Winter brings a great opportunity for gardeners: the ability to add new plants more cheaply and easily than other times of year. All sorts of deciduous plants, which lose their leaves in autumn, are available bare-root. Many of the most ornamental flowering trees and shrubs, as well as fruiting varieties and shade trees are available bare-root only in this season, with good reason. The plants go dormant, entering a sort of suspended-animation. The sap stops flowing, metabolism drops to such a slow pace as to be undetectable. We can just imagine the plant's surprise when it awakens in a whole new garden.
Arguably the greatest advantage of planting bare-root is the lack of a ball of planting soil around the roots. Sure it weighs less, but the point is that the roots go directly into the site soil. The larger the root-ball, the bigger a difference it makes.
There's something called "bathtub effect," where a lightweight ball of planter mix is buried in heavy clay soil, and becomes a sort of reservoir into which the surrounding soil drains (before eventually draining down to the subsoil). The result is drowned roots and an unhealthy plant.
The opposite can happen in a site with sandy soil and fast drainage; the root ball never absorbs enough water. Choosing bare-root specimens (or planting from smaller containers in other seasons) means there's never a problem caused by mismatched pockets of soil in the garden.
Of course, getting a 10-foot tree into one's backyard is also a whole lot easier when it's not accompanied by 40 pounds of dirt.
In addition to any bare-root plants, it's wise to buy soil amendments and any stakes needed to support young trees while roots develop. I'm not an advocate of adding fertilizer to the backfill mix, since the composted amendments provide nutrients. Some recommend adding a slow-release fertilizer packet that lasts for a few years, which can be advantageous if the plant would otherwise go unfertilized for several seasons or longer.
So many choices
The diversity of plants seasonally available bare-root can be overwhelming. In addition to hundreds of different rose bushes at some local nurseries, we find a nearly equal number of tree cultivars. This is where a knowledgeable nurseryman proves invaluable. Trying to discern among thousands of bare trunks and branches can be daunting, so stay focused on purpose (for example, choosing a fruit tree no more than 15 feet wide, that doesn't drop all its fruit in the same week) and let the expert narrow the choices to only a couple, or one best selection.
Grapevines are sold bare-root, as are thorn-less blackberries and a wide variety of fruiting bushes like currant and blueberry. In a previous column I mentioned genetic dwarf peach and nectarine, trees of very modest size yet good bearers of fruit.
Lilac bushes can thrive locally, particularly the cultivars bred at Descanso Gardens, such as Lavender Lady and Angel White. They produce big clusters of superbly fragrant flowers in the spring, and grow to about 6 feet wide by 8 feet high. They should be pruned after flowering, and their medium-green foliage makes a great background behind a flower bed.
Rose-of-Sharon, the deciduous hibiscus, thrives in our climate, and several choices of flower color are usually available. One of the oldest cultivars, Red Heart, is white with a red center, and several gorgeous specimens decades old can be found around town. Rose-of-Sharon comes either single-flowered, or double-flowered with clustered petals in a sort of pom-pom effect.
New fruit trees
Some of the best fruit tree varieties in cultivation are recent introductions. In the past few decades dozens of original crosses of plums with apricots, or peaches with plums, and so on, have been bred. Termed pluots, apriums, plumcots or other odd-sounding names, the fruit are favorite items at farmers' markets. The fruit of pluot trees range from yellow to reddish to mottled brown-red. When shopping for bare-root fruit trees don't be surprised to find that your best choice is something you've never heard of before.
Digging the hole before buying the plant to put into it may sound odd, but it's a good strategy. Bare-root plants need their roots kept cool and moist. Typically nurseries sell bare-root plants sticking out of bins of moistened sawdust, or the roots are individually bagged with sawdust around them. Don't leave a bare-root plant waiting for days to be planted. If the roots dry out it's a problem. If delay is unavoidable, keep the plant outdoors in deep shade, and mist the sawdust every couple days, being sure the roots aren't sitting in stagnant water. That will assure it remains healthy until planting.