Are Bare Root Roses Worth Buying & Planting?

Have you been tempted by the plastic-wrapped bare-root roses at your local big box store? You may be wondering if they’re as great of a bargain as they seem. In this article, rose enthusiast and gardening expert Danielle Sherwood looks at the pros and cons of buying what are known as “body bag roses” to help you decide if they’re a bargain or a bust!

Bare root roses at garden center wrapped in green plastic at the base of the rose canes.

Contents

If you’ve been to a big box store lately, chances are you’ve seen what many call “bare root” roses on display. These are bare-root roses, wrapped in plastic or cardboard, and packaged with wood shavings rather than soil.

Their prices are often extremely low compared to potted roses, leading us to wonder, is this a great deal, or too good to be true? In truth, these types of roses are a mixed bag.

Before you buy a bare root rose, take a look at these pros and cons so you know what you’re getting into. We’ll compare them with potted roses so you can make the best decision for you and your garden.

The Short Answer

If you get lucky, bare root roses can be a cost-effective way to add roses to your garden. Unfortunately, many of them are mislabeled, so you end up with a different variety than you paid for. Some are low quality (grade is displayed on the packaging) and will end up costing more for the support they need to thrive. If you like to roll the dice and don’t mind a surprise or the chance of losing a rose that just didn’t grow well, they might work for you.

About Bare Root Roses

Rose bushes of different varieties in green plastic packaging with photos and names in black plastic boxes at a farmer's market. Rose seedlings are trimmed, consist of several thick green shoots covered with thorns and roots packed in green bags.
You’ll find these roses boxed up at your local nursery or big box store.

Bare-root roses are dormant rosebushes between 1-3 years old, that have been dug up and trimmed to facilitate compact storage and shipping.

They are just roots and bare canes, packaged with wood shavings to hold in moisture. Often, the canes will be covered in a wax coating to seal against desiccation and travel damage. They are firmly wrapped in plastic or cardboard, with naked canes sticking out.

You will likely spot them popping up in big box stores in late winter to early spring. They traditionally start to appear before frost-tender potted roses appear.

Why You Should Plant Them

There are a few different reasons why you might bring these roses home to your garden. Let’s take a deeper look at the pros of bare root roses and what to expect.

Varieties

Close-up of cut rose seedlings in white cardboard boxes with images and labels of varieties. Seedlings have thick short stems of pale green color with sharp thorns.
These roses are cheap and easy to ship, rare varieties can be brought to stores.

Many rose lovers have an elusive variety they’ve been seeking for a while. If you’re not near a specialty nursery or garden center, you may have a limited selection to choose from. You can always order from a reputable online vendor. But the costs add up.

These are often varieties most popular in the 50s through 80s. They might be the high teas that your grandmother grew (these can be special, too!). However, sometimes you stumble upon the treasure of an Old Garden Rose (cultivated prior to 1867), or a variety that you’ve had on your list for years.

Because they are so cheap to ship and store, you may find varieties you otherwise may not see. I’m not going to pass up a ‘Rose de Rescht’ if I see one, no matter how it’s packaged!

Cost

Lots of bare-rooted seedlings at a farmer's market on the ground. Each bunch of seedlings has a sign with a picture of a variety attached to it. The seedlings have bare grey-brown roots and a few pruned pale green shoots covered with thorns.
One of the advantages of bare-root roses is their low cost.

Bare root roses will vary in cost, with some of the higher end potted David Austin roses fetching top dollar at your local favorite nursery. The difference in cost can be vast.

Even if some don’t survive, at this price, it might be worth a try. Even if 50% don’t make it, you’ve still grown more for less cost than one potted rose.

Plant Maturity

Close-up of a lot of large seedlings of rose bushes in black bags, on the grass, in a sunny garden. Seedlings are large, have long green stems covered with sharp pinkish thorns.
These plants are usually 1 to 3 years old, which can result in less shock when transplanted into the garden.

They are usually dug up from the field between the ages of 1-3 years old. Some potted roses are this mature, but many of them are just babies.

Buying a more mature plant with a more developed root system can result in less transplant shock in adjusting to your garden, and a bigger plant faster.

Eco-friendly

Close-up of four shrubs unpacked from their bags. The root system is protected by wood shavings mixed with soil mixture. Seedlings have short green shoots.
The compact packaging makes shipping and distribution easier.

It is more environmentally friendly to forgo the big plastic pots filled with soil.

Compact packaging allows more roses to be shipped simultaneously, requiring fewer trucks, less fuel, and less waste.

Timing

Close-up of female hands in bright green gloves planting a bare-root rose seedling in a garden. The woman is dressed in a bright green sweater, white trousers with colored polka dots and multi-colored shoes. The seedling has several strong, thick shoots of blue-green color and a root system in a black bag.
Bare-root roses can be transplanted into the garden earlier than potted roses, as they are less susceptible to frost.

Because they are dormant, they can be planted earlier than potted roses with fresh foliage. Dormant plants are not frost-sensitive and can be planted as early as the soil can be worked, or up to 6 weeks before your last frost.

