Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bare Root Fruit Tree Shopping? Buyer Beware!

Mid-winter is bare root fruit tree shopping time here. And who can't resist a bargain? This is the time of year to find truly inexpensive, fruit or nut-bearing trees.

And gardeners on a budget might start their shopping at the big box stores, where many bare root trees are priced under $20.

But beware. 

Unlike local, independent nurseries that tend to stock fruit and nut varieties that perform well in your locale, the box stores get in varieties that may be better off at their sister box the desert.

Case in point:
 Last Wednesday, I shopped the nursery section at a local big box store in Elk Grove (Sacramento County, CA) and a locally owned, independent nursery. The bare root fruit trees available at the box store took up about six pallets, approximately 20 trees per pallet, each with their root ball encased in a sealed plastic bag. 

If you read the blog post about choosing and planting bare root fruit trees, you know that examining the roots is an important selection criteria. You're looking for healthy roots! Kinda hard to do that when the roots are in plastic.
There were only 5 peach and nectarine varieties available at the box store: Florida Prince peach, Early Elberta peach, Earli Grande peach, Panamint nectarine and Gold Mine Nectarine.
To the casual shopper, the reaction might be: "Oh boy, peaches and nectarines!"
But to the Sacramento-area gardener who came armed with a copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book or the online catalog of wholesale fruit tree grower Dave Wilson Nursery, the reaction is probably: "These are all low chill varieties, better suited to the desert!"
Yep, it is not unusual for the sales staff at the headquarters for a large chain store to choose fruit tree varieties based on price and appropriateness for the majority of its customers (lots more people down in So Cal). Hence, their selections may include trees better suited for warmer winter areas. Or, someone at big box store headquarters thinks Sacramento is in the desert.

Fruit trees need a certain number of "chill hours" during the winter in order to induce dormancy to allow them to produce well the following spring and summer. A "chill hour" is any hour below 45 degrees, between November and February. 

Here in the Central Valley, 600-800 chill hours are normal. Right now, in late January, the total chill hours for parts of Sacramento County is nearly 900 hours. That total is plenty for most peach and nectarine varieties, including the tastiest ones. 

In Southern California, "chill hours" don't amount to much. Many parts of Los Angeles and Orange County right now have accumulated less than 200 chill hours. So, the only deciduous fruit trees that succeed there are the ones with low-chill requirements.
"Most low chill varieties don't have great taste," says Ed Laivo of wholesale grower Devil Mountain Nursery. "They give up flavor to be a low chill variety."

And sure enough, if you check out the Dave Wilson Nursery fruit taste test results, you won't find any of those big box store peach and nectarine varieties in the Top 10. Or the Top 20. 

The fruit taste tests have been conducted at Dave Wilson Nursery since 1993, with a panel of several dozen taste testers sampling up to 30 fruits at each setting. And they're not just the varieties sold by Dave Wilson Nursery. Over 1600 varieties of fruit have been taste tested over the years.

 The False Allure of Low Prices

The casual gardener shopping at the box store may also note the bare root fruit tree price tag, "$15.99", and be willing to give it a try at that comparatively low amount.
But how happy will that casual gardener be with those selections in a few years, if no one will be pleased with the taste or production?

Down the street at the local nursery, the price for a bare root peach or nectarine tree is approaching $25-30. But at that local nursery, the selection is much better. On the day I was shopping, the local nursery had 22 peach varieties and 16 nectarine varieties! Most, if not all, were trees that would thrive here locally, producing fruit that has scored high in fruit taste tests, including the top winners in Dave Wilson Nursery's overall scorecard: the Arctic Jay white nectarine, Indian Free white peach, Snow Queen white nectarine, O'Henry peach and the Arctic Supreme white peach.

Dave Wilson Nursery Fruit Tasting Results
At the local nursery, there was no plastic wrap guarding a root inspection of their bare root fruit and nut trees. As at many local nurseries, the roots of bare root fruit trees are plunged into a moist mix of sawdust and compost. A customer can easily pluck out a tree and examine the roots (you're looking for moist, plump, healthy roots).

