Don’t be afraid to get bare root plants!

Story by Helen Newling Lawson

You’ve finally tracked down that plant your local nurseries don’t carry, and at a great price to boot! But the description says, “Ships bare root.” Not sure what that means? Or are you afraid of getting a bunch of dead-looking roots that won’t grow? 

Studies have shown that hosta establish quicker when planted from bare-root than from containers. Photo courtesy of

Well, there’s some good news. Since bare-root plants are already in a dormant state (the best time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials), by using the right techniques you’ll have plants that require less recovery time, they’ll be less stressed, and will grow faster. Another bonus: bare-root plants are typically cheaper than container-grown plants.  

Here’s how it works 

1. Don’t delay! The roots will be packed to stay moist in transit, but they need to be covered with soil as soon as possible. 
• Most mail-order nurseries will time your shipment for the correct planting window. In the South, the best time is late winter through early spring so the roots can establish before the plant breaks dormancy.  
• Have the planting bed ready. Break up any clods and remove rocks. Have the soil analyzed and amend as needed. UGA Extension warns that amending only the backfill soil into individual planting holes can keep roots too wet. If the soil does need amendments, amend the entire bed rather than individual planting holes.

2. Prep
• Wet the roots thoroughly but don’t let them soak in water much longer than an hour or so – they can suffocate. If the roots are very dry or have black tips, don’t buy it or call to ask for a replacement.  
• Gently untangle the roots and dig your planting hole deep and wide enough to accommodate the roots. 

3. Plant at the right height
• On plants with a woody stem, like trees, look for a color change in the bark to show where the soil covered it. Don’t plant it any deeper than that line.  
• Research from Cornell University has found planting “high” to be critical for success when planting woody plants such as Rhododendron, dogwood (Cornus spp.), as well as perennials such as Hosta, Geranium, and Astilbe. Remember to allow for soil settling. 
• Place the plant on a cone of dirt in the center of your hole and fan the roots around it. Rest a shovel handle across the hole to make sure the crown is at or above the soil line. If in doubt, plant on the high side!

Get a handle on planting depth: Use your shovel as a guide to make sure the crown is above ground. Photo courtesy of Helen Newling Lawson.

4. Care 
• Water deeply and apply mulch, making sure to keep it several inches out from the trunk or crown. 
• Do any needed pruning or training before new growth occurs. 
• Mark where you planted bare-root perennials. With no top growth until the plant breaks dormancy, you may forget they are there.

Fill the planting hole with water right before backfilling the soil. Photo courtesy of Helen Newling Lawson.
You can hold your plant in place at the correct height as you fill in the planting hole. Photo courtesy of
The entire top portion of the plant (crown) should be visible after planting. Photo courtesy of Helen Newling Lawson.
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