Local nurseries and garden centers will be stocking dormant bare root trees and bushes until the end of January. Bare root plants really have bare roots. They are young plants, usually less than a year old, with small root systems. Because the roots are not growing, they can be temporarily stored in sawdust or a lightweight non-soil planting mix. The selection of bare root trees and bushes in winter is the best of the year and prices are often one-third less than in other seasons.
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A few winters ago, I scouted for bare root fruit trees and roses at a big box garden center and found a spindly little tree with just one word on the label: Apple. No varietal name, no information on planting zones, size at maturity, ripening season, etc. When you are shopping for your bare root plants in the next couple of weeks, look for those with the most comprehensive information on the label. Here’s a brief list of terms and explanations you’ll want to see on a good label:
Varietal name – the most basic identification which will help you avoid buying an Asian pear tree or a Bradford ornamental pear instead of the Bartlett pear you were hoping for.
Planting zones – Our arid, dry Central Valley has long, hot summers and short mild winters. We need to buy trees and bushes that are well adapted to our unusual climate. Our planting zones are 8 and 9 for the Central Valley and 7 for the foothills.
Size at maturity – If you’re looking for a small rose bush to fill in a bare spot by the front walk, you won’t want to buy a thorny bush that will grow to 8 feet.
Bare root fruit trees are available as dwarf, semi-dwarf and regular size. Harvesting fruit is much easier on dwarf and semi-dwarf trees (even though they also require regular summer pruning to maintain size).
Tip: When planting several varieties of fruit trees in one hole (the 4-in-1 method that is now suggested instead of grafting different cultivars onto one trunk), choose all dwarf or semi-dwarf types rather than mix up sizes.
Chill hours – Different varieties of fruit and nut trees require differing numbers of cumulative chill hours (hours below 45 degrees or hours between 32 and 45 degrees, depending on the model used) to properly set leaves and fruit. At the Fresno State chill hour counting station, the yearly chill hours for both models average just over 300. Hybridizers have developed many new “low-chill” varieties that will produce well with fewer cold winter nights. Look for them at nurseries.
Petal count – In general, roses with more than 20 petals per flower tolerate hot summer temperatures better without losing fragrance, petal thickness and a summer bloom period. There are exceptions, of course. Local nurseries tend to stock more heat-tolerant roses.
Ripening or bloom period – If planting an orchard in your backyard, choose several fruit tree varieties with successive ripening periods in order to have fresh fruit all summer long. If planting ornamental flowering trees, you can choose a variety that will bloom just in time for your springtime backyard patio parties.
Send Elinor Teague plant questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.