order or purchase a bare root, here are some simple tips to insure success.

Inspect your plants right away. Some bare roots will have a few green parts, but some will not. So, don’t worry if your plant looks completely dormant.

If you purchase your bare root in a store, just be sure to look at it closely. It shouldn’t feel soft or mushy; look at the roots to see if they look healthy, white and plump.

Avoid any plants whose roots are mushy, brown or have what looks like mold spots.

If you order by mail, look for a reliable source; ask a gardening friend for advice if you aren’t sure.

Once you receive the plant, inspect it immediately. If the crown is soft or the roots are rotten-smelling, or if the entire root is dry and brittle, ask the company for a replacement.  

Plant as soon as possible.

Bare-root plants are best if planted right away. If you can’t, tuck them into a bag with some peat moss and put the bags in a cold (but not freezing) setting.

You shouldn’t leave them for more than a week or so, or they may start to dry out or rot.

So, consider planting your bare root into a pot to give them a head start during the colder weather before you transplant them into your garden.

Starting them off in pots also lets you control how much water they get. If the roots are dry when you receive the plants, soak them in cool water for about an hour before you plant them.

Choose a container with room for the roots and crown to grow, and fill it with moist, quality potting mix. If there are buds or new growth on the crown, position the plant so that the sprouts are just at soil level.

If the plant is completely dormant (just crown and roots), plant it about one inch below the soil line. Gently firm the soil around the plant, but don’t compact it too much.


Do not water until you start to see new growth poking up in two to three weeks. Even then, just give enough water to keep the potting mix from drying out.

Over-watering can kill a bare-root plant. If it’s been two weeks or so and you haven’t seen any growth, or the soil is dry an inch down from the top, give it some water.

When plants start to grow, you can move them to a cold frame or a sheltered spot outside until you’re ready to transplant.  

You’ll know the roots have a good start by gently giving the plant a tug; if it resists, the plant is ready to be moved into your garden.

By following a few simple steps, bare-root perennials give you an economical way to enjoy many more types of plants.