If you just can’t wait to get started on the garden, planting roses in late winter is a tempting option! Make sure any roses you purchase are totally dormant and have no fresh growth, unless the weather is warm enough in your area to prevent die-back of tender new leaves.

Why You Should Avoid Planting Them

There are a few reasons why gardeners may want to avoid bare root roses in their garden. Between long-term costs and the fact many are completely mislabeled, there are a few reasons to steer clear. Let’s take a deeper look at why you may avoid them this season.

Mislabeling

Top view, close-up of many Bare-root rose seedlings in a black plastic box, ready to be transplanted into the ground. The seedlings have a root system protected by a soil mixture with wood chips. Seedlings have short pruned shoots of bright green color.
The downsides are a lack of initial blooming, and uncertainty around the rose variety.

This is perhaps the biggest frustration gardeners have with bare root roses. They are not in bloom at the time of purchase, so you can’t verify what you’re getting. Based on experience, they are frequently mislabeled.

It’s extremely frustrating to go through all the fuss of soaking your bare-root rose, digging a hole (a monumental task in my basalt rock garden), and pampering it with nutrients, only to see it bloom 10-12 weeks later in a color I can’t stand. Sure, I can gift it, but what a hassle!

Mislabeling is such a problem that purchasers are encouraged to grow their roses in pots before placing them directly in the garden. This way, you can be sure of what you bought.

If you don’t mind a surprise, this might not bother you. If you were overjoyed to find a long-wished-for variety, it’s a major con.

Low Quality

Top view, close-up of young seedlings of bare-root roses on the ground in a garden, with their roots wrapped in a black bag. Seedlings have long strong pale green stems with sharp thorns.
They may be damaged by transport or have dried roots.

It has to be said, these roses are not usually up to the standard of those grown by reputable nurseries. The root system is trimmed to fit the packaging. They have sometimes been damaged by transport, or dried out due to long, inadequate storage.

Some of those offered are very low-quality. The grading system of 1, 1.5, or 2 makes it easier and is displayed on the packaging.

Grade 1 roses are the best on offer, with a minimum of 3 strong, healthy canes, and purportedly, an established, healthy root system. Grades 1.5 and 2 have fewer, or smaller, canes and roots. Always avoid grade 2 unless you just can’t pass up the variety.

The root systems are sometimes dried out, shriveled, or barely there, which you won’t know until you unwrap just before planting.

In fact, many expert growers consider them “rescues” due to their poor health and chances of thriving.

Long-term Cost

Close-up of a young seedling with cut stems, in the garden next to an old garden rake that loosens the ground. A young bush has strong dark green shoots covered with sharp thorns and red buds.
If you purchased a low-quality seedling then you will have to spend time and money on better soil and fertilizer to save it.

I don’t blame anyone for being unable to pass up cheap rose bush. But have you considered the long-term cost of buying a low-quality plant?

Chances are, you’ve spent money on quality soil (if potting), compost, and fertilizers to help your roses grow. You’ve also sunk time watering, digging, and possibly pruning. If the rose doesn’t thrive, you might spend more money on “cures” attempting to save it.

Suddenly your three-dollar rose is a 50-dollar rose, and it’s still not blooming.

Viruses

Close-up of leaves infected with mosaic virus. The leaves are oval, serrated at the edges, bright green in color with yellow irregular stains.
Bare-root roses can be infected with diseases such as mosaic virus or bile that are difficult to recognize.

An unfortunate reality of big box plants is that they are often a haven for viruses, pests, and bacterial issues. You can mitigate this somewhat by examining the plant carefully prior to purchase, but some problems, like gall, might not be apparent until you unwrap the rose.

Sadly, mosaic virus is a common problem in big box stores, where they sometimes don’t have the manpower or expertise to identify or notice its spread. This is not something you want to bring home to your garden.

Disposable Mentality

Young seedlings of Bare-root roses in packages in the garden market. Seedlings have a root system packed in white-green bags. The shrubs have short, pruned green stems with sharp thorns.
They often struggle to thrive and fail, causing huge losses to the rose industry as a whole.

Worst of all, to my mind, is the fact that these roses have contributed to the idea that they are disposable annual plants. Roses are long-lived perennial shrubs. They can last for decades if healthy and given good care.

Because so many struggle to thrive, they get tossed, earning roses the reputation of being short-lived or difficult to grow. It’s a colossal waste that has a negative impact on the rose industry as a whole.

Final Thoughts

Bare root roses are either a good or bad idea, depending on your perspective. If you’re just starting out growing roses, I encourage you to visit your local nursery or the site of a reputable online vendor to select your plants. They will be in better condition, and no harder to take care of than other perennials.

If you’re fine with a surprise variety and possible wasted time, go ahead and grab the closest bare root rose. It might do great!

For experienced growers with time to take a chance on a rescue rose, it can be an economical way to add new varieties to garden beds. You might get lucky with a healthy one that is true to the label. Weigh these pros and cons to determine what’s best for you and enjoy your roses!

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