Bareroot Plants and Plugs – Cheap Ways to Get Lots of Plants
Want to make the living world around you come alive without all the costs? An abundance of new plant life can transform your property for people, plants and wildlife. But all those plants can be expensive to buy, and time consuming to grow—particularly on a large scale. Buying bareroot plants and plugs are an excellent way to get lots of plants without all the time and expenses. Keep reading to learn more about these types of plant stocks, as well as how and when to plant them on your property.
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The alternative to a garden sustained by chemical pesticides and fertilizers is a garden sustained by an abundance of life.
Bringing in large amounts of new plant life can make the living world around you come alive. It can support wildlife, and it can help your garden flourish.
But how do you afford all those plants? What if you don’t have the setup to propagate all the plants yourself?
I manage a restoration program for a non-profit land trust. Recently I was designing a new wetland restoration project that will require over 45,000 native plants.
That is a ton of plants! Just imagine that many 1-gallon pots—or larger!
At regular nursery rates, that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even for large scale restoration projects, that sort of cost is just not practical.
My plantings on my property are comparatively modest, but there’s still no way I could afford those rates.
Luckily, there’s another option to get much cheaper plants. And that is to buy bareroot plants and plugs.
Bareroot plants (AKA bareroots) are exactly what they sound like. They arrive while they’re dormant, without any soil around their roots.
Plugs are similar, but they still have some soil around their roots. Plugs are generally small—only an inch across and about 5 inches deep, with no more than 6 inches of growth on top.
Both tend to come in large bundles of 25 to 50, and sometimes even 100 plants.
These types of plants, along with live stakes, are the secret to how restoration projects can afford to plant so many plants!
They’re also what’s enabled me to transform our property from a degraded landscape into a wellspring of abundance for people, plants and wildlife.
Shhhh! This is also how most large retail box store nurseries get their plants. They order bareroots and plugs and then stick them in large pots and charge you a significant mark up!
But you don’t need to buy the marked-up, potted plants.
You can order bareroot plants and plugs directly from wholesale nurseries. This is a great way to get native plants! You can get the same plants for a fraction of the cost.
Before you do this, though, there are some things you should know about bareroots and plugs. Keep reading to learn more about these plants. But before you do, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet that summarizes the info in this post.
Can You Order Wholesale Plants?
You might be wondering if you can even order wholesale plants. Isn’t that just for the big stores? Nope!
It turns out that for, the most part, anyone can order from wholesale nurseries and get wholesale rates. While each wholesale nursery has their own policies, these are the rules I tend to run across when ordering from them:
- Bareroots and plugs come in bundles of 25, 50 or 100 plants. Each bundle is made up of a single type of plant.
- You have to spend a minimum amount—generally $100 or $200 USD, though this varies by nursery.
Really that is it—and for planting, say, a large hugelkultur bed or hedgerow, this is a great way to cheaply get a lot of plants. It’s how I’ve been able to plant several thousand trees and shrubs over the last 3 years.
While $100+ USD is still a lot of money, it generally translates to between 70 cents to $1.25 USD per plant.
But you should also know that there aren’t that many wholesale nurseries in any one area. You will likely have to order the plants from outside your area.
Worried about bringing in plants from other areas? Keep in mind that most of your local large nurseries are already doing this. So even if you buy a plant locally from them, it was likely already shipped in from outside your area.
The low cost per plant is the biggest advantage of buying plugs and bareroot plants. The only cheaper way to buy plants is to buy seeds and grow them yourself.
Another great option is to look up your local conservation or soil conservation district if you live in the United States. Most counties have one. A lot of these districts have plant sales, or can point you to good places to purchase plants. The plants will still be bareroots or plugs, but they will split the bundles up into smaller bundles of 5 or 10 plants. It will cost more per plant, but this is a great way to get smaller bundles.
What Sort of Plants are Sold as Bareroots or Plugs?
You can really get most perennial plants as bareroots, and annuals are often sold as plugs. In fact, you might have already done so. Fruit trees and fruiting shrubs are often sold as bareroots. Bulbs and asparagus are also sold this way.
But you probably didn’t pay wholesale rates last time you got your fruit trees. Neither did I—the reason is, I only wanted 7 fruit trees this year. Not 25 or 50. Especially not 50 of all one type of apple tree!
You’re likely in a similar place.
So for smaller planting projects, you’ll want to go with your favorite retail nursery or grow the plants yourself.
One trick to buying fruit trees as bareroots is to buy root stocks and then graft onto the stocks. As an example, you can get a large bundle of apple tree root stock for not much money—at least per tree. Then if you have other apple trees, or if you know people with apple trees, you can take cuttings from those trees and graft the cuttings onto your root stocks. This is a great way to quickly plant a large number of fruit trees while still having some diversity.
But if you have a large project, then look for wholesale bareroot plants or plugs.
The other time to get bareroot plants is when you’re wanting to add lots of native plants to your property.
These plants can be difficult to get. Ordering them from a wholesale native plant nursery might be your only option.
