Bare root in bear country means promise

Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2005

David Lendrum

Landscaping in Alaska

Every field of endeavor has jargon, we hear snips and bits drifting into general usage but much of it is still proprietary. We hear the words, but what is meant takes familiarity or at least exposure. "Hootchies," "snag lines" and "gannions" sound like fairy tale phrases to recent arrivals in our marine-familiar environment. "Dust devils," "chalique" and "masa" are new sounds when one arrives in Tucson. "Ratchets," "plumb bobs" and PFD's (Personal Flotation Devices) are all secret phrases to the uninitiated.

From within the group using these descriptive sounds, there is no doubt what is meant. They are as plain as "Tsuga heterophylla" (western hemlock) and so clear that there is no mistaking it for anything else. This weekend I was confronted with another of those assumptions, relative to the phrase "bare root."

Someone was asking me about roses and lilacs, two of the most common blooming shrubs in Southeast Alaska gardens. I was describing some we used, and said that this was bare-root season, and it was as if I had begun jibbering. I realized I had drifted off into the land of the misunderstood.

Bare root means that the plant has been grown as if it was corn or potatoes and harvested. It was dug up and washed clean of dirt during it's dormant time, then stored, leafless and quiet, in huge 5-acre, refrigerated spaces. The temperature is 29 to 30 degrees, 100 percent humidity and nearly dark. Everything is done to prolong dormancy of the trees, shrubs or perennials that are stored there.

Spring arrives and shipping season goes into full speed; semi-loads of these plants head out for distant locations. Refrigerated containers arrive in the huge cold buildings and forklifts whir around with armloads of seemingly dead sticks. But like Sleeping Beauty, these are only waiting the kiss of the handsome prince to be brought back to life. They can be stacked hundreds deep in boxes and shipped around the world, still and cold, and deep in dormancy.

They arrive at some new location, like Juneau, and are released into the light and warmth of the unrefrigerated world. Day and night cycles kick in, and they begin emerging from the dormant state. Leaves emerge and small white root hairs begin growing from the heavy root masses that were dug up months ago.

Nurseries bury these plants in sawdust, peat moss or gravel and keep them irrigated while gardeners get ready to plant them - and then the shopping commences. The young plants are easiest to plant while they are at this stage, easy to carry and easy to ship, since there is no big dirt ball to hoist about or pay to fly to Kake or Angoon.

Roses, saskatoons, maple trees and fruiting cherries are loaded into small planes by eager gardeners, and high bush cranberries, dwarf Korean lilacs and snowmound spiraeas are carried up 50 steps to the homes on Star Hill.

The new foliage is delicate at this stage, and it needs to be put into the ground right away. They need to be watered and cared for, shielded from the hottest rays of the sun, and never allowed to dry out. But the ease of transport and the much lower cost of freighting them about drives their popularity. They can also be packed into the back of a car in plastic bags by the dozens, carried on bicycles and lifted by young children.

It is one of the most exciting phases of the yearly nursery scene, these sticks becoming trees and shrubs. It is also one of the most strenuous since the next phase is to plant all the young lives into the ground or into pots of soil for later use. The race is on between developing foliage and water supply so they must be irrigated several times a day in weather like we have had the last weeks. They also are being sent into all their new homes all over the borough, and the same care has to be explained to their new families.

The bare root season is like a spring festival and all the color and gaiety of emerging from winter into glorious summer are concentrated into these few weeks. Shiny red twigged dogwoods, tough enduring potentillas, and sweetly flowering cherry trees all have their first days in Southeast Alaska. They wait to contribute to the lives and homes of families all over the region, eager and strong, waiting only to be chosen.

Bare root means promise.

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