The Garden Guy: What's in a Name?

Sunday, April 17, 2022

By Bruce Bennett

The other week I worked a pre-season Master gardener Clinic (Yes! They are coming back in 2022) at my local hardware store. During the course of a very busy day, a number of questions arose concerning bare root and B / B plants. It is, after all the season for these issues. Consequently, this month’s column was changed to answer your questions.

The terms ‘B / B,’ ‘Bare Root’ and ‘Containerized’ all indicate how a plant is sold by the garden center, grocery store, etc. Each has its own positive and negative aspects. Let’s decide which is best for you.

Containerized plant
Photo courtesy Bruce Bennett
We are probably most accustomed to container-grown or sold plants. We can purchase all types of plants just this way just about any place, whether it's at your high-end garden center or the nearest Fred Meyer. 

That’s because there are a good many advantages to using containers. Plants of any size can be grown in containers. Just about any size, from starts to mature plants can be had in containers.

Many varieties of containerized plants can be purchased and planted year-round as long as the ground isn’t frozen and, in the Seattle-area, that isn’t too severe nor very often. Finally, all of the plant’s developing roots are in the container and make transporting, transplanting and clean-up easier. 

Containers equal convenience. 

On the downside, while all of the roots are enclosed, they grow in circles. This runs the risk of girdling, when roots wrap themselves around each other and have the potential to strangle themselves by crushing their own roots. 

With starts and small plants, a simple teasing of the root ball can cure this issue. If roots are not partially cut before planting, they will have the tendency to continue growing in a circle and will not grow into the native soil. This can also cause stability issues in taller plants. With larger plants, consider using a hori-hori (earth knife) or a box cutter to cut the roots on all four side of the root ball and across its bottom.
The ‘soil’ in containers is actually a soilless mix which is used to promote drainage. While these mixes can contain peat moss, bark, coir (coconut fiber), etc. and are natural products, they are not your native soil and can make the plant’s adaptation to its surroundings more difficult. 

Although counter-intuitive, it is actually good to remove most of the mix from around the plant roots prior to planting. The mix can be added as a mulch over the root ball. When digging a hole for the plant, the rule-of-thumb is still the old adage; the hole should be twice the width of the container but only as deep as the soil level in the container.

B/B plants. Photo courtesy Bruce Bennett
A ‘B / B’ plant indicates Balled and Burlapped. These plants are normally larger than the ones you will find in containers. They are grown in a nursery’s fields and are dug with a ball of soil to protect some of the root ball. The root balls are then covered with burlap and tied with twine. B / B is usually the way to go if a larger specimen of a plant is needed. The fact the soil around the roots is already native should make acclimation to the planting site easier on the plant.

The major downside of B / B is that the plants will be heavy and difficult to transport. That soil can weigh quite a bit. So, watch your back! When the plants are initially removed from the soil, many of the feeder and stabilizing roots are cut to accommodate the root ball. Try not to damage any more of them. 

After the plant is placed in the ground, remember that the burlap, twine, etc. need to be removed. These days, there is a decent amount of plastic woven into the cloth and twine and these materials and it will not easily decompose. Between them and possible wire baskets some nurseries use, healthy root growth can be inhibited or cause girdling as the roots mature. Remove all these foreign materials.

Bare root plants
Photo courtesy Bruce Bennett
Bare Root plants are sold when they are dormant and with no soil attached to the root system. You can find perennials, shrubs, trees, vegetables (i.e., asparagus and onions) and berries (i.e., strawberries and raspberries) sold this way. Without the addition of soil, bare root plants are relatively light weight and each to handle. 

Bare root are the least costly of these three categories. In fact, springtime plant sales can be 40% - 50% less expensive than the same containerized plant. 

Lastly, planting is a breeze. Dig a hole, build a soil mound, spread the roots over the mound and backfill. With these plants, you must remember to water deeply when planting and water weekly for the first two to three years. 

Their development will be slow for the first couple of years until the roots have developed. What you lose in initial size and time-to-maturity, you make up in cost savings.

Containerized plant
Photo courtesy Bruce Bennett
No matter which way you begin, after five years of growth, your plant will have the same appearance. Bare root plants of all types are still available this month. Get them in the ground now, before the season starts to warm up. 

With all transplanted plants, remember to water deeply when first putting them in the ground and then provide an inch of water a week to them for the first two years until they are established. 

For multiple plants, a soaker hose or drip feed lines can be used (as well as the less efficient oscillator sprinkler). 

For single shrubs and trees, I just use a 5-gallon bucket with holes punched along its lower edge. Fill the bucket and walk away until the next week. Now, where was that glass of sweet iced tea I just had?

Bruce Bennett
Contributing gardening columnist, Bruce Bennett, is a Washington State University Master Gardener, WA Certified Professional Horticulturist and garden designer. 

He lectures on various aspects of horticulture in the western states. 

If you have questions concerning this article or care to suggest topics of interest for future columns, contact him at 


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