OK, they weren’t actually magic beans, what I bought last spring from Burgess were several bare root trees delivered through the mail. Might as well have been magic beans, and maybe if I’d believed fervently in what Burgess told me about them they would have grown far into the sky and I’d be selling produce to the giants. But, I doubt it. If you want good planting stock I have a recommendation at the bottom of this article.
In fairness to Burgess, I did have similar problems with Tractor Supply Company when I bought two peach trees from them as bagged saplings, the sort that come with a little hamburger style cylindrical plastic bag around the roots that’s full of peat to keep the roots moist. I took the peach trees back to Tractor Supply and got a refund, and after some email quarrels with Burgess I got a refund for the trees I bought from them (less the cost of shipping them back). I’m not sure if the Tractor Supply trees were guaranteed to live for a year, but the Burgess trees were, and that’s pretty standard. Even the bagged strawberry plants Walmart sells every year are guaranteed to live, even though they are almost always dead when you buy them. This is something that really bothers me about nursery companies. That guarantee is a huge scam.
The deal is this. Plants are guaranteed to live, and when it’s something like a vine or a fruit tree the guarantee is usually for a year. Strawberries are perennials and probably the guarantee is the same for them. But! it’s not a money-back guarantee unless you return the plants within a few days, maybe 30, the standard store return policy. I returned my trees this year right away, after venting my complaints with these companies. They sold me doomed trees.
Tractor Supply was nice to me. I brought the trees back, still with the peat packed around them, and waited 15 minutes for the manager to show up. I pulled one out of the package to show him why I was bringing them back and I expected an argument, but to his credit he just pulled back and said, Oh!
Neither peach tree had any undamaged roots. Bare root stock must have a plentiful amount of feeder roots, the tiny hair-like roots that actually sip nourishment from the soil, or they won’t survive. These trees were badly mangled, ripped from the ground by a machine probably, and all the feeder roots were gone. Plus, the remaining stump was cut and scarred and wounded in all sorts of ways. The top of the tree looked pretty good, with live buds and green bark. But the tree itself was doomed. Anything that badly damaged will die. Actually what will happen, if you follow directions and plant it carefully and water it with true devotion, is that for a couple of weeks you will see activity. A few buds will open. A few leaves will appear and give you hope. Then it will falter, and you will water it with Miraclegro and blame Miraclegro for killing it, when it expires. You might even continue to water and tend it, for weeks, expecting that it will recover, and it will not. When you bought it, it was already fatally wounded, and then it died. I’ve been through this, back in the days when I trusted nursery companies. In my early days of gardening and farming I would blame myself for failures of this sort. The company said this would work, and if it didn’t, I must have done something wrong. That was my thinking long ago, and I never ever claimed compensation through the guarantee because I thought the blame was mine.
Wrong thinking. If you experience this, it’s the company to blame. Keep your shipping label or your receipt and follow through on the guarantee, because that’s all you will get. Even that is a scam, companies know full well most people won’t keep the paperwork or will lose it within a year. If you do file a claim, all you get is a replacement plant and likely it will be in the same sorry condition and then you will have wasted not just one but two growing seasons and a lot of pointless work. Plus, the company made money and you wasted it.
My experience with Burgess was not so good. I took photos of the plants they sent me and wrote them an irate letter. They told me if I planted the trees they’d be fine, and if they died they would replace them, should I have the paperwork a year from now. I pointed out that they didn’t actually send me trees, they sent me sticks. I’ve been around awhile, I’m not stupid and I know those sticks won’t live. Burgess didn’t even pack them right, just stuck the sticks in a plastic bag with holes in it, and the sticks were drying out when they got here. If Burgess had cared they would have sent me a new set of plants properly packed. Burgess didn’t care and suggested I just send the plants back and get a refund minus shipping. They were really snotty about it, too. So I did, and I packed the dying sticks carefully, in wrappings of damp paper inside the plastic shipping bag like all the mail order companies used to do, and included a note explaining why. I even packed the ones I thought might have a chance of living in peat, in open plastic bags. Grrrrr.
When you buy bare root stock, you are taking a chance. If trees are dug carefully and shipped properly as bare root stock, they have a good chance of living. Some trees and plants are very hardy in this sense and some are not. One of the trees I ordered from Burgess was a pawpaw and pawpaw trees are notorious for dying after transplant. The feeder roots are delicate flat ribbons and are easily damaged. I grow pawpaws from seed and transplant them with the original dirt and my success rate is about twenty percent. Burgess sold me a pawpaw stick and told me it would grow if I devoted a year of my time to it. I was angry. There was only one tree, a Manchurian Apricot, in that shipment that I thought had a fair chance to live, and I sent it back also because I was mad.
Over the decades I’ve done this, I have wasted a lot of money on bare root stock. The companies selling these plants benefited from my business. I think a lot of the problem started when companies shifted to machine diggers rather than digging by hand. Machines are fast, but they do a terrible job and ruin many of the trees. The companies ship those trees anyway, because most buyers read the guarantee, lose the paperwork, and in the end blame themselves for any failure. Easy money.
By the time all this hassle was finished last year, it was near the end of the good planting season. I still wanted a couple of peach trees, and I got two of the last available potted trees Walmart had. I checked the root quality as I was planting them, and they looked fine, were grown in the same pots in which they were sold. I watered them either every few days or every day, all summer, because they hadn’t had a chance to establish themselves early on. At the end of the summer they still looked pretty good. It’s a gamble but I think both will get through the winter and next year I might see some real growth. Bought them both for half price, glad I did.
I’m sure there are good companies out there. I know of one, Ison’s.
Ison’s Nursery and Vineyard in Brooks, Georgia, has been good to me, even though I complained once. I’m a Deep South person transplanted north and I’m always trying to grow southern varieties here even though it takes a lot of messing around and often fails. Most of my muscadines came from Ison’s as bare root stock and all the muscadine failures I’ve had came from my own inexperience. I was never unhappy with the plants I got, except for one red kiwi variety that I doubted from the start because to me the top looked dead. I gave it chance, cared for it as I did the others, never saw a leaf or even an open bud in the springtime. I emailed Ison’s, did not hear back from them for a few days, emailed them again and said, Hey! You sold me a dead kiwi vine. Ison’s was politer than I was, sent me a new plant. It lived for awhile and then died but I blame this on the variety not being compatible with conditions here. It was a healthy plant when I got it, and the other kiwis have survived although it is a struggle to grow them here, in this heavy Indiana clay.
Ison’s sells bare root stock, properly packed and shipped. I’ve actually planted things from Ison’s according to their directions, by chopping a hole in frozen ground in January, and everything but the red kiwi lived (and it was dead already). Since then, I disregard instructions and transplant the bare root stock to pots of potting soil for the first summer and then when the plants have a good start I transplant them to actual ground in the fall, which is a much better time to transplant trees and vines, in the north. Anyone buying bare root stock today should consider doing this because it’s like putting plants in plant hospital and saves considerable labor. Ison’s also sells plants in pots. It will cost you more, and shipping is higher, but if you want the best chance of success, that is the way to go. I’m currently making a list. So far I know I want a Black Beauty muscadine, and if they have a grafted pawpaw I will take a chance on that. All my pawpaws are random wild trees, grown from seed, but if I have a prime grafted variety, I can change that.