Not so long ago, prior to the invention of plastic nursery containers plants were grown and sold in used coffee cans, bean cans, milk cartons, and ice cream containers. Trees were all dug, either bare rooted or wrapped in stretched burlap with the root crown and native soil intact. These were called “ball and burlap” or B&B for short. Larger trees would often come with a layer of chicken wire on the outside for extra support.
There are still a few places that sell bare root and B&B trees. The season for buying these trees was during fall and winter when the trees were dormant. Basically, this season began in mid-November and ended in mid-March before bud break occurred in early spring. If you were in the market for shade, fruit, and nut bearing trees you knew to shop for trees during this time period or you would have to wait another year for the next dormant period.
The reason for this short time frame was simple and also understood by the general public. The roots could be cut or otherwise compromised while the tree was not expending energy making leaves, flowers, fruit, or seed. If you attempted to dig a tree or large shrub during the growing season it was very likely the attempt would fail.
I began my tree selling career by digging B&B trees out of Montague County, so I am very familiar with the process and the risks involved. One of the things I learned early on was that when you dug a tree, even if you took the best of care, 70% to 80% of the most important “feeder roots” or “root fines” would be lost. It is those tiny, almost microscopic roots that interfaced with the soil to uptake dissolved minerals and elements that fed the large roots and in fact the whole tree. The so-called “tap root(s)” are mainly storage and conduits for the water and other ingredients. Tap roots also serve to anchor the tree.
So, it was a well-known fact that while the top was dormant the tree could “cure” the damaged and/or missing roots as it remained dormant. It was also known that you would likely lose some trees, even if you did everything right, because some plants would just be slow to heal. When the top began new growth there simply would not be enough feeder roots to support the growth. Those of us who sold dug trees and shrubs knew to expect a 1% to 2% loss, so we were obliged to offer some sort of guarantee to replace the ones that did not make it. This was figured into the price.
The invention of cheap plastic containers changed all that. Now trees and shrubs plus all other plants are grown or dug up and placed in containers. This extended the season to a 12-month system since (for the most part) the entire root system was inside of a container. Especially handy for selling large trees that would have the greater impact on new landscaping.
With the exception of root bound plants that had spent too much time in a small container this had a positive impact on the industry. Now you can buy a tree at any time of year. We now have two generations (working on three) who would not think of buying dormant plants but would rather wait for spring so they could see the leaves/flowers and choose the ones that looked best judging from top growth. I don’t blame anyone for thinking it best except for the natural fact that the roots will still suffer from transplant shock and are still obliged to interface with your native soils before becoming “established.” Not the best thing for the plant. Still I hear “I’m gonna come see ya’ll next spring” during the fall and winter months. The optimum planting time.
The venerable J.B. Holt once told me, “Anybody can sell plants during spring.” That is when pretty much everybody notices the flowers and new growth appearing, so it is an easy sell. Naturally, the Megamarts and big nurseries know this as the absolute best time to cash in. These guys have the means to buy advertising to bombard the general public, most of whom have little or no knowledge of Nature’s cycles but do want the shade, interest, and beauty the plant world offers. I don’t blame them. However, I do blame those in the industry who fail to use the power of marketing to educate the public. They (especially the one-stop-shopping Megamarts) sell other products in all seasons so they look at spring as a nice little extra cash flow from the “gardening center.”
But perhaps the worst drawback to this pervasive “spring thing” myth is that we now have young novice gardeners who think they should dig and transplant trees, shrubs, and long living