Last Updated May 20 2014. All material copywrite protected.
Bare Root, Balled & Burlapped, Potted, or Pot Grown
Over the years, nurserymen have devised many different methods of producing and merchandising their wares. It is useful to understand these systems and the pros and cons of each.
As the name would imply, the roots of these plants are indeed bare of soil or naked. Frequently, the roots are even washed before storage or shipment. Because deciduous trees and shrubs have a natural period of winter dormancy, they can be safely handled this way. With evergreen plants the bare root method is only used for very small plants.
Until about 30 years ago, almost all woody plants were sold bare root. Today there are very very few bare root plants on the retail market because they are almost impossible to display or merchandise effectively. Since bare root plants can only be handled safely while they are dormant, the selling season was restricted to a month in the spring and even less in the fall. Customers had to be carefully instructed in the proper handling of this material.
Today the wholesale trade among nurserymen is still mostly bare root. Bare root plants are much easier to package and much lighter to transport. Most overseas shipments are bare root and washed to guard against the transfer of insects and disease. Bare root plants also have more roots because there is no need to trim them to fit a soil ball or pot.
However, bare root plants require very careful handling. Commercial nurseries have root cellars and climate controlled chambers especially for this purpose. Until these plants are potted or planted in their permanent location they must be kept cool and moist. Ideally, they should be planted in early spring, because they have to be produce a whole new set of root hairs before they can take up the water and nutrients necessary to support plant growth and development. Although these root hairs are the site of almost all the meaningful interaction between the plant and the soil, they are very tiny and fragile. Even if they are not destroyed in the digging process, their survival time in the atmosphere is minutes or less. It is truly a testament to the self healing powers of nature that bare root plants do as well as they do.
Today, most of the large nurseries still harvest most of their crops bare root in the late fall after they have gone dormant. The plants are then washed, sorted, graded, labelled, and put into root cellars or climate controlled chambers for storage. From here they are packaged in moisture retaining materials such as straw or shredded newspaper for wholesale shipment or taken out for potting in the late winter and early spring. Some nurseries still provide retail clients with low priced hedging and shelter belt material directly from the root cellar.
Although bare root material that is properly handled can yield very good results there are many potential problems. If the moisture in the root cellar isn't exactly right the material can die of desiccation or rot. If the temperature is not consistently cool, the plants may sprout new growth which is very vulnerable to desiccation when planting out finally does occur in the spring. Frequently, it is necessary to use strong chemicals to prevent mold or other disease. Some plants have a tendency to go into a deep dormancy which prevents them from growing after planting out, even though they appear to have wintered well. It is a testament to the skill of the nurserymen that bare root material stored over the winter comes through as well as it does.
If you are purchasing bare root material, select plants that are free of mold and slime and plants that do not have significant sprouts yet. Although the sprouts are strong reassurance that the plants are still alive, they will probably perish from desiccation on planting out. This material should be packed in moist material for transport and planted out just as quickly as possible.
When planting this material, start with a large hole so that the roots can be easily accommodated. If some of the roots a very long, it is better to cut them back with a sharp secateurs than to wrap them around the hole. It is often helpful to build a small mound in the bottom of the hole over which to spread the roots. Plants should not be allowed to lay in the sun for even a few minutes. If planting into dry soil, each plant must be watered immediately. Do not expect immediate top growth. This could be delayed as much as a month because the roots and root hairs have to develop first. It is even possible for some trees like green ash to remain dormant for the entire season and then leaf out the following spring. If you are planting bare root material, be patient.
Although the packaging is very attractive, it should be remembered that this is basically bare root material. Some of the disadvantages of bare root material have been overcome because the plastic bag or box liner is very effective in preventing drying and the peat packing material holds moisture very well and also serves as an affective antiseptic against mold and slime. Like all bare root material, however, it will take a while to establish and is very susceptible to mishandling.
When ready to plant, remove the root mass from the bag, and gently spread the roots. If they have become dry, soak them in a pail of water for a few minutes before planting. Remember to keep the roots moist at all times and to water immediately after planting.
It is not unreasonable to ask the nurseryman to remove the pot so that you can confirm the development of the roots. Until these plants resume active growth in the pot they are vulnerable. Because they are mostly field grown, the roots of these plants were probably quite long and sparse. It is not uncommon for 80 or 90% of these roots to be removed to make the plant fit the pot. Thus the plant has a lot of recovering to do. This process may take the better part of the growing season. These plants are most vulnerable when they are just starting to grow new roots. They expend a lot of energy in this process only to start all over again if the root mass breaks up during the planting out process. This problem of regenerating roots for the third time is almost always compounded by a set of newly developed leaves which require a lot of moisture to remain turgid.
Potted plants that have well developed roots and have resumed normal top growth are very reliable purchases. Potted plants with undeveloped or poorly developed roots are trouble.
Be mindful of the soil or media into which the plants have been potted. To eliminate weed seeds and to reduce shipping weight, many plants are potted into soil-less media which may include sawdust, shredded bark, straw, vermiculite, perlite, peat moss, manure, or any combination of these as the main ingredients. They also contain chemical fertilizers, ph buffers, and wetting agents. If the design, preparation, and handling of these artificial medias is exactly correct, they can support normal plant growth. However, many plant problems and failures are the direct result of media which is deficient or imbalanced in some respect.
Frequently, on planting out, the roots have trouble crossing from the media to the real soil. It is always best to have a media which closely matches the real soil in weight and water holding capacity.
