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You may have seen the term “bare root plants” in nursery catalogs and websites and wondered what it means. Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like: Plants are shipped without soil or a container. These plants are dug and divided in the fall, then kept in cold storage until shipped in the spring. You’ll see perennials, shrubs, roses, vines, perennial edibles such as asparagus, and young trees sold as bare root plants—but not annuals because they only live for one season.

But what’s the point? Well, for starters, it’s much cheaper to purchase bare root plants because, obviously, you don’t have all the extra weight and complications of shipping in a container. That means you can add to your garden on a budget and in a hurry! Also, these plants still are in a dormant state when you receive them, so you can plant them earlier in the season than mature plants. This gives them an extended period of time to get established during their first year in the ground.

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Curious about adding a few bare root plants to your garden? Here’s everything you need to know about planting and caring for them, plus eight plants you can buy now to get started.

When can I plant bare root plants?

Bare root plants typically are shipped in late winter and early spring, depending on where you live. You can plant bare roots as soon as the ground has thawed and the soil can be worked, meaning as soon as you can get a shovel in there. The roots start growing before you’ll see anything happening above ground, so don’t get nervous. The whole point is to help the plants establish a strong, healthy root system before more extreme temperatures and dry spells arrive in summer. In much of the country, you may be able to plant bare roots well into May, depending on the weather.

bare root plants
The Garden Smallholder/Getty Images

How do I plant bare root plants?

It’s best to plant bare root plants as soon as possible after they arrive. However, in the real world, we know that’s not always possible; nature is finicky, and you may have a cold snap in spring so you can’t dig a hole just yet. Just keep your plants in a cool, dry place. You don’t want them to get too warm because they’ll come out of dormancy. Check the packaging and ensure the medium they’ve been shipped in (usually paper, peat moss or wood shavings) remains moist so the roots don’t dry out. Try to get the plants in ground within a week, but if the weather still isn’t cooperating, keep the roots damp and cool. And don’t let them freeze!

Ready to plant them? Here’s what to do:

  1. Soak the root portion for an hour or two for shrubs or trees, or 20 minutes tops for perennials, but never overnight. They need to have their roots re-hydrated, not drowned.
  2. Dig a hole a bit wider and deeper than the plant’s roots spread out. Roots may look wiry, dense or fibrous, but they should never be mushy or crispy (call the nursery if they don’t look right or smell rotted).
  3. Snip off any broken roots—but don’t cut off healthy ones.
  4. Mound soil up a little inside the hole, then set your plant on top. Spread out the roots so they’re not all jammed in the hole. Make sure the crown of the plant, where the stems start, is even with the soil surface.
  5. Gently tamp down soil around it, and water well.

How do I care for bare root plants once they’re in the ground?

For the first month or so, water your plant because you want to keep the soil moist, not sopping, as it sends out roots. It’s also a good idea to water regularly during the first season or two. Eventually, your plant will push out new buds and leaves. But don’t get impatient; it can take a month or more for some perennials, such as peonies, to look like they’re doing much.

Also, most bare root plants aren’t going to be that spectacular (or bloom) the first year or two. But in a few years, you’ll have strong, healthy plants for a fraction of the price of mature plants.

The 8 Best Bare Root Plants to Grow This Year:

Home Depot
Longfield Gardens
Burpee
Burpee
Home Depot
Burpee
Longfield Gardens
Stark Bros

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