Bare Root vs. Container Plants: Which One is Right For Me?

March 13, 2024

A metal gardening pail next to a shovel in the ground getting a garden ready for planting bare root plants and container plants.

When starting on the rewarding journey of gardening, choosing between bare-root plants and container plants can be a pivotal decision for gardeners. Let’s delve into each type of plant so you can make the best decision to help your garden thrive!

Understanding the Difference Between Bare Root & Container Plants

Before making the best decision for your garden or farm, it’s important to understand what exactly bare root and container plants are and how they’re different from one another.

  • Bare-root plants: Bare-root plants are grown in the ground and then dug up while dormant (not actively growing), with all soil removed from their roots. This method of cultivation and distribution has been used for centuries.
  • Container plants: On the other hand, container or potted plants are grown in a pot with a special growing medium like soil or compost. They’re a common sight in garden centers and nurseries.

The choice between bare root and container plants will depend on your garden or farm needs, preferences, and circumstances.

Benefits of Bare Root Plants

A tray full of dormant bare root roses.

Bare-root plants offer several benefits that make them popular among gardeners and farmers. Here’s a closer look at what makes these plants so special.


Bare-root plants are typically less expensive than their container plants.

This is because growing and distributing bare-root plants requires fewer resources. Without the need for plastic pots and heavy soil, they’re lighter and more economical to ship.

This cost-effectiveness makes them an excellent choice for large-scale planting projects or gardeners working within a budget.

Health and Adaptability

Bare-root plants tend to have robust, healthy root systems.

Since they’re grown in natural soil, their roots can spread out and form beneficial relationships with bacteria and fungi. This leads to resilient plants rivaling or even outgrowing their container-grown counterparts.

Moreover, bare-root plants experience less transplant shock. When you plant them, they’re already dormant, so they’re not stressed by the sudden change in environment. Instead, they wake up in their new location, ready to grow.

Seasonal Considerations

Bare-root plants must be planted during their dormant season, usually in late winter or early spring.

This planting schedule can work to your advantage. It allows you to get a head start on the gardening season with your plants ready to spring into action as soon as the weather warms up.

Variety and Availability

Many types of bare-root fruit trees and berry plants are typically available, providing a broader selection to suit your specific needs.

Of course, selection will vary depending on supplies. But typically, Wilco Garden Center carries these types of bare-root trees and plants:

  • Fruit trees
  • Roses
  • Strawberry plants
  • Walla Walla starts
  • Asparagus starts

This extensive variety means you’ll likely find the perfect plants for your garden or farm.

Benefits of Container Plants

A double row of container plant trees in a Wilco Farm Nursery.

Container plants offer their own unique set of advantages. They are an excellent option for gardeners who value convenience, flexibility, and immediate results. Let’s explore the benefits of choosing container plants for your garden or farm.

Year-Round Planting

One of the most significant benefits of container plants is their flexibility in terms of planting time.

Unlike bare-root plants that need to be planted during their dormant season, container plants can be planted at almost any time of the year. This allows you to adjust your planting schedule to suit your convenience and makes gardening a year-round activity.

Ease of Planting

Container plants can be easier to plant, especially for beginners.

The plant is already established in its container, and all you need to do is dig a large enough hole to accommodate it. You then remove the plant from its pot, place it in the hole, and backfill it with soil. It’s a straightforward process requiring less guesswork than planting bare-root specimens.

Immediate Impact

Container plants often look more established and visually appealing right from the start. They can add instant beauty and structure to your garden to create an immediate impact.

Whether you’re looking to fill in a gap in your border, create a focal point, or establish a quick hedge, container plants can provide the solution you need.

Less Initial Care

Finally, container plants may require less initial care right after planting. Since they’re already established in their growing medium, they often need less watering and protection from elements than newly planted bare-root plants.

However, it’s important to remember that regular care, including adequate watering and fertilizing, is still vital for the long-term health of your container plants.

Choosing Between Bare-Root Plants and Container Plants

A woman planting a container plant into the ground.

Choosing between bare root and container plants isn’t a one-size-fits-all decision. It depends on various factors, from your specific gardening goals to local environmental conditions.

Here are some key considerations to guide your choice.

Specific Goals and Projects

Your specific gardening goals and projects are important in determining whether bare root or container plants are the best fit.

  • Large-scale projects: Bare-root plants can be a cost-effective solution for projects like establishing an orchard, hedgerow, or windbreak.
  • Immediate impact: Container plants offer flexibility in planting time and give an instant visual appeal for a landscape design project or if you need to fill gaps in your garden borders.

Local Climate and Soil Conditions

The success of both bare-root and container plants can be influenced by local climate and soil conditions.

It is important not to plant bare-root plants until the soil is good. The soil shouldn’t be too wet and without the potential risk of freezing.

Container plants, being more established, can accommodate a wider range of planting conditions. However, they can struggle if transplanted into poor or incompatible soil, so matching the plant to the site is crucial.

Read Test Your Soil to Grow What You Love for more help on soil conditions.

Care and Maintenance

Both types of plants have different care requirements.

  • Bare-root plants: Once planted, need regular watering until they’re fully established.
  • Container plants: Generally require less initial care but still need regular watering and feeding (especially if they remain in their original pot).

Long-Term Growth and Health

Finally, consider the implications for long-term growth and health.

