Real Estate

Putting down roots

Winter is ideal for buying container-less plants

If you ever wander through nursery aisles during the winter, you may see lots of plants put out with their roots exposed, especially roses and fruit trees.

Most of these bare-root plants -- pear, stone fruit and apple -- are sold this way in winter and early spring because they are dormant during this time.

According to Sunset Magazine's website, bare-root plants typically cost 30 to 60 percent less than the same plants purchased in containers later in the year. Once planted, they also tend to establish more quickly and grow better initially than containerized plants.

Palo Alto master gardener Romola Georgia is an expert on bare-root fruit trees. She said the most important advantage to buying such trees is that you get a chance to look at the roots before they go into the ground. She has 28 fruit trees growing on her 6,000-square-foot lot in Barron Park.

One thing to avoid are roots that go "round and round," she said, because they have been growing in a container too long and have become "root bound." Avoid roots that are broken or look too short.

Once you choose your trees, take them home and plant them. Georgia suggests digging the holes for them before you go to the nursery.

She notes two things that she and other master gardeners have learned: Don't add amendments to your soil, and be sure to cut new fruit trees down to only about 22-24 inches in height.

"A lot of nurseries might recommend amendments," Georgia said. "Master gardeners have found that's not a good idea. We are recommending against putting amendments."

Instead, fill the hole back up with the dirt you removed to create the hole, and add mulch at the top. This way, the roots will be established faster in one type of soil.

Cutting the fruit tree "so there's just a stick," Georgia said, may seem harsh, but it helps new branches arise from nodes below your cut and helps the roots get established. The other advantage is your tree can be low-growing, only allowed to grow arm's height high, or about 6 to 7 feet, which makes harvesting much easier.

With some bare-root vegetables and fruit, such as artichokes, asparagus or strawberries, you can add as many as three plants to one hole and make your plants denser, Georgia said.

Bare-root roses are very similar to bare-root fruit trees, said Georgia's colleague, Roberta Barnes.

"Look for well-spaced branches and avoid anything that has leafed out. The nursery should have their bare-root plants kept moist," she said.

These plants are very perishable, she said, so fewer and fewer nurseries carry them. Be prepared to plant very soon after bringing them home.

There also are many other bare-root plants, such as grapes and berries, that might be available at your local nursery.

Barnes recommends using nursery staff as a resource to show you how to properly prune bare-root roses or fruit trees.

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