M: Why don’t retailers offer bare-root plants?
T: Traditionally, bare-root plants could only be moved when dormant. However, Dr. Christopher Starbuck of the University of Missouri has been refining his Missouri Gravel Bed technique for 20 years in order to change that. In a Missouri Gravel Bed, bare-root plants are held in a pea gravel mix, where they root densely, much more so than in a container, and are easily pulled out. Dr. Starbuck has proven that plants can be held this way, then harvested throughout the growing season, and planted successfully even on 90-degree days.
It would not be extraordinarily complicated for retailers to use this technique to sell bare-root all season long. They already have areas filled with mulch in which they hold their containered or balled-and-burlapped plants. They would just have to clear those beds out and fill them with gravel. The beautiful thing is that it’s much easier and more efficient to water the plants in a gravel bed.
Then they could pull the plants out as customers like you buy them. If they could find a way to package them, maybe in something as simple as craft paper, you could just stick your plants in your Lamborghini and go.
M: You must be mistaking me for a food writer. So what about when I take my plants out of my used Volvo wagon in mid-summer?
T: First of all, it will be much more efficient for you to move and plant them. If you had 25 bare-root lavenders, you could carry them from your front door to the Back Forty with two hands. Try doing that with 25 two-gallon containers.
Second, bare-root plants aren’t as delicate as you might think. I took four Goldflame spireas from my friend Dave Ryan’s gravel bed at his Rare Earth Nursery on a Friday in the middle of August last year. They sat in the back of my truck all weekend and weren’t planted until Monday afternoon, and they did just fine. So bare-root plants are car-tolerant.
We just need to research how much abuse they can take. It appears that you can abuse them and they will still grow, and they are so much more environmentally friendly than containered or balled-and-burlapped plants.
M: So why isn’t every retail nursery selling cheaper, healthier, more sustainable bare-root plants?
T: It’s the same as in any other realm. If consumers demand it, the purveyors will deliver it. We need to use that line from the movie Network: "We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more." The retailers will listen.