Issue 68
Buying Bare-Root Perennials

Bare root coreopsisHave you ever ordered a bunch of plants and then been surprised (and maybe a little disappointed) when you opened the box? You had visions of huge, blooming plants, and all you got were plastic bags with a few roots in peat moss. It’s easy to overlook the words “shipped bare root” in the tiny type when you’re caught up in the catalog pictures.

Well, bare root isn’t a bad thing. Some of my most gorgeous perennials have arrived this way. I’ve taken hundreds of plants from bare root to blooming, so let me show you how to get your mail-order plants going strong.

When they arrive Unpack your new plants right away and look them over. The coreopsis in the photo above has a few green leaves. Some plants will have leaves, but some won’t, so don’t worry if yours still look dormant.

Healthy vs. rotten rootsNow look at the balloon flower roots at left. The roots on the left are healthy, white and plump. But the ones on the right are brown and rotten. Yuck. 

Of course, these are extremes — your roots probably will look somewhere in between. For example, there may be gray mold on the surface of the roots. This happens when plants are stored and isn’t usually a problem unless more than 50 percent of the root is covered by mold and the roots are mushy. If you notice a few broken or soft roots, just trim them off — the plant should be fine. But if the crown is soft or the roots are mushy and rotten-smelling or completely dry and brittle, ask the company for a replacement.

Time to pot upTime to pot up Bare-root plants are best planted right away. If you can’t, tuck them back into their peat moss and put the bags in your refrigerator’s crisper, set at 35 to 38 degrees. Don’t leave them there for more than a week, though, or they may start to dry out or rot. 

When I plant, I like to pot up my bare-root plants, rather than put them straight into the ground. In early spring, when a lot of plants are shipped, it’s often cool and wet outdoors. Starting them off in pots in my shed lets me control how much water they get. 

Potting dormant rootsIf the roots are dry, soak them in cool water for an hour before you plant. Choose a container with room for the roots and crown to grow, and fill it with moist, coarse potting mix. Notice how I’m not skimping on pot size at left.

If there are buds or new growth on the crown, position the plant so the sprouts are just at soil level. But if the plant is dormant — it has just crown and roots — plant it as you see in the illustration at left. The crown should be about an inch below soil level. Gently firm the soil around your new plant, but don’t compact it too much. 

The shocking truth And now for the surprise: Don’t water until you see new growth poking up in two or three weeks. Even then, give just enough to keep the potting mix from drying out. Over-watering can kill a bare-root perennial. If it’s been a couple of weeks and you haven’t seen anything, or the soil is dry an inch down from the top, it’s OK to give it a short drink then.

When plants start to grow, set them outdoors in a cold frame or sheltered spot. Perennials are hardy, but if they lose foliage in a sudden freeze, it can slow them down, so keep an eye on them because you may need to protect them. 

Into the garden In a few weeks, give the new growth a gentle tug. If it resists, you’ll know the roots have a good start and they’re ready to move to the garden! 

By following these steps, my perennials bloom sooner and bigger — just what we all want.

Watch the “Buying Bare-Root Perennials” Video