There was a time not long ago when seasoned gardeners awaited January the way kids wait for Christmas. They raced into local nurseries with their wish lists in hand and crowded around moist sand- or soil-filled bins loaded with bare-root fruit trees searching for the variety they wanted. When they spied it, a nursery employee pulled the tree out of the soil so its roots could be examined. If it met with their approval, it was wrapped in newspaper, and gardeners hurried home to plant. Trees were a bargain at 40% to 50% less than what they would cost in the spring.
Today only about 10 nurseries from Ventura to San Diego sell bare-root fruit trees the old-fashioned way, from bins. Most have switched to containerizing trees when delivered from the grower, then selling them individually in soil-filled containers. Planting in containers -- they're still called bare root -- helps nurseries keep roots from drying out and extends the selling season because trees can be kept in the same containers until they're sold. Depending on the nursery, a 5-gallon containerized bare root will cost at least 10% to 20% more than a traditional bare-root tree in a bin.
Of course, in spring, containerized bare-root trees leaf out, and prices go up. Bare-root season is short in California. Temperatures can rise at the end of January or in March. Once they do, the bare-root season is finished, as are the savings. Nurseries pot the larger unsold bare-root trees into 15-gallon containers and sell them in the spring for at least 100% more than in January.
Nevertheless, many gardeners wait until spring to buy a fruit tree in a container, because they prefer the instant gratification of planting a tree that's leafed out and beautiful. Ed Laivo, sales and marketing director of Dave Wilson Nursery in Modesto, one of the largest fruit growers in the country, says busy consumers are looking for convenience and want to plant when they feel like it. Price isn't enough incentive for them to take a chance on a leafless skeleton that looks more dead than alive.
Bare-root trees won't win beauty contests. Unlike evergreen fruits such as citrus, deciduous trees go through a dormant phase during which they lose all their leaves. Without them they can't synthesize the sun's nutrients, their metabolism slows and they sink into a kind of winter sleep. Be they plum, peach, nectarine, pear, pomegranate, fruiting mulberry, persimmon, cherry or quince, dormancy is the safest time to dig young trees from the field and transport them to nurseries with no soil on their roots, hence bare root.
Mike Wronkowski, longtime manager of Green Arrow in North Hills, one of the handful of nurseries that still sells trees bare root in bins, says, "Some gardeners who buy bare root are young, but it's usually the old-timers who buy quite a few fruit trees. It's more economical on a fixed income to buy bare root."
Many younger gardeners are buying their trees online. Tim and Wendy Petta's home in Sylmar is on an 8,000-square-foot-lot crammed with 40 fruit trees. Passionate gardeners Tim, 40, and Wendy, 34, painstakingly research trees that help feed their family of four children. They buy for price too -- at big-box stores and especially online.
Whether you're a fastidious or a laissez-faire gardener, there's a way to buy a tree that's sure to please. Bare roots from bins are light and easy to plant because they have no soil. Those buying from bins can examine the roots and see the difference between an inferior tree with clumped-together roots that form a carrot shape and a healthy tree with three or four large well-spaced roots with smaller ones attached.
On the negative side, trees from a bin come wrapped in moist packing materials covered in plastic and are best planted the day they're brought home. Can trees be left longer? Some say three days, others two weeks. Ask your nursery professional. Certainly if you don't want to plant on a timetable, you will find this a burden.
Although buyers of containerized trees give up the opportunity to examine the roots, they needn't worry about keeping them moist because they're covered with soil. And there's no rush to plant, although certified arborist Kurt Peacock, fruit-tree buyer for Walter Andersen Nursery in San Diego, says containerized trees will perform best if they're planted bare root while dormant. He advises homeowners to slide the tree out of the container, throw out all the soil, and plant it directly into the garden soil.
Trees purchased online, like those from a bin, are less expensive and come wrapped in moist packing materials covered in plastic and so should be planted promptly. But online buyers only see roots when their tree arrives.
A bonus for buying trees now, whether in a bin, container or online, is the availability of unusual varieties. When nurseries sell out, that's it until next year.