The term "bare root," when used in gardening, refers to a plant that is offered for sale with its roots exposed, rather than planted in a container with soil. This is a fairly common way for some plants to be sold, especially when they are being shipped a substantial distance, such as when you order them from a mail-order retailer.
What Plants Are Sold This Way?
Not all types of plants can handle being shipped without soil. However, for those that can, such as roses, fruit trees, and shrubs and several perennials, including hostas and daylilies, it is a safe, lightweight way to ship plants inexpensively.
Perennials and roses may also be sold as bare roots on the shelves of some of your local retailers. Big box home improvement centers and mass merchant retailers will often sell these plants as bagged or boxed with bare roots. This is a perfectly acceptable way to buy plants, though you should inspect the roots through the plastic bag to make sure they are firm and not soft or desiccated. Bare root plants in stores may be sitting around far longer than those shipped by mail.
Planting and Caring for These Types of Plants
Don't be alarmed if your plants look like dead sticks when they first arrive. This is normal and is not a cause for concern. At this point, the plants are dormant. Do, however, look for damaged or rotten root sections, and make sure to trim these away before you plant.
Although plants sold bare root are dormant when they are shipped, they should still be planted ASAP. Better mail-order retailers will understand this and won't ship your plants until the time is right for planting in your region. Normally, bare root plants will arrive with the roots bound together and the root ball contained in plastic, sometimes with a bit of peat moss or sawdust to absorb excess moisture and prevent rot. If it is impossible to plant them immediately, then keep your plants chilled but not frozen until you can plant them, or they will break dormancy before you have a chance to plant them.
As you prepare to plant a bare-root specimen, you must keep the roots moist at all times while they are exposed. If the roots dry out, you may kill the plant. Many experts recommend soaking the root zone of a bare-root tree or shrub in water overnight, to hydrate the roots before you fully plant them. And make sure to water the plants thoroughly after planting in the ground, until the first new green leaves appear.
Once planted, your bare root plant will start sending out feeder roots. It may take a week or so before you see any signs of life on the top part of the plant. Just keep the soil watered, whenever it feels dry about an inch below the surface, and be patient. Eventually, new shoots will appear. Those first green shoots tell you that your bare root plants have broken dormancy.
Continue to give the plant water, when it needs it. You will know your bare root plant is well established when it fully leafs out and starts to set flower buds.