Growing a Bare Root Hosta | How Hard is it?

A bare root hosta ready to plant

When most people think of planting and growing hostas, they don’t think of starting from a bare root hosta. Instead, they usually buy a small hosta plant or divide some of their larger hostas and plant them in shady areas of their yards and gardens.

But, if you’re like me, you’re always up for trying new things with your hostas, starting with a hosta bare root can be a welcome challenge. I’ve found that growing and planting bare root hostas isn’t as difficult as I feared it would be, and I want to share the process with you.

I’ll go over how to care for your new bare root hostas, when and how to plant them, growing requirements, and more. My goal is to give you everything you need to know about hosta roots so you can apply it to your own yard and have great success with beautiful and full plants.

Defining Bare Root Hostas

What is a bare root hosta? The simple answer is that it’s exactly what it sounds like. Normally, when you buy a hosta, you’ll get a plant in soil that you then transplant into your yard. With bare root hosta plants, there is no soil on the roots when the plants get shipped straight to you. Each bare root hosta is mature and large, and every plant gets wrapped protectively before shipping.

I like bare root hostas because I’ve found that having healthy bare roots can give the plant a boost or head start when you plant them. The difference between these types of hostas and more traditional ones is that these hosta roots had a chance to develop unrestricted. They’re stronger and more likely to take off and establish themselves quickly.

Hosta Bulbs vs Hosta Rhizomes – What’s the Difference?

Contrary to popular belief hosta bulbs aren’t actually a thing. Instead, they’re hosta rhizomes. But, what’s the difference between the two? This is where a lot of people get confused, and it took me a while to remember that hosta bulbs don’t exist. You’ll find this out quick when you start talking to hosta enthusiasts.

Bulbs

A bulb has an embryo in it for the new plant. If you cut a cross section lengthwise, you’d see a tiny flower or stem with fleshy modified leaves encircling it. These leaves are called scales, and they act like food reserves for the plant embryo.

Surprisingly, there are two types of bulbs. The first type is like an onion. It comes with an onion-like skin on it called a tunic. The second type comes with overlapping scales like garlic with no outer skin. You propagate this second type by dividing bulbils off the bulb and storing them until the next planting season or replanting them.

Rhizomes

A hosta rhizome is a stem that grows horizontally. Rhizomes do grow underground, and they usually have a thicker stem that they use for nutrient storage. They have buds or eyes that will appear along the sides and tops that grow upwards to produce new foliage and stems.

There are some rhizomes that are fleshy like you’d find with the Iris plant, and others are elongated and slender with internodes like you’d find on Bermuda grass. You’ll cut sections with at least one plant and eye to propagate them.

Why People Call Them Hosta Bulbs

If you hear people referring to hosta bulbs, they’re most likely talking about new or baby plants. Since they can look like bulbs, it makes sense that people assume hosta bulbs are a thing. Most people have no idea what a hosta rhizome is, or they’ve never heard of it.

This can lead to a lot of confusion, and many people use the term “hosta bulb” interchangeably. Most people won’t correct them, but you now know that it’s actually a hosta rhizome. Each plant isn’t a new embryo, and they don’t have scales to make up a food supply.

How to Care for Your Newly Arrived Bare Root Hostas

When you order bare root hostas, they normally come shipped to you in a box wrapped in plastic. You don’t want to leave them in the plastic for a long period because they can rot fairly easily. So, it’s important that you know how to care for your new hosta roots until you’re ready to plant them.

Open the box and carefully pull out your plants one by one. You’ll de-tangle the roots and inspect each plant to ensure that they’re in good shape. If you see broken roots, you can carefully prune them off. Leaving a dead root to rot attached to the plant is inviting disease. If the plants look too brittle, dry, or it’s dried out so much that it can’t recover, pitch it.

Any roots that are soft, mushy, or have a smell have rot. You don’t want these near your healthy plants. I either burn them or throw them in the trash. Don’t put them in your compost piles because they don’t get hot enough to kill the fungus that can cause disease in your bare root hostas. Also, don’t bury the diseased plants because this can cause a problem too.

Check and see if the packaging around the roots is moist. If it feels dry, you’ll want to sprinkle it with water to moisten it. Don’t saturate the roots or packaging. Ideally, you’ll be ready to plant your hosta roots within a day or two of getting them. If you have a delay, keep the plants in their packaging (minus the outer plastic bag) and put them in a cool, dry place.

