During cold, gloomy winter months, what’s more appealing than dreaming of spring gardens? If you’re like most gardeners, you’ll find yourself scrolling through online nurseries or flipping pages of printed plant catalogs while the snow swirls outside. You may even rapidly fill your virtual shopping cart with must-have plants—although it may be a few months before they ship. And when your boxful of perennials arrives, do you remember reading the fine print about how they’d be shipped? In the excitement of selecting plants, often the way the plant will be shipped—bare-root, nursery pot, or liner—might be missed. When you receive a root-filled bag with no evidence of life, what’s a gardener to do?
Relax and take a deep breath. Those dry roots will morph into a lovely addition to your garden! Here’s how to plant bare-root perennials:
First, Unpack Your Perennials
Whether you’ve ordered bare-root perennials or plants in pots, the first order of business is to get them out of the box. If you ordered plants during winter months, the nursery will wait to ship the plants until the weather warms, sending them when it’s appropriate timing to plant in your zone. (All reputable nurseries will wait to ship plants, as they can become damaged in transit during extreme cold. If you live in the north and receive your order in February, that’s not OK. Call the company’s customer service department!)
Inspect Your Bare-Root Plants
Examine your new plants. Bare-root perennials typically are dug and divided in the fall, then stored until it’s time to ship the dormant plants in spring. If you’ve never planted bare-root perennials before, you might feel alarmed when you unbox your order—but don’t worry! The dormant roots and crown may look odd, but they’ll produce lovely plants when they settle in your garden.
Check the roots for health. Roots vary in size and structure among different types of perennials—they may be thin and fibrous or thick and fleshy. Regardless of the structure, the roots should be firm and dry, not mushy or slimy. If you find any broken or damaged roots, simply snip them off. New roots will grow when the perennial is planted in your garden.
Store Bare-Root Perennials
Ideally, you’ll be ready to plant your bare-root perennials as soon as they arrive. However, if a late freeze threatens, spring rains rage for a week, or you’re swamped with work, don’t fret! You can either store your bare-root plants in a bag with a bit of peat moss, placed in a cool, dark space (that’s above freezing), or you can plant them in nursery pots. Starting them in nursery pots gives them a jump on the growing season, letting them break dormancy indoors while you wait for the weather to warm up outside. If you do start your bare-root perennials inside, remember to harden off the plants before adding them to the garden. Slowly acclimate the plants to outdoor conditions, such as temperature and sunlight, introducing the new environment to the plants a little bit longer each day. The goal is to ensure your new perennials that have been growing in a sheltered, indoor location toughen up a bit for a successful outdoor transition. Plan on hardening off the plants for about 10 days to two weeks before adding them to garden beds.
Plant Your New Bare-Root Perennials
If weather cooperates and spring seems near, plant bare-root perennials straight into garden beds or containers. Wait to plant outside until the soil warms up after your last expected spring frost date, which you can find here.
Soak the perennial roots in water for about an hour while you prep the garden bed. If your garden suffers from poor soil—either heavy clay or sand—add compost or other organic material to the bed, mixing it with existing soil, to improve drainage and increase nutrients. Dig a hole a few inches wider and deeper than the roots. Fill the hole with water and let it completely drain into the soil. Then create a soil mound in the center of the hole and set the roots on top, spreading them evenly around the mound. Adjust the positioning to ensure that the plant’s crown is level with the soil line. (Don’t bury the plant’s crown, or it may rot.) When the bare-root plant is properly positioned, fill in the hole with soil, and firm it around the roots. Water the plant well to remove air pockets and ensure that moisture reaches the roots.
Label Your Plant
It’s always a good idea to add a plant tag with the name of the perennial so you’ll remember what’s growing in your garden. With bare-root plants, you might not see immediate growth, and a plant tag helps you avoid damaging roots when you dig holes to add other plants nearby. Plus, by adding tags, you’ll know which cultivars you’re growing. You may have ordered hardy geraniums during your winter shopping spree, but when they start growing in spring, will you know if they’re Geranium Azure Rush®, Rozanne®, or Blushing Turtle? Labels make your life easier!
Add a layer of mulch around the base of the plant’s crown. Mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, while also suppressing weeds. Plus, it adds a “finished” look to your garden beds. Organic mulch like double ground hardwood, pine needles, or bark nuggets, also benefits the soil as it decomposes over time, adding organic material that helps improve drainage in poor soil.
Create a Container Garden
If you plan to create a container garden with your new bare-root perennials, follow the same steps—inspect your plants, soak the roots, spread the roots out, and keep the crown at soil level. However, make sure to choose a container with drainage holes, as roots will rot if they stand in water. Also, choose a light-weight potting mix created especially for containers. Container gardens dry out more quickly than garden beds and require more watering in the heat of summer. Heavy garden soil compacts with frequent watering, which can suffocate roots. A light-weight potting mix drains well and gives the plant’s roots a chance to stretch and grow.
Water the Plants
Check your new plants frequently to determine water needs. Many plants need approximately 1 inch of water per week, and you may need to assist Mother Nature if rain is sparse. How do you know when it’s time to water? Stick your index finger an inch into the soil near the base of the plant. If it’s moist—no need to water. If it’s dry, time for a drink!
Even if a perennial is marketed as “drought tolerant” or “water-wise,” like Delosperma Fire Spinner®, newly planted perennials need consistent watering to become well established during the first year. Make sure these perennials live in soil with excellent drainage, but don’t neglect watering them as they set roots and grow. Later, you’ll enjoy the benefits of these environmentally sustainable beauties!
Fertilize the New Perennials
Perennials need to be fed during the growing season. Choose an organic liquid fertilizer that promotes blooms, and feed your perennial when the plant has three sets of new leaves. For young plants, start with a half-strength application. (Read the label for directions.) Feed the plants again in midsummer to promote healthy root development and growth.
Container gardens may need more frequent feeding. As water drains through the container, nutrients leach out of the soil. A water-soluble fertilizer helps replace nutrients the plants need to thrive. Follow directions on the fertilizer’s label.
Really, growing bare-root perennials is simple. Soon, your garden will be filled with fabulous foliage and beautiful blooms, all begun from those bags of dry roots that you ordered impulsively during winter’s gray days. Aren’t you glad that you did?! Happy growing!
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