Each year, I tend to add several hundred native plants to my property this way. I just finished planting 50 native bitter cherries along the edge of my land. These plants tend to be bareroots.
If you check out my blog post – How to Find Native Plants for Your Property – you can learn how to look up native plants in your area and get a list of nurseries that sale them. When looking at that list of nurseries, I would focus on wholesale nurseries that sell bareroot plants or plugs.
The Cons of Bareroot Plants and Plugs
You might have already picked up on the biggest con of bareroot plants and plugs. That is the requirement that you order your plants in large bundles. Do you really want 25, 50 or even 100 of a single type of plant?
Sometimes that works out great. I planted over 300 native wild vegetables last fall as bareroots and plugs. This let me quickly expand my food forest without costing an arm or a leg to do so.
But often you’ll only want 1 or 2 of a single plant—especially if you’re trying to plant a wide diversity of plants.
While you might still get bareroot fruit trees or fruiting shrubs, in this case you’re also likely to just buy potted plants.
Do you know someone else who wants to cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife? You can team up with others and split the bundles between you, making the numbers of plants more practical for smaller-scale projects.
Another big downside of bareroots and plugs is that the plants you get this way will often have a limited amount of roots, and those roots will be fairly exposed.
When you get them, you either need to plant them right away—as in a day or 2—or you will need to store them appropriately.
The small number of roots also means you don’t want to buy bareroot plants or plugs that have a ton of top growth (the part of the plant that stays above the ground). You want the roots to be larger than the top of the plants.
This won’t be possible with fruit trees, but in general, getting bareroots or plugs with a lot of top growth compared to the roots is a recipe for struggle.
The other con is that bareroots and plugs are generally only available when the plants are dormant. This often means fall, winter and early spring. The big nurseries get around this by potting up the plants and then selling them to you in the spring and summer.
So you either need to do the same, or plant them during this dormant season. If your ground freezes, this may be a challenge.
A tip to get around frozen ground is to apply a thick layer of mulch before the ground freezes. The mulch will freeze, but it can be pulled aside. And unless it gets really cold, the ground will stay unfrozen. This will expand the time you can plant—just make sure to put the mulch back around your newly planted bareroot plant or plug so it doesn’t freeze before getting established!
But you may be able to time your order so your plants arrive in that sweet spot when the plants are dormant, but the ground hasn’t frozen yet.
If you live in an area with warmer winters, such as western Washington like I do, then this won’t be a big issue. Though here, the ground gets so wet in the winter that sometimes my planting holes fill up with water!
Finally, bareroots and plugs can be slow to get established. They’ll likely struggle to compete against other plants—especially grasses—during their first year. After the first year, they tend to do great, but make sure to mulch them well and keep other plants away until they get established.
They will also be less drought-resistant during their first year.
Downsides of Bareroot Plants and Plugs
While bareroots and plugs are a fantastic way to buy plants on the cheap, here are the key drawbacks to keep in mind:
- If sold at wholesale rates, they only come in bundles of 25, 50 or 100 of a single type of plant.
- Roots are exposed and need to be planted or potted up as soon as possible.
- Bareroots and plugs should be purchased when the above-ground part of the plant is small.
- Tend to only be available when the plants are dormant in the fall, winter or early spring.
- They will be slow to get established and will need extra care during their first year.
How to Plant Bareroot Plants and Plugs
The final thing you need to know about bareroots and plugs is how to plant them.
In general, you’re going to give them a lot less care than you would an expensive potted plant.
Though the exception will be your relatively expensive bareroot fruit trees or fruiting shrubs.
The biggest advantage of these types of plant stock is that you can get them cheaply at wholesale rates. This means you’re going to have a lot of plants, and you probably can’t spend a lot of time per plant.
These plants are also going to be small, and they’ll need to be planted quickly. (Within a day or 2.) This means you’ll be digging a bunch of small holes—generally no bigger than shovel depth and no wider than your shovel.
But you will want to be careful to make sure you don’t bend the roots up or have the roots wrapping around themselves.
Don’t worry about adding any fertilizer or compost to these plants. Just get them in the ground. Here’s what to do:
How to Plant Bareroots and Plugs
In the case of a bareroot plant, the roots were likely spread out nicely in very soft soil before the plant was pulled up and the dirt removed. This means the roots are likely to be pointing out to the sides and straight down.
They won’t be shaped like a potted plant, so make sure your hole is dug wide enough to accommodate this shape.
For plugs, you can generally just make a small hole and stick the plug in the hole. Then pat down the soil to make sure there are no large gaps between the plug and the surrounding soil.
I like to use my hori hori garden knife for planting my plugs.
A hori hori is just the right size for most plugs.
Whether you’ve planted bareroots or plugs, I would recommend mulching them really well. This will help them get established and prevent them from drying out in the summer.
Mulching the area around your newly planted bareroots or plugs will also reduce competition from surrounding plants during their slow first year.
So, are you ready to get started with bareroot plants and plugs? Leave a comment sharing about how you used these plants in a project (or how you plan to).
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