These plants are always field grown. Some varieties, such as spruce and cedar, tend to have very shallow, compact, and fibrous root systems. These are very easy to handle because the soil ball is firmly held together by the roots themselves. They are simply dug mechanically or by hand and wrapped in burlap and then bound with twin or slipped into an elastic sock. Other plants, such as pines, tend to have very long scraggly roots. Good nurserymen will undercut these plants in the nursery row a number of times to encourage the development of a more compact and denser root system. It is often necessary to dig a trench around these plants, shape the ball, and bind it before it is even moved. These balls tend to be much bigger and heavier in order to accommodate sufficient roots to ensure survival.
If the ball is a "sack of soil", beware. The purpose of the ball and burlap method is to avoid the disturbance of at least some of the roots. If the plant is loose in the ball or if the ball is cracked, broken, or misshapen, you are essentially dealing with a bare root plant again. If the bare root method was satisfactory for the plant in question, the nurseryman would not have used the ball and burlap method in the first place. Such material is especially vulnerable as it gets later into spring and summer.
During the last ten years, we have been seeing more and more large material in baskets made of heavy gauge wire. These plants have usually been dug mechanically with a truck or tractor mounted tree spade. They are much too heavy to be handled without special lifting equipment. If the soil mass has not been allowed to dry out, they are reliable purchases. If you are shopping for such large specimens, it is often much less hassle to arrange for them to be moved directly from the nursery to their permanent location in your yard without the basketing and merchandising stages in between. If the tree spade is of appropriate size, this can be done with almost 100% reliability.
Occasionally, it is necessary to move deciduous material out of season (i.e. when it is not dormant). Although this can be successfully accomplished using the Ball and Burlap method is is always less than ideal.
Ball and Burlap material is also very susceptible to root damage which results from moisture loss. This damage is much more insidious with Ball and Burlap material than it is with Bare Root material for two reasons. Firstly, it is impossible to tell whether the ball is uniformly moist throughout. Secondly, drying happens very quickly because the active upper part of the plant is actively and continually drawing moisture from the root mass. It is difficult for the merchandiser to replace this moisture without loosening and softening the ball.
Although the root ball contains roots which have hopefully not been disturbed, it must be remembered that anywhere from 60 to 95% of the original roots were severed when the ball was dug and prepared. Thus, these plants need to be planted early in the season so they can have a chance to establish before the heat of the summer. They require very regular watering for at least the first season.
When planting Ball and Burlap material be very careful to remove any plastic twine or rope and wire which may be wrapped around the base of the trunk. One wrap of plastic twine or wire can easily girdle and kill a tree as the diameter of the trunk increases. It is good to bury the burlap, the wire basket itself, and any binding which is around the ball itself because these will keep the ball intact during periods of high wind or other abuse until the plant becomes established. Remember to set the ball at its original depth in the whole. With wire basket material this usually means that the top of the ball should be flush with the surrounding soil. Use a sturdy tin snips or a small bolt cutter to remove any wire which would protrude after the planting is done. With material that is bound with wire or rope, the top of the ball has usually been shaved an inch or two to make the plant lighter to handle. In this case look for a line of demarcation on the stem of the plant which would indicate how deep it should be planted.
In either case, if the ball is of adequate size and firm, it should not be necessary to stake or guy the plant. However, if there is any movement at all between the plant and the soil ball it is absolutely vital that the tree be staked or guyed to immobilize it in the wind. If you don't do this any need root growth will be destroyed every time the tree moves in the breeze. Depending on the size of the plant this staking or guying must remain in place for one or two seasons.
For the nurseryman, there are many advantages. The work of digging the plants and potting are balling and burlapping them is eliminated. The work of transplanting, undercutting, and weeding is greatly reduced. The greatest advantage, however, extends to the purchaser as well. These plants are the most reliable of all nursery plants you can buy because they come with ALL their roots intact. Nothing is lost in the digging and transplanting process because the whole process has been eliminated. Although these plants usually have to adjust climatically, this is seldom a problem because all the plant systems are intact and in balance.
On the prairies, few nurseryman grow woody plants in pots because plants in pots are difficult to winter. It is not generally known that the roots of woody plants are not as cold tolerant as the stems, branches, and buds. The roots of even our toughest trees would not survive even a day of minus 20 degrees Celsius. If the plants are growing in your yard or the nursery field this is not a problem because the root zone rarely gets down to even minus 8 degrees Celsius. Although the ground freezes solid, it never gets very cold because of the heat which is continually moving up from the centre of the earth. In our climate, potted plants have to be thoroughly mulched with straw, peat moss or some other insulating material or they have to be brought into a heated place for the winter. Thus, most prairie nurserymen pot their plants are potted in the spring and hope to sell them before fall. This is why so many of the potted plants in the nurseries and garden centres are so poorly rooted, especially in the spring. They simply haven't had time to re-establish themselves in the pots.
At THE LITTLE TREE NURSERY, all of our trees and shrubs are pot grown. Even most of the seeds are germinated in flats. The normal progression is from flats to 2 1/4 inch pots to 1 gallon pots. Plants which are most subject to mouse damage are stored inside and the others are heavily mulched with peat moss every fall. In the spring, all the peat most is gathered up and mixed with topsoil to be used as potting media for the current summer.
These pot grown plants are normally smaller that many of the other plants offered for sale. However, they are also 100% reliable and they usually outperform much larger plants because there is no transplanting shock whatsoever. We offer them with pride and confidence.