As you walk through the nursery, you'll discover that plants are available in three forms: balled-and-burlapped (typically bigger trees and shrubs with burlap wrapped around the root balls), bare-root (usually hedge plants and roses), and in containers (annuals, perennials, and smaller shrubs and trees). Plants are also grown differently: Some are kept in fields, some in containers; some start out in fields and are then transplanted to containers to be sold.
Nurseries often grow trees and shrubs in their fields, where the plants are generally easier to maintain and can grow to a larger size than if they are kept in containers. Field-grown stock needs to be dug up in winter and early spring (before breaking dormancy), wrapped in burlap and twine (and even metal cages in the case of large trees), then shipped to the sales center. These balled-and-burlapped plants may lose up to 90 percent of their root systems, but this method is the only way to offer very large plants for sale.
Bare-root stock is dug from the fields during its dormant season (late fall to very early spring) and placed in cold storage. Because there is no dirt surrounding the root system, bare-root trees and shrubs are light and easy to transport (as well as transplant), and they cost less than either container-grown or balled-and-burlapped plants.
In early spring (or late fall in temperate zones), nurseries may offer bare-root plants in batches of 50 or 100 for hedges such as lilacs. As a general rule, however, bare-root stock isn't offered at nurseries because the plants break dormancy and begin growing when removed from cold storage. Bare-root plants are ideal for mail-order nurseries, where they are kept in the "suspended animation" of cold storage and shipped to you in time for immediate planting. Buying roses as bare-root plants from a single source means there's less chance of bringing home a fungal disease.
Container-grown stock starts life in a container. As the plant gets larger, the grower transplants it to larger containers. The more years spent in containers, the more time and money the grower has spent on the plant, which explains why some container-grown plants are very expensive. For example, dwarf conifers, some of which are notoriously slow-growing, spend several years in containers before they grow large enough to be sold.
Continued on page 2: The Pick of the Bunch