Bare root vs. Potted Trees

The difference is huge. Convenient wrapped up, propped up, root bound, resource depleting, polluting trees stand outside our box stores waiting to be bought by consumers on a whim to begin their short life in the ground. At the same time real nurseries grow trees in living soil. The season for transplanting is short for these plants which have more root mass than top growth. Bare root trees are not convenient, they are real, they make sense for the grower, and are cheaper.

Lets start with the potted fruit tree standing in front of lowe’s in late May, when gardeners around here are in a frenzy. Where did this tree come from? Most likely it started out as a field grown tree from a large nursery. Meaning it was one of thousands of little trees growing in an agricultural field somewhere in the U.S. 

As the tree grew it was shipped off to a different type of large nursery. Imagine acres and acres of greenhouses in Florida. Here the tree has it’s roots trimmed and is put in a pot. The roots have nowhere to go, but round and round. Trying to correct this habit when planting can be difficult and involves cutting roots, if it works at all. Often pot bound trees will strangle themselves with a girdling root 10 or 20 years after planting.

The pot our tree is in has to be filled with some material that comes from another place, usually it is a combination of shredded bark, perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss. The growing medium is almost always something sterile (this is done to prevent disease and to let the grower scientifically add the ‘proper’ nutrition). 

So, the tree that was once growing in the ground is now in a sterile medium inside a plastic pot. How could it grow like this and look healthy? It is fed chemical fertilizers. This will be it’s only nutrition while living in the pot. The fertilizers are cheap and beef the tree up on excess nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (N P K). Think of a kid on candy, they will have lots of energy. Under a roof of plastic the tree makes a lot of top growth and then can be put on a truck and stood outside your nearest box store.

Chemical fertilizers are made from salts. They do not bind to soil, in fact they are death to most soil organisms, and earthworms will leave when they are applied (we are literally salting the earth when we use them). Chemical fertilizers are water soluble. Every time it rains, every time the tree is watered these fertilizers leach out through the bottom of the pot. It is not hard to imagine this water running unimpeded on a parking lot to the nearest drainage ditch. It will find it’s way to the ocean where it can feed the algae blooms that kill fish and plague beaches.

All this is not so that we can grow fruit trees. It is just so that we can sell trees at all times of year and have them for sale during Mother’s day. So we can have the trees be another product that is easily moved from one place to another.

People have been moving plants around for thousands of years without pots. It’s easy to do and can be done very well. So let’s take a look at how bare root trees ‘can’ be raised (I put ‘can’ in quotations because not all nurseries nurture their soils, too often they are polluting our waterways and degrading our soils as is most conventional agriculture.) 

The soil is prepared. It is dug deeply, has compost mixed in, and is topped with a layer of mulch. The mulch is present at all times of year. It protects the soil from the detrimental effects of freezing, harsh sun, wind, and rain. Mulch is the opposite of erosion, it builds the soil slowly, year after year.

With high organic content in the soil and thick mulch on top, nursery beds (and gardens for that matter) almost never need to be watered in the climate of the Northeast. Compare this to potted plants which require almost daily irrigation.

Seeds, cuttings, or transplants are laid out in the nursery beds the same way that  vegetables are in the garden. Since the soils are living, the roots spread out and find symbiotic relationships with beneficial bacteria and fungi. Their nutrition comes in the form of dozens of macro- and micro- nutrients present in the compost and organic fertilizers (which do bind to soil as they are consumed by fungi, bacteria, and other organisms that lock them up, until they themselves are consumed by other soil organisms). In this environment the trees form dense, fibrous, resilient root systems. Their growth can equal and even surpass the pumped up, greenhouse grown trees. 

After a year or two, trees are usually transplanted to another bed at a larger spacing, or are ready to be planted out. And here is why we don’t find bare root trees as readily as potted ones. 

The trees are dug up, either by hand or machine when they are dormant. They transplant well when they are not leafed out or flowering. The showiness is gone, they look like a stick with roots.

They are lifted out of the ground, the dirt shaken free from the roots. They can not be set out on display easily. They must have their roots packed in something moist while they travel. Damp shredded newspaper or sawdust are commonly used for this. Before planting they can be heeled in for a couple of weeks in a protected place, but they need to be planted relatively soon. Unlike a pot which can be left out for a long time. Again it is the convenience of the potted plant that wins, at least convenient for the consumer.

If we are thinking only about the health of the plant, then a branching, fibrous, bare root tree is far superior to a potted one with circling roots that has been nursed along on irrigation and fertilizer.

If it is the health of our environment then the choice for bare root trees is even easier. There are no plastic pots to manufacture, no potting mix to import from, and no heavy pot to ship around the country.

While potted plants will always be more consumptive of resources, they can be done in a better way than the conventional one. The potting soil can be a living one, as opposed to sterile. Fertilizer can be organic. Peat moss can be 100% left out, and our peat bogs left intact.

By writing this I am not trying to make anyone feel bad about plants they have bought or are growing. What I am trying to do is to raise consciousness about where things we buy come from. It is only through our awareness and choices that the world can change. Nurseries will only sell what people will buy.

-Akiva Silver

If you enjoyed this article, check out my book, Trees of Power.