Dare to Garden Bare

gardening.jpgBare-root plants generally will cost 1/2 to 1/10th as much as the same plants purchased "rooted" in pots. The cheapest and most resource efficient way to get bare root plants is probably going to be mail order. While not all perennial species can be sold bare root, a great many bushes, shrubs, and trees, actually do better purchased that way. What's more, there are significant environmental advantages: greater recyclability and fewer greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Recapping: cheaper, better, and environmentally advantaged.Bare root plants can do better because the potting soil is looser than the surrounding earth you'll put the new plant in. In that situation, roots will tend to "ball up" in the hole instead of spreading out into the surrounding earth, leading to slow initial growth and added risk of wind-tipping. People with very tight clayey soil may have experienced this problem and wondered what the solution might be (besides staking).

So what gives with so many retail outlets selling perennial plants only in pots? Where a perennial could be sold bare root but is not, it's about point-of-purchase marketing and inventory control. Local plant retailers order from distributors, who themselves may have bought from bare root producers, holding them in chilled rooms until demand is right. Based on retail store advance orders, distributors then pot(high pay jobs with benefits right!), and 'greenhouse' the potted plants long enough them to produce attactive growth. These are then trucked over great distances to the retailers.

Your waste generating role in the scheme is to drive to and from the local store and, once home, put the plastic pots in the trash (not recyclable generally). Extra shipping and handling from the distribution network is built into the price. And there's the extra "Green House Gas" emissions from the added zipping about.

You're a bare root skeptic, I can tell. Ever take a plant out of a nursery bought plastic pot and have the loose soil almost all fall away from the roots? No tiny leaders on the roots tips, are there? Hmmm. Sometimes the opposite is true: you can hardly pry it out of the pot due to the root tips sticking out of the drainage holes and cracks. Held extra long at the distributors.

Potted Business Model:
Nurseries, home supply, and grocery chains make their best winter projections as to how many perennials they need to have in each store. Once orders are placed, the potting keeps inventory alive throughout the distribution chain. Its needed to reduce tending enroute, and, once received into local inventory, potting keeps plants alive at attractive until they are sold out for the season or put on sale. It's just the business model, and they have every right to make it work for them. In fact, I'll speculate that the point-of-purchase model is what got many of you interested in gardening in the first place.

Bare Business Model:
During last year's fall season, a grower's plants were dug out, roots cleaned and treated, and the plants bundled for cold storage to make them senescent. No growth will come about until weeks of warmth and moisture are experienced by the once-chilled plants. Some of that transition time is spent during shipping to you, the end customer, or enroute to a local nursery that happens to offer bare root plantings. Obviously the bare root model only works if you buy early in the year or if your nursery has a chill room for them. They can't sit around in a non-refrigerated nursery inventory for long.

More Advantages:
=> Far less back strain moving and planting the newly arrived trees and shrubs.
=> Makes it more affordable to experiment with plants and learn the ins and outs of landscaping with perennials. You can get ten plants for the price of a color plated landscape gardening book! Learning is more fun.
=> Less remorse when a plant turns out to be too big or close to a building or not well adopted to your area.
=> Cardboard containers for shipping are recyclable.

Negative Tradeoffs:
=>You lose the immediate gratification of bringing home a foliated or blooming specimen.
=>If you don't know plants, it's hard to imagine how and where the bare root specimens will fit best.
=>If you miss a delivery for more than two or three days, and it's hot out, your plants may suffer or even die on the front porch. Road warriors must arrange for a neighbor to take delivery and "bank" the plants for you until your return. Your vendor will explain soil banking.
=>You need to be more patient. Time equals money. Add a year to your expectations for fully spread growth.
=>Summer planting is generally a bad idea for trees and shrubs bought bare root. No instinct or "sale" buying in the grocery story lot. You save by buying ahead.

Survival Rates:
My bare root survival rates have been comparable to nursery bought plants. But, because the price is so low, I have often bought extras and held them in a staging area for up to a year or two. This paid off several times for me when rabbits ringed the bark on a shrub or someone grazed a young tree with a mower, allowing me to replace the damaged one in the fall transplant season.

Where to buy bare:
Search on "bare root plants". You'll find some good outlets that specialize in plants for your region. THe closer you are, the less greenhouse gas emitted during shipping. One that looks good for Midwesterners is Great Lakes Landscaping.

TreeHugger Alert: Potted perennial sales increasingly are dominating the market. My mail order bare root supplier of 20 years, a family owned mail order outfit that's been around for 77 years, has just announced its going out of business. This option is not going to stay around unless its embraced. Dare to go bare.

by: John Laumer

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