Gardening at spring. Planting tree in garden. Senior man watering planted fruit tree at his backyard

Bare root trees and roses have arrived for spring planting

They’re only available from January through March, so shop early for the tree or rose you want.

It is finally time to get the new gardening season started. Spring will be here before we know it and it’s good to be ahead of the game instead of playing catch-up for the rest of the year. While January may feel too early to think about planting, I can assure you that garden centers are very busy bringing in new stock in anticipation of us all getting “the bug” to get back outside.

January is the perfect month to start shopping for roses, fruit trees, berries and grapes, along with other shrubs that are dormant this time of year. Most of these plants are sold as what is known in the nursery industry as “bare root.” Let me take a moment to explain.

Bare root plants are just that, plants that have no soil on the roots and hence their roots are bare. Before these plants arrived at the garden center, they were growing quite happily on a farm somewhere, perhaps as far away as the Midwest. Last fall, a farmer with a fancy piece of equipment cut off half of their roots and yanked them right out of the ground. All remaining soil was washed off and they were then stacked, graded, and stored in a cooler until it was time to be shipped.

In the past when they arrived at the garden center, they would be heeled into a sawdust bed where they would stay until purchased or until they started to leaf out (usually the end of March in the Northwest). In today’s garden centers, you will rarely find sawdust beds anymore. Bare root plants are instead now potted up at the time they arrive, which makes them easier to care for. As a customer, at some garden centers, you now have the option to have the tree removed from the pot and placed into a plastic bag for immediate planting when you return home. This saves you money and makes transport a whole lot easier.

In a perfect world, you should already have the planting spot decided, dug and ready to receive the new tree before bringing it home. In the case of roses and other shrubs that came into the nursery bare root and were recently potted up, when you go to plant them expect the plants to fall away from the rich soil in the container. Don’t panic! You can blend this soil along with some transplanting fertilizer into the hole and everything will be fine.

In my opinion, the biggest disadvantages of bare root trees are that they are only available January through the end of March and that they are only ordered once a year. If you have your heart set on a certain variety of fruit tree or rose, you should definitely shop early. When they are gone, that’s it for another 12 months.

When I purchased my garden center more than 30 years ago, we sold a variety of plants directly out of a sawdust bed in the bare root state. Over those three decades, the trend has moved to growing berries, grapes, rhubarb and many shrubs in containers, which gives you a more established plant that may even produce its first season. Thankfully, you can still find trees, especially fruit trees, in a bare root state. Now is the time to take advantage of that option! Check them out at your favorite local garden center, where you can find the best selection of regionally appropriate varieties and the expertise to help you make them grow.

Stay safe and keep on gardening!

Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, and can be reached at

Online class

Sunnyside Nursery’s next free online class will be “PNW Fruit Trees” at 10 a.m. Jan. 29. For more information or to sign up, visit

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