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These days there are 2 ways to get bare root trees:
1. Trees and shrubs that are harvested when dormant in the fall; over-Winter in a cool, high humidity environment; and are sold without soil around the roots in the early Spring. Until the 1940's almost all trees were sold this way. Then big retailers decided they needed to be able to offer trees longer into the season, so they started putting these plants/trees in pots. This wasn't better for the trees or customers, it was only better for the retailers.
2. Fully leafed out and growing trees harvested from our Missouri Gravel Bed (see our Missouri Gravel tab). These plants/trees generally have a much greater root mass and fibrous roots than container plants/trees. Their roots are dipped into a product called Soil-Moist with mycorrhizae (a symbiotic fungi), to keep the roots moist and help reduce transplant stress. The trees are light and easy to handle for transport, with all of the benefits of traditional bare root.
Some of the advantages of buying and planting are:
Less transplant stress: Dormant bare toot trees and
plants are harvested after they "go to sleep for the
winter" and "wake up" in the soil they're going to grow in.
Missouri Gravel Bed trees, that are transplanted fully
leafed out and are sometimes even growing fruit, have
a much larger root mass which allows the plants to take
in more water & nutrition upon transpanting. Both
methods greatly decreases transplant shock.
Less chance of girdling: Plants can grow roots much
faster than they produce green growth up above. If roots
are surrounded with a container, they can start spiralling
around the bottom of the pot (the longer they're in the
pot, the worse this gets.) When these trees are transplanted,
the roots often continue to grow in a circular pattern, which in the worst case, eventually chokes the tree. Even if the tree doesn't die, the root system can be greatly compromised, resulting in poor growth and loss of fruit production. This process can take several years, so you may not even know you have a problem until you've invested a bunch of time and effort.
Easier to get the correct planting depth: With all planting it's critical to get the proper planting depth. This is probably the second biggest cause for tree failure with other forms of trees. With bare root trees, the graft and primary roots are visible so you can ensure precise planting depth. You can also limit the amount of disturbed soil beneath the plant so it doesn't sink as excess soil settles.
Bare root plants take water from the soil more effectively. Another big problem with potted plants is the soil interface between the soil from the pot and the soil in the new location. Water movement is often compromised across this interface which means the tree can either be too wet or too dry depending on the source of the water.
Bare root plants have more roots to start with (up to 200% more): Trees harvested with the surrounding soil are very heavy. This means that root ball has to be kept small in order to transport the trees. With bare root this isn't a problem so more roots can be, and are, taken when the tree is harvested.
Roots are visible so damage or tangling can be corrected before planting: If the roots on a bare root tree are damaged or if they were growing oddly for some reason, this can be corrected before planting. This helps keep the tree healthier and helps it grow faster.