The Late Winter Window:
Time to Plant Fruits, Nuts and Berries
By Brian Barth
The first warm weather of spring sets off a frenzy among gardeners. Seasoned growers, however, get going a month or so before, especially those wanting to establish perennial food plants. Why? There is a brief window after the heaviest freezes have passed, but before most deciduous plants have broken dormancy.
If the roots of a plant have to be disturbed, it’s always best to do it when they are not actively growing. When it comes to fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and perennial vegetables, there is an additional reason to plant at this time—they can be purchased without a container or soil, meaning their roots have grown unrestricted. ‘Bare root’ plants, as they are called, cost less, but more importantly, at least for fruit trees, the roots are splayed out natural—the way they grow in the ground—rather than coiled up in an artificial form. Coiled roots are one of the hidden causes of languishing fruit and nut trees; they often never fully recover.
Bare root season begins as soon as the soil can be worked in late winter or early spring. Bare root plants don’t need a massive hole; dig it just big enough to accommodate the root system. As most tree roots splay out in a conical shape, it may be necessary to create a cone of packed soil for the root system to rest on. Otherwise, they tend to sink after planting, dropping the root crown several inches below the soil level and making the tree highly susceptible to crown rot.
Another trick to the art and science of tree planting is to orient the graft union away from the sun. Almost every commercially-produced fruit tree is grafted onto a separate rootstock; the connection is the most vulnerable part of the tree. Look for the bulge of scar tissue about 6 to 10 inches above the root crown and make sure it is pointing north to prevent sun scald.
Every type of deciduous berry, including strawberries, is available from bare root growers. The three perennial vegetables commonly grown by American gardeners—asparagus, artichoke and rhubarb—also perform better if their roots never see a pot. If planted from pots in spring or summer, they often don’t get going until the following year while their root systems get established underground.
Finding bare roots plants is not always easy, especially now that ‘big box’ retailers have become the predominant nursery outlets. Smaller, locally-owned nurseries are more likely to carry them. There are also numerous mail order nurseries that specialize in bare root edibles, though if you’re nearby, it’s best to pick up the plants in person rather than subject them to several days in the mail (Links to a few are provided below).
As soon as bare root season is over, spring planting can begin in earnest. If you take advantage of this quiet window before the seasonal rush, you will be far ahead in building an abundant landscape in the coming year.