Bare-root plants, with their well-developed root systems, often catch up to or surpass container-grown plants in terms of growth. However, they require careful handling and correct planting to ensure success.

Container plants can offer a head start in terms of size and development. However, their long-term health can be compromised if they become pot-bound or if the planting site doesn’t meet their needs.

Practical Tips for Planting and Care

A person planting container plants into their garden.

Whether you’re planting bare root or container plants, the right preparation and care can significantly impact their success.

Here are some practical tips to guide your planting process and initial care routine.

Preparing the Soil

  • Prepare the soil by removing weeds or grass and loosening it with a garden fork or tiller.
  • Amend the soil with organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure to improve its fertility and structure.

Planting Bare-Root Plants

A bare root plant in a box laying on plastic.

1. Choose Healthy Plants:

  • Whether shopping at your local Wilco Garden Center or receiving mail-order plants, examine bare-root specimens carefully.
  • Select plants that smell fresh and earthy and don’t show signs of decay, mold, or mildew.
  • Inspect roots, stems, and branches for minimal damage (some twig breakage may occur during handling).
  • Opt for well-hydrated plants that feel heavy for their size. Lightweight, dried-out root plants are likely dead.

2. Prepare Bare-Root Plants:

  • Trim away any dead or damaged parts from woody bare-root plants.
  • Soak woody bare-root plants for 1 to 2 hours before planting.
  • Perennials like strawberries or asparagus should be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Plant bare-root plants as soon as possible before new growth starts.

3. Dig Proper Planting Holes:

  • Ensure new plantings will receive adequate sun exposure and are planted in fertile garden soil enriched with organic material.
  • Dig a hole twice as wide and deep enough to accommodate the plant at its previous depth of growth.
  • Note that underground parts will appear darker than top growth.
  • For grafted fruit trees, ensure the graft sits at least 1 inch above soil level.

4. Planting Procedure:

  • Create a small mound of soil at the base of the hole.
  • Spread the roots evenly, ensuring the plant is supported, and the crown is at or above the soil line.
  • With assistance, keep the trunk upright and straight while replacing soil around the roots, firming it to eliminate air pockets.

5. Post-Planting Care:

  • Build a ring of soil a foot away from the trunk to create a shallow watering basin.
  • Water new plantings deeply to settle the soil around the roots.
  • Mulch with compost, wood chips, or straw.
  • Stake fruit trees for the first year to support root establishment.

Read Planting Your Bare Root Fruit Tree or Growing Your Own Bare Root Cane Berries for more planting help.

Planting Container Plants

A container plant removed from the cotainer getting ready to go into the ground.

1. Select Healthy Plants:

  • When purchasing container plants, carefully inspect them for signs of health.
  • Choose plants with vibrant foliage and without any visible pests or diseases.
  • Ensure the container is not overcrowded with roots or root-bound.
  • Check for any signs of root rot or excessive moisture in the soil.

2. Preparing Container Plants:

  • Carefully remove the plant by tipping the container on its side and sliding the plant out.
  • If the roots are circling the root ball, tease them apart to encourage outward growth.
  • If the plant is root-bound, loosen or trim the roots to promote healthy growth.
  • Trim away any signs of damage, disease, or pests.
  • Water the plant thoroughly before planting.

3. Preparing the New Container or Planting Site:

  • Choose a location that provides the appropriate sunlight, soil conditions, and space for the plant to grow.
  • If transplanting into a larger container, select a container at least 2 inches larger in diameter and depth than the current container.
  • Ensure the new container has drainage holes at the bottom to prevent waterlogging.
  • If transplanting into the ground, prepare the planting site by loosening the soil and amending it with compost or other organic matter to improve fertility and drainage.

4. Planting Procedure:

  • If transplanting into a larger container, place a layer of potting mix in the bottom of the container, then position the plant in the center and fill in around it with additional potting mix.
  • If transplanting into the ground, dig a hole slightly larger than the plant’s root ball and position the plant at the same depth as it was in its previous container.
  • Backfill the hole with soil, firming it gently around the roots to remove air pockets.

5. Post-Planting Care:

  • Water the transplanted plant thoroughly to settle the soil and encourage root establishment.
  • Apply a layer of mulch, such as wood chips or shredded bark, around the base of the plant to help retain moisture and suppress weeds.
  • Monitor the transplanted plant regularly for signs of stress, such as wilting or yellowing foliage, and provide appropriate care.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

  • Avoid planting too deep or too shallow – the top of the root system in bare-root plants and the top of the root ball in container plants should be level with the ground surface.
  • Don’t neglect watering, especially in the first few weeks after planting. Both bare root and container plants need consistent moisture to establish their root systems in the new location.
  • Don’t rush the planting process. Ensure you’ve prepared the site well, and take the time to plant carefully. Your plants’ future health and growth depend on getting a good start.

By following these tips, you can help your new plants thrive!

Key Takeaways for Successful Gardening

A lush garden filled with bare root plants and cointainer plants.

Choosing between bare root and container plants hinges on a mix of personal gardening goals and your garden conditions. By considering the specific site requirements and providing the appropriate aftercare, you can ensure that your plantings – whether bare root or container grown – are given the best start toward a thriving, vibrant garden.

Ultimately, the rewards of a well-planned and carefully tended garden are both beautiful and bountiful and will provide enjoyment for years to come. Happy planting!