Trees and shrubs purchased through mail order are often available only as bare-root specimens, or are much cheaper if purchased in this form. These plants do require extra care, and can take a little longer to become established, but can indeed be very effectively grown from such stock. On the other hand, prices are very reasonable, even for large specimens, and those gardeners willing to experiment with bare-root plants often find a very large selection of quality plants available to them.
Bare-root plants are usually dug in fall after leaves have dropped, and are either heeled in or stored in a nursery's refrigerators until shipping time. It is shipped still dormant; on arrival, open the package immediately, and inspect the plant. Look for clean, healthy roots that are packed in some form of moist medium; the roots themselves should also be lightly moist, and firm. New, fine white feeder roots may also be present, and are a sign of good health. Branches should be supple, buds healthy and firm, and the plant should be fair-sized and relatively straight.
If a few roots have rotted, trim them back, and soak and plant immediately, as described further below. However, if obviously in poor condition, or even dead, contact the nursery immediately, before sending anything back. Policies on dealing with these problems vary significantly: contact them immediately, before you do anything else.
After inspection, trim the longest roots back to 18-24", and gently remove any rotten or injured roots. If dry, set them to soak for an hour or two, in water, or better, in a weak compost tea. Dig a hole large enough to hold the roots, without them touching sides or bottom; at the base of the hole, make a small hill of well-worked soil.
When ready, take the bare-root specimen and gently spread the roots over the hill of soil at the bottom of the planting hole. Ensure that the bud union of grafted specimens is at the desired level, and gently fill around the roots with a mixture of well-drained soil and compost. After every few inches of soil, firm soil and thoroughly water prior to continuing with backfilling. When the hole has been filled, water a last time, and mulch. The plant will break dormancy in the near future, and, once it gets over the initial shock, resume growth with vigor.
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