Is Naked Superior?


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.


  1. Michele, I’m pondering this question you raise about events in windowless buildings. Some events need to be in windowless buildings – movies spring to mind. And gambling? Sure. It’s the weirdness of GARDENS in huge windowless buildings that always turns me off.

  2. I agree completely with Terry about the advantages of bare root planting. The size of the plants is often superior to potted plants for the price.
    I just picked up 15 bare root everbearing strawberry plants and thought about getting several interesting ferns. There was an entire wall of perennials and vines.
    But that is only in early spring. They disappear by the time the average home owner starts looking to plant. If you miss out on the first shipment then it is smaller potted plants or bigger prices.
    If someone has a reliable way to successfully ship and maintain healthy bare-root stock after the temperatures have warmed and soils dry a bit I would certainly buy more.

  3. Sorry I missed you in Troy! (I live in Albany) I did dimly know about the garden show but forgot it was last weekend. I must try to make it next year.

    I have no problem with bare root plants. I have bought plenty of them via mail order and most of them have grown successfully.

    I agree that the waste of fuel for transportation seems silly when so many more plants could be moved at one time.

  4. I think this illustrates a bigger issue.

    There’s two sorts of folks out there – those that wish to make a the Earth a little greener – in this case buying bareroot or smaller plants to begin with. And yes, ultimately saving on fossil fuels.

    And those whom require instant gratification – the crowd of people that Monravia panders to who have to have the latest exotic perennial in 2 gallon containers or largest “instant” trees at their “McMansions” because they might be transferred to a new job (and new McMansion) in 3 years or might feel the urge to upgrade their digs from 3 bedroom house to a 5 bedroom one and don’t wish to vest their time into waiting for all the plants to, I don’t know, grow?

  5. I hear you about avoiding windowless events, but I am tremendously grateful that you went to the bareroot lecture and shared the info. Plus, how proud am I that the info comes from one of our local universities. Life is good in the heart of the country!

  6. Interesting. I’ll ask about bare root at my local nursery when I next go.

    My favorite quote:

    M: “You must be mistaking me for a food writer.”

  7. Being new to growing anything I didn’t know a lot about bare root planting and only found out a little when I researched heirloom fruit trees. I never thought about how technology would have affected something so organic but he makes great points.

  8. After buying two dwarf fruit trees not long ago, I discovered that the prime reason for selling them in pots instead of bare root was to hide the evidence of crippling root pruning — or next to no roots at all.


    In addition, nurseries can charge more for plants in large pots, even if the plant hasn’t been growing in the pot all of its life (as the large pot implies).

  9. One of our faculty at Cornell, Nina Bassuk, director of the Urban Horticulture Institute, is a big advocate of bareroot planting. Here’s a pamphlet she wrote on the subject:

    Two benefits of bareroot plants: You can establish more trees at a lower cost. And when you are working with volunteers in planting efforts they can do the work themselves without relying on professionals with big equipment to handle balled and burlapped plants.

    Some species take to bareroot transplanting better than others. Nina includes lists in the pamphlet of the easy and the the difficult.

    She also suggests dipping the root systems in hydrogel slurry and sticking them in a plastic bag to prevent dessication between nursery and planting.

  10. Roses are very often sold as bareroot (when dormant, I guess) and when you do plant exchanges that’s basically what you’re giving and taking. I’m all for it. Why the heck not?

  11. I have never had a failure with bare root roses, grasses, astilbes, etc. The key for roses is creating a “matching-the-roots” cone of lovely, easy to sculpt compost-enriched soil. Make sure all roots make gentle contact and I line the bottom of the circle-shaped base with banana peels. Hey – I LOVE MONROVIA – for the opposite reasons SJ gave 8 posts up. I can’t afford to throw money away or guess at quality or health. Monrovia rules! Their website is amazing –

  12. I’m flattered that Michele felt my points regarding the use of bare root plant materials warranted an interview here on GardenRant.

    Just to follow up briefly after reading all of the comments above, I encourage everyone to review the Cornell bare root resource.

    Dr. Nina Bassuk and her group at the Urban Horticulture Institute have been developing techniques for using bare root trees to establish streetside plantings in very difficult sites for many years.

    Other than dipping the roots of bare root trees in a hydrogel slurry to prevent them from drying out until planting, there’s no special soil preparation when planting in sometimes frighteningly bad streetside soils.

    This brings up a second point in response to Barbara’s process for planting bare root roses.

    In a nutshell, in all my years of planting bare root trees, shrubs and perennials on a commercial scale, scrapping out a quick hole, quickly spreading the roots, then backfilling with whatever junk came out of the hole results in near 100 percent survival – providing the soil is kept slightly moist for a month or two, and preferably the first year after planting.

    No compost, no fertilizer, no staking, no banana peels, etc.

    Landscaping/gardening really doesn’t need to be that complicated of a process. And, in fact, almost all research indicates that soil amendments at the time of planting, in most situations, does more harm than good.

    Thanks again, Michele, for allowing me to share my experience here on GardenRant!

  13. Thank you so much for this informative post! So many growers/nurseries sell potbount material jacked up on fertilizers… the plants we pay top dollar for are usually on death’s door! I will be asking all my suppliers for bareroot plants, loudly!

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