By definition, balled-and-burlapped plants are transplants sold to the consumer after having been planted, dug up, and wrapped. "Balled" refers to the root ball (that is, soil plus roots), which has been dug up, while "burlapped" refers to the wrapping material traditionally used for transporting tree and shrub deliveries.
By wrapping a tree or shrub in this way, a grower can pass it along to the consumer with the original soil still clinging to the plant's roots. Common alternatives to balled-and-burlapped plants are container plants and bare-root plants. Each of these offers benefits and drawbacks.
Things to Watch out For
The burlap used for wrapping trees and other plants is secured with string, wire, or twine. When purchasing balled-and-burlapped plants, ask if the burlap has been treated to be rot-resistant; you will need to know this information at planting time. Burlap that is not biodegradable (for example, wire and rot-resistant burlap) must be removed when planting; otherwise, it will impede plant growth in the future.
You should also make sure that the burlap has not been ripped. You are paying for a tree or shrub that has a healthy root ball (undamaged roots housed in fertile soil), which has been maintained by the burlap. If roots are sticking out and/or the root ball has been compromised, you are not getting your money's worth.
How to Plant Balled-and-Burlapped Trees and Shrubs
When planting trees or shrubs that are balled and burlapped, leave the burlap on until you have dug your hole and set the plant. Once the plant is in the hole, remove the string, wire, or twine that secures the burlap covering, then strip the burlap down the sides of the root ball.
If the burlap is biodegradable, you can leave it right at the bottom of the hole, because it will eventually break down. But if you have one of the newer types of burlap that does not break down, you must remove it. This is best done with a helper, with one person gently lifting the exposed root ball slightly out of the hole while the other pulls out the burlap from underneath.
Plants Sold in Bare-Root Form
Bare-root plants are just what their name implies: They come without any dirt clinging to their roots. If that sounds precarious, you're right. It is advisable to ship only certain kinds of trees or shrubs in this manner. The rose bush is one type of plant commonly transported bare-root from seller to buyer. It's usually best to plant bare-root specimens as soon as possible upon delivery, or, at the very least, keep the roots submerged in a container filled with water until you can get around to planting.
There are a couple of benefits of bare-root plants. First, they typically cost less than balled-and-burlapped specimens, sometimes much less. Also, the bare-root trade tends to deal in relatively small plants, and without the extra weight of the soil around the roots, the entire package is much lighter and easier to handle than most balled-and-burlapped plants.
On the downside, bare-root plants take longer to mature than balled-and-burlapped plants. And while you might imagine that bare-root plants are dug up, upon being ordered, and immediately shipped thereafter, the reality is that bare-root plants are often stored away for a long time before being sold. In the meantime, the roots are at risk for drying out and/or suffering damage. They are not protected (by soil and by a covering) the way that balled-and-burlapped plants are.
Plants Sold in Containers
Some trees and shrubs are also sold as container-grown plants. That is, they are sold in a pot (usually a plastic pot). The pot sizes are measured in gallons. In this case, the root ball is protected during shipping and handling by the pot, which can be even more protective than a burlapped ball. The negatives of containers are that they add expense, and the large container is (yet another) single-use plastic item that is discarded (hopefully recycled) soon after you get the plant home.