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Anne K Moore
Photographs Anne K Moore

When you receive plants “bare root,” they will arrive without any soil on their roots. They will be dormant or they might just be breaking dormancy with some sprouting. They are wrapped tightly in plastic and protected with packing materials, like excelsior, to keep the roots moist. When you receive your shipment, you should immediately get the plants out of the shipping box.

If you cannot get them in the ground right away, you can hold these plants for a couple of days in a cool, dark place. Be sure not to let any sun hit them. Sunshine on plastic wrap will heat the roots up way too much. If your schedule doesn’t allow gardening for several days, then dig a shallow trench, unwrap the plants, and lay them in the trench with their tops above the soil line. Gently fill the soil back onto the roots only. This is called “heeling in” and will hold the plants for several more days until you can properly prepare their planting holes.

When you get ready to plant, take the wrappings off and soak the roots in a bucket of water for several minutes while you prepare the planting hole.
A few years back, experts advised that you improve the soil that goes back in the planting hole. Some experts still advise this but now the thinking is that this backfill should be the same as the surrounding soil. The roots tend to stay where the soil is best suited to them. If you amend only your planting soil, the perennial, shrub, or tree you put in will act as though it is in a pot. The roots will tend to stay in that tight area, giving you uneven growing results.

The best way to put in new trees and shrubs is to dig up a large planting area and amend the whole planting bed. If you cannot do this, then you are better off not amending the soil at all. Just top-dress the whole area, spreading it with compost or rotted manure in a wide area out from the planting hole. If you are planting in an established bed that has already been amended, then adding compost to the backfill is very acceptable.

Make sure your new plants are set in the ground no deeper than they were growing before they were dug up. In most instances, the crown of the plant, the top where all of the roots originate, should be just above the soil level after you fill the planting hole. An exception to the rule is clematis vine. Clematis should have their crowns planted below the soil surface. Follow the planting directions that come with your purchases. Too deep planting causes many mysterious plant deaths.
You should try not to dig the hole any deeper than to allow the roots to rest on the bottom of the hole, wide enough to spread them out, making sure the crown of the plant is just above the soil line. If you loosen the soil below the roots, the plant can settle too low into the hole. Planting too deep is one of the biggest killers of plants.

If you are going to use a thick layer of mulch on your bed, you should set your plants just a little higher so that the mulch doesn’t bury the crown.

Once you have the planting area ready, spread the roots of the tree, shrub, or perennial in the hole. Fill the hole with soil, making sure that the roots are in contact with soil above, below, and all around. Water the plants in. Do not skip this step. It is not to give the plants a drink; it is to fill in any air pockets remaining around the roots. Watering settles the soil and brings it in contact with the roots.

Don’t be afraid to order bare root plants. They are lighter weight and easy to handle, especially for some of us who are entering our golden years of gardening.

Posted March 22, 2013

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