Most of the year, the roots of our edibles need to be immersed in fresh, fertile soil. The nurturing earth provides sustenance, moisture and protection.
However, a number of perennial and permanent crops go dormant over winter. With their life cycles shut down, it’s remarkably easy to lift them — while they’re young — out of the soil, strip their roots bare, then propagate, transport and transplant them without even the teeniest bit of dirt still clinging to their naked roots.
The window of opportunity for planting these bare-root crops — just like the more familiar bare-root roses — is late December through mid February.
What to Grow
Bare-root season encompasses a broad range of edibles. Vegetables include artichokes and asparagus. Berries run the gamut, from sweet strawberries to raspberries and blackberries.
Then there are the deciduous fruit trees, which to me are the most remarkable of all. Plant a barren, seemingly lifeless stick in the ground, and within several years, you’ll have a tree that bears apples, nectarines, peaches, plums or some other glorious, sun-kissed fruit.
Regardless of which bare-root edibles you choose, there are a few steps you should take.
When possible, buy locally so that you can inspect the roots. At the nursery, the plants should be stored in moist sand, sawdust or loose, organic material. Pull them out gently, one by one, and select those bearing roots that are plump, moist, firm and radiate in an even pattern from the stem. The nursery should pack your selections with a handful of that moist, loose material and wrap the bundle in paper or plastic for the ride home.
Ideally, you would have prepared the holes or bed prior to your trip to the nursery. However, it’s often hard to know in advance what you’ll get. And any good intentions to limit yourself may fly out the window if you find something exciting and new.
If you can’t plant right away, store your bare-root plants for a few days in the shade, out of the wind. Keep the packing material moist. Absolutely do not let those roots dry out. However, note that while some folks soak their bare-root roses overnight in a bucket before planting, that’s not critical with bare-root edibles.
Also, because bare-root fruits and vegetables are long-term crops, you only have one chance to do the soil prep right. Be sure to follow all planting instructions for your particular edible.
Then plan to add fresh mulch at least once a year. You won’t be able to till the soil once the plants are in the ground, so future nutrients will have to work their way down from the top. Use well-aged, fine-textured compost or other organic material, or apply earthworm castings, mild doses of fish emulsion or kelp, weekly drenches of compost tea, or some other natural, slow-release product.
A thriving patch of asparagus will reward you with up to 20 years of slender, succulent spears. Avoid the East Coast, purple-tinged varieties, such as Jersey Giant and Mary Washington, which have been bred for hot, humid summers and severe, cold winters. Instead, look for UC 157, a hybrid from UC Davis, which was created for mild California.
Also, be sure to trench and mound the soil for the ghostly-gray roots as instructed. While the steps may seem tedious, they’ll ensure the long-term viability of your patch.
Ants love artichokes. Take preventive measures to keep them out of your plants, such as setting out ant stakes.
Snails, sow bugs and slugs adore strawberries. Hand-pick the pests, or use a natural control like Sluggo. Mulch with straw to keep the berries off the soil, where they may rot even as they ripen, if the soil stays wet. Look for day-neutral or ever-bearing types, which flower and fruit throughout the year.
Cane berries fruit on last year’s wood or this year’s wood. Know which type you’re buying, so you don’t inadvertently trim off your crop. Choose an assortment to extend the harvest. For example, I’m currently growing two types of raspberries — Willamette, a summer-bearer that produces all at once; and Fall Gold and Autumn Bliss, both fall-bearers that produce large crops in fall, followed by smaller crops in spring.
Success with deciduous fruit trees starts with selecting the right variety. That decision is predicated on chill hours, which is the number of hours that the temperature drops below 45 degrees from November through February. Most stone and pome fruit trees require at least 800 hours and flourish in regions with cold winters, where they go deadly dormant, then spring back to life and produce properly.Santa Ynez averages around 1,000 chill hours and the choices are many. However, Santa Barbara ranges from fewer than 100 chill hours to something over 200. So on the coast, it’s vital to check the hours first. But in general, 250 to 300 chill hours is okay. Anna, Beverly Hills and Dorsett Golden apples are old standbys. Apricots are next to impossible, although if you must plant one, try Gold Kist. Desert Delight and Panamint nectarines, along with Bonanza, May Pride and Tropic Snow peaches are tasty. And Santa Rosa plums have produced prolifically here for just about forever.
This article was first published in the Winter issue of Edible Santa Barbara.
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