The Bare-Root Necessities : A Buying Guide for the Gourmet Gardener

Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Roses get most of the attention and much of the space in nurseries during the bare-root planting sea son, but the gourmet gardener, who may view roses as merely a source of hips to use in making jellies, waits for January to plant a dozen or so edible plants. Fruit trees, grapes and berries of all sorts, not to mention a number of vegetables, are sold bare-root while they are completely or partially dormant, and it is the best time and way to plant them. Bare-root plants are also bargains, costing much less than those sold in containers later in the year. Pictured is a sampling of the season’s offerings.

The grapevines illustrated are neatly wrapped in paper so their roots won’t dry out. Be sure to select a variety that does well in your area. Gardeners living in the hot interior valleys can rejoice--grapes love heat; coastal gardeners will probably be disappointed by meager crops. Most growers recommend cutting off all the branches immediately after planting, leaving only a few buds. These will produce long canes that can be trained to a trellis or up a wall. The following year the canes should be cut back by about half, and others will sprout along their lengths. The next winter those are cut back, and that summer will bring the first crop. Patience is required.

Fruit trees need a similar regimen, though more and more gardeners aren’t pruning their trees as heavily as recommended the first few years so they can get small yields right from the start. Eventually, however, most fruit trees (apples excepted) require regular and heavy pruning each winter to keep the new fruit-producing growth coming along.

Bare-root fruit trees are an especially good buy (one is shown just below the grapevine). Last year they went for only $6 to $7 at chain stores. Even high-quality trees at the best nurseries cost only about $15, half of what they would have sold for once they were potted. Again, choose a variety suited to your area.


Unfortunately, many of the best bargains are not bargains at all if they are varieties that won’t grow in our mild-winter weather. Do your homework.

Also be aware that if you purchase fruit trees packaged in plastic bags, you’re taking chances; they may or may not have enough roots to grow. Don’t hesitate to take back trees with too few roots. Last January, we heard about one poor gentleman who had planted no fewer than nine “bargain” fruit trees in the past several years, none of which took, probably because they didn’t have enough roots to begin their new lives.

Planting blackberries and raspberries, on the other hand, is much like putting a stick into the ground (two berry plants are pictured below the fruit tree, second from left). They don’t have many roots, but those they have will grow rapidly. Don’t expect a crop the first summer, however; all cane berries produce fruit on canes that are a full year old. After those have produced, they must be cut completely to the ground; new canes that have been growing in the meantime will take their places. Most varieties of blackberries do fine in Southern California, but only certain raspberries are worth the effort.

Bare-root vegetables are bizarre-looking at best. To the left of the berry canes are the long, fleshy roots of asparagus; to the right are the globular tubers of Jerusalem artichokes, the leafy crowns of artichokes, the wiry roots of strawberries, rhubarb roots that look like a chunk of coal and two thin but powerful horseradish roots. The red tubers are seed potatoes, and the papery bulbs are onion sets.


Plant onions, and also garlic, the way you would flower bulbs. All the other vegetables, except the strawberries, should be planted so the crown of the plant or the sprouts are just below the soil surface. Be sure not to plant rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes upside down. It is sometimes difficult to tell; the pointed buds should be facing up. For asparagus, thoroughly prepare and amend the soil to at least a foot deep, and space the roots about a foot apart; wait until the second year to harvest the spears. Space artichoke roots four feet apart, Jerusalem artichokes two feet apart, and rhubarb and horseradish a foot apart (the roots will multiply and be ready to dig next fall).

Strawberries must be treated more carefully. It is all too easy to plant them too deep or not deep enough; the crowns should sit just above the soil. Also, they are best planted atop raised beds so they have good drainage. Be sure to mulch with straw, pine needles or plastic to keep the fruit and foliage clean. Strawberries are probably the best bargain of the lot; last year you could find a 12-pack of ‘Sequoia’ plants for only $1.33, enough to keep a family in berries for most of the year.