Another reason to avoid low-chill requirement fruit trees, if you can: they tend to bloom too early. A fruit or nut tree that blooms too soon (January) in Northern California is asking for a whipping from the rest of the winter storms that come in February and March. The spread of rain-borne disease spores such as brown rot is increased when the blossoms are exposed.

So, when is a bare root fruit tree bargain not a bargain? When it's not the right tree for the right place. 

Whenever shopping for trees, shrubs, annuals or perennials, toting along a copy of the Sunset Western Garden book or calling up a good online reference on your smart phone is good plant insurance.


  1. Wonderful information!!!

  2. For some reason I've never been able to figure out how many chill hours we get here. This is good info for me to have. Love your blog!

  3. Ah-ha ! I've never found good info on local chill hours & had trouble with ordering berries & trees that were meant for warmer climes. Since I'm looking into adding to my blueberry patch, this info will help a lot !

  4. I am so glad I read this! Im looking to buy about 8 trees. Citrus, fruits and an Olive tree. Thanks for the great advice!

  5. LauraBee, if you live in the warm areas of California, choose the southern highbush varieties of blueberries. They do great here! More info:

  6. Fred, I couldn't agree more! I'm a long time garden employee of a big box. This year our selection of "bareroot" stock in particularly
    disapointing. I make sure my customers check the Western Garden Book for favored varieties. I also post your monthly to-dos and refer them to your programs. thanks for all your info!

  7. I've bought from big box, independent nurseries, and online specialists. Your blog is too generalizing. Local nurseries don't grow the stock they sell, they order just like big box stores. What is the difference between a 5 gallon pulp pot Elberta peach grown by Dave Wilson and bought at the big box or local nursery? Just the price usually. Local nurseries do have greater selection, however both local nursery and big box stores will special order what you want usually. For ordering online I suggest people check the "garden watchdog" at Dave's garden website. It's customer reviewed online nurseries.

  8. To Anonymous... While your point that there are not a lot of differences in the trees if they are the same variety is true, the local garden center orders their trees, usually from a local grower, and they look for something that will perform well in their area to insure success for their customers. A lot of the box store buying is done in volume from one location for regions located in several different climate zones. I don't think a lot of thought goes into that process other than a peach or a nectarine and a price that can be sold as inexpensively as possible.

    As Fred mentioned, take along the Sunset Western Book or other materials that can be researched online when you shop for your fruit trees. If you are one that has some knowledge and have done the research, you may well find a gem here or there in the box store.

    If you are not sure, I would bet that your local independent nursery or garden center has people on staff with the knowledge to help. plus they probably have tasted the fruits available and favorite selections that can help you plant something spectacular instead of "just a peach or nectarine"

  9. What about the rootstock? That is just as important as the variety of fruit that is grafted on to it. If you buy a tree with a rootstock that likes well drained soil for a backyard with heavy soil then that is just as bad as buying a low chill variety for a high chill area. Don't buy trees unless you know the scion/rootstock is right for your backyard.

    I disagree with the idea that there aren't many good tasting low chill varieties. Glancing at the list that is provided Flavor King, Dapple Dandy, and Snow Queen all require 400 hours or less. That is three of the top ten. They all do well in my San Diego backyard.

    I agree with everything else. It is an eye opener for anyone blindly buying fruit trees at a big box store or local nursery.

  10. See this blog post for thorough fruit tree rootstock info:

  11. This is one of the best articles I've read in along time...Great Info Fred!

  12. where can i get about a 20ft. queen palm near Folsom ca. and about how much would it cost. Any suggestions would be helpful. Thank you

  13. What nursery is the picture with the bare root trees?

    1. I would love to know that too. I haven't bough a tree since Baker Nursery went out of business 2 years ago. They were the last nursery in the Northern Sacramento I-80 area that I have found to have trees in sawdust

  14. Advice given is fine for the area you are in, but not if you live in a coastal area where low chill requirements for fruit trees are a must.

  15. I live in a desert — in the same planting zone as Elk Grove.