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Alluring Sleeping Beauties : Now is the cheapest time to buy bare-root plants, which are sold in a dormant state and without the benefit of soil or pot.

January 07, 1994|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

If the term "bare root" gives you the shivers, you're not alone. It takes guts to shell out for some leafless, lifeless-looking twigs, and a wizard's eye to envision them as the rosebush or peach tree pictured on their tag.

For those willing to take the plunge, the most appealing payoff may come in dollars. Bare-root plants--those sold in a dormant state, without benefit of soil or pot and possibly wrapped in a plastic bag--cost one-third to one-half less than they will in spring. During bare-root season (which usually lasts from late December into early February) the selection is also better, with more plants and varieties to choose from. And to ease the risk of purchasing something virtually sight unseen, most nurseries offer money-back or replacement guarantees on bare-root buys.

"We have people who wait all year to get these roses," says Melinda Butler of Steven's Nursery and Hardware in North Hollywood. "It's cheaper, and they get the colors they want. Our customers have good luck with them."

In addition to roses, other plants sold locally in naked, no-frills form include stone-fruit trees, grapes and berries. "We're limited to plants that lose all their leaves," says Darrell Waldron, owner of Sheridan Gardens Nursery in Sun Valley. "Since they don't have leaves that need water, you can cut off half the root system and the plant won't suffer."

While a broad selection of perennials fits the bare-root bill, "Southern Californians don't like shrubs that lose their leaves," Waldron says. This explains in part why Valley nurseries don't stock much beyond roses and fruit trees in bare-root form. The warmth of our winters further narrows the field, eliminating, for example, those fruit trees that require extended periods of chill to be productive.

But local offerings are still impressive. Waldron's nursery kicks off bare-root season with 6,000 new roses--in 250 varieties--and a host of fruit trees: apricots, apples, peaches, nectarines, plums and persimmons, to name a few.

To give his customers a head start in nurturing their fledgling greens, Waldron's staff pots them in plantable, biodegradable fiber containers. "Part of the risk of buying bare-root," Waldron says, "is that people don't always plant them immediately--which they should. These fiber pots give the roots a medium; they don't need immediate planting, just water."

Throughout the nursery industry, Waldron estimates, there is "a less than 5% loss ratio" for bare-root plants. Still, Karen Petersen of Chatsworth Nursery, which got out of the bare-root business several years ago, feels that "going this route is really for those who know what they're doing."

She and others agree that some degree of knowledge is critical even to make a good buy. Because of the threat of dehydration--and premature, package-bound growth--shoppers are advised to choose plants that are displayed outside in the shade rather than in a warm store. "And inspect the roots if you can," adds Shigeru Tsuchiyama, owner of West Valley Nursery in Tarzana. "A common problem in packaging is that the roots may be cut too severely in order to fit the package." At West Valley, bare-root roses are heeled into sawdust to enable customers to pull them out and examine them.

How do you determine the potential beauty and health of a very minimal-looking plant? It's a challenge, says Mick Sears, chairman of the agriculture department at Pierce College, but he offers some pointers. With a fruit tree, he advises, "check for healthy, solid-looking bark and branches and a good branching structure that grows up and out in different directions. The roots, too, should have a good spread pattern." In roses, he counsels, "Look for green, plump, budded canes that aren't sprouting--that signals an old plant."

When it comes to planting and care, Sears recommends advance homework. In addition to Sunset's "New Western Garden Book," which he calls "the bible," he singles out other helpful books--available at any nursery--published by Sunset and Ortho. These detailed guides each address a specific subject such as roses, fruit trees, planting, pruning or fertilizing.

"Getting the books will save you a lot of headaches," Sears says. "And when you go to select your plant and talk to the nursery people, you'll be able to understand what they're telling you."

Luckily, the effects of the extra effort begin to show quickly. Unless the first two months of the year are especially chilly, the bare-root roses you plant in January could be blooming shrubs by April Fool's Day--which could serve as a nice comeback for those who doubted that your little sticks would ever amount to a hill of beans.

Planting Tips

* Don't let a bare-root plant sit around for long in its wrappings.

* Before planting, conservatively trim the roots and branches, and give it an overnight soak in a solution of one tablespoon Vitamin B-1 to one gallon of water, recommends Karen Petersen of Chatsworth Nursery.

* To enrich the planting site, amend the soil with blood meal, bone meal and nitro humus or potting soil, suggests Mick Sears of the agriculture department at Pierce College. But don't go overboard: Amended soil that is too different from a garden's native earth can work against healthy root growth.

* For roses, create a cone of soil in the planting hole and spread the roots evenly over the mound, taking care that any grafts should be two inches above the soil level and turned away from hot, southern exposure. The grafts of trees should be similarly protected from baking heat, Sears says, and if they're planted in an area of heavy sun, white-washing or wrapping their trunks with heavy paper can stave off sunburn.

* Mound up the earth around trees to guard against dehydration, says Darrell Waldron of Sheridan Gardens Nursery. And if Santa Ana winds arise, hose off taller trees two or three times a day to prevent them from drying out.

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