Secrets to buying bare-root perennials
Bare-root perennials are those dead-looking roots and tubers that you can order from mail-order companies, or often find in big name stores in packages stored in wood chips or mulch. Bare-root perennials are actually dormant and are stored without soil. They are economical and allow you to buy varieties that are not available at local nurseries. However, always check to see that the variety will grow in a zone 3 environment.
As soon as you get your bare-root perennial, whether from a mail-order nursery or from a store, open the package and look at the contents. You will probably see a bunch of tangled roots. Healthy roots are plump and solid-feeling and may or may not have green shoots growing. If a few of the roots or stems are broken, they can be trimmed back to healthy tissue and will plant just fine. The package material is important because it keeps the roots from drying out. So the wood chips, mulch or packaging material should be moist.
Keep an eye open for moldy, rotten or shriveled roots. Too much moisture can cause rot, which will result in plant material that is soft or smelly. You might notice mold -- gray or white mold is surface mold and is nothing to worry about. However, a fuzzy blue mold causes rot, and the perennial should be tossed because it will not survive. Also if the roots look small and desiccated and are hard to find, the plant will probably not make it.
Even with good packing materials, bare-roots that sit too long or get too hot will dry out. Those displays in big name stores can be a good buy, but make sure you get there early. The longer they sit in a warm store, the drier those roots will get, even sealed in a bag. If they look shriveled and feel flaky and lightweight, they most likely will not grow.
If you buy some, and it is too early to plant, these perennials can be stored in a cool place like the refrigerator, or garage or porch that stays between 33-40 degrees for about a week. If it is still too early to plant out, you can pot them up, use a mixture of two parts peat moss to one part perlite, and one part potting soil. Just regular potting soil is too dense and does not allow for good root growth. It also becomes as hard as a rock. Be sure the container you use is wide enough to spread the roots and deep enough to allow root growth. If you can see the crown of the bare-root and there are yellow sprouts, be sure the crown is placed at soil level. If the crown is set too low, water can pool and the crown will rot. However, if the weather is warm and there is no danger of frost, planting them in the garden soil is always the most ideal.
False indigo is perennial of the year
The 2010 Perennial of the Year is the Baptisia australis better known as the false indigo. For many years the Perennial of the Year has not been suitable for growing in Minnesota, but the false indigo is hardy for growing zones 3-8. The Perennial of the Year, is named by the Perennial Plant Association, whose board of directors include plant horticulturalist who represent nurseries, universities, botanical gardens and other horticultural entities. The selection is based on these factors:
Suitable for a wide range of climate conditions
Pest and disease resistant
Readily available in the year of release
Multiple seasons of ornamental interest
Easily propagated by asexual or seed propagation
The Baptisia australis come in blue, cream to yellow, and white color. It stands 3-4 feet tall and spreads to 3-4 feet wide. False indigo blooms in May and June, likes full sun to part shade, has showy flowers which attract butterflies, and has showy black berries which give a nice winter interest. It is a slow starter and takes about three years to establish itself. The first year it may take some imagination on your part to see that the plant holds any potential. However once established, it becomes a long-lived, drought resistant, cold hardy and robust perennial performer that it is touted to be.
Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.