by Charlene Burgi
The other day, Jack and I were reminiscing about what we would be doing this time of year if we were still in the nursery. November was when we expected the shipments of ball and burlap trees. The gorgeous conifers came to us from Oregon. Norway, blue and green spruce, foxtail, bristlecone and scotch pines, hinoki, bird’s nest cypress and Douglas-fir only scratched the surface of our order found in the big trucks. It seemed like mountains of UC soilless mix filled the potting area. And hours of potting these weighty trees into pulp pots filled our days and broke our backs! We would only hope that someone buying a living Christmas tree would prepare the soil ahead of time for these needled treasures.
Our conversation turned to what happened after ball and burlap season. Bare root roses, berries and perennial vegetables arrived in December, requiring root pruning and healing-in to redwood bins filled with fir sawdust. Weak canes of the roses were removed and each rose was tenderly pruned down to 18 inches and always to an outside bud. January saw delivery of large truck and trailers carrying thousands of deciduous shade and fruit trees as well as shrubs. Each plant also required root pruning and thinning cuts to the crown. After careful inspection, each tree was healed into the bins that served as their temporary homes until they sold.
As we reminisced, we contrasted the new method of buying bare root plants now found in plastic bags and filled with a bit of sawdust. We wondered if the consumer would know to look for heavy packages—an indication that the roots remained wet. And would they know to trim the broken roots back and begin to prune for thinning and structuring the branch system once they got their plant home? There are so many instructions now lacking on these little bags.
I remembered telling each person purchasing conifers to place them in a location that mirrors where these beauties grow in their native environment. The soil must be rich in nutrients like the natural composting that occurs on the forest floor. Soil preparations for these gifts of nature require thinking ahead and working the soil for success. Would the plants’ new homes meet these conditions thanks to gardeners who planned ahead, or would the plants struggle to survive in hardpan soil with poor drainage? Would people remember to cut the heavy twine around the trunks holding the ball of burlap and soil together, or would the plants eventually be strangled if the twine failed to decompose?
At the nursery we also provided instruction with bare root plants. The customer left knowing to put wet burlap over the roots of the plant so they wouldn’t dry out before planting, or soak in a bucket of water laced with B1 overnight. Demonstrations were given on digging the holes wide enough for the root system, placing the roots around a small island of rich soil in the center of the hole, and backfilling with a mix of site soil and organic material. It was also advised to fill each hole with water after digging to confirm the drainage was good.
Thinking back made me realize how important it is to think ahead if you are in the market for these winter bargains. Is the ground ready to accept these timely treasures? This is the only time of the year that ball and burlap plants are available. It is also only in winter that you can purchase bare root fruit or shade trees, berries and veggies at half the normal cost of container plants. And then I thought of the plastic-bagged bare root plants and glanced out of the window at the two beautiful blue spruce trees that came in decorative containers. I wondered if anyone still uses the old back-breaking methods of yesteryear. It then occurred to me that it doesn’t matter how the plant comes to your home, you need to think ahead, have the soil prepared, and mimic the natural environments where these plants thrive.