Don’t allow your bare root hostas to freeze, and keep the roots moist. Right before you plant them, remove your hosta roots from the packaging and place them in a bucket of tepid water. They’ll stay here for 30 to 60 minutes, but it shouldn’t exceed two or three hours.

When to Plant Bare Root Hostas

Bare root hosta plants are herbaceous perennials. They’ll come back to your garden for several years, and they don’t have a woody stem like you’d get with a shrub or tree. Because they’re herbaceous perennials, you can grow them from bare roots or start in a container.

Ideally, planting bare root hostas should take place in spring and early summer. The goal is to give the plant enough time to establish itself before the summer heat and humidity comes around. When you plant your hostas roots will depend on your location, and they do best in zones 3 to 9.

Best Time To Plant Hostas

Zone

Optimal Planting Time

Zone 3

May 1 to May 31

Zone 4

May 1 to May 31

Zone 5

March 30 to April 30

Zone 6

March 30 to April 30

Zone 7

March 30 to April 30

Zone 8

February 22 to March 30

Zone 9

January 30 to February 28

Zones 9 and 8 usually mimic a more tropical environment, and hostas are tropical plants. This is why their planting season is so early in the year compared to zones 3 to 7. The goal is to wait until the last frost goes out in the spring and get your bare root hostas into the ground as early as possible so they have time to establish themselves and grow.

How to Plant Bare Root Hostas

I realized that planting bare hosta roots is slightly different than planting a more traditional plant. You’ll want to make sure that the soil conditions are right for your plant. This means that you’ll need a freely-draining organic soil that is slightly acidic.

Most backyard soils won’t meet these criteria on their own, so you’ll have to amend them before you start planting bare root hostas. You can mix in pumice, pine or fir bark, gravel, perlite, or sand to help with drainage. For organic additives, I like to add in peat moss, leaf mold, compost, coir, or manure. The pH should fall between 6.5 and 7.5.

Planting Bare Root Hostas in the Ground

Once you amend the soil, you’ll plant your bare root hostas one to two-inches deep. The plant’s crown is the area where the roots all come together, and the goal is to keep the growth that comes out of the crown at the surface level or just above it. You can plant them directly in the ground in the spring or early summer, as I demonstrated with the planting zone table above.

When you get the hosta roots in the soil and backfill it, you can water it lightly. I like to apply a small amount of 10-10-10 fertilizer at this stage to give the hostas roots a nutrient boost to encourage healthy growth.

Planting Bare Root Hostas in Pots

Maybe you want to start your bare root hostas in a pot before transplanting them in the ground at a later date, or you want to leave them in the pots indefinitely. To plant it in a pot temporarily, you’ll get an organic potting mix that drains freely. Put your bare root hosta into the plant until the crown is just at surface level or a little above it, just like you would if you planted them in the ground.

Back fill the soil, press it lightly in place, and give it a good watering. Keep an eye on your hosta roots. When they give you plenty of top growth and there is a firm root system, you can transplant them into the ground. I’ve found that this is usually four to six weeks after I initially put them in the pots.

To grow your hostas permanently in pots using bare root hostas, you’ll start by picking out the correct sized pot. Leave two to three inches of room between the plant and container, and get a high-quality potting mix. Plant them just like I outlined above for temporary pot placement. You will most likely have to replant them in a year or two as they outgrow the pot.

How Long Do Bare Root Hostas Take to Grow?

Generally speaking, hosta rhizomes take four to ten weeks to start growing with temperatures hovering between 35 and 40°F for them to grow well during the following growing season. This is the vernalization period, and it’s why many people plant their hostas in the fall before the first frost.

When you plant your hosta roots in a container during the spring the spring, you can generally expect to see growth between six to eight weeks. Bare root hostas planted in the ground my take several more weeks to show emerging growth, as garden soils typically take longer to warm up.

They’ll expand and grow to showcase soft and tender leaves. These leaves are attractive to slugs, so make sure to monitor your plants closely. Your hostas most likely won’t get very large during the first growing season because they’re still establishing themselves.

How to Store Bare Root Hostas over Winter

You can allow your hostas to winter in the ground or you can store them in containers. One method involves cutting the tops of your hostas off with sterilized shears in the fall. You’ll dig out the root mass and hang them upside down in an airy space before wrapping the root mass in paper and storing in a dark place with 50% humidity at between 50 and 55°F.

Another method involves digging a small pit in your yard that is below the frost line, digging up your hosta roots, and backfilling it with loose, dry leaves or straw. Cover it with a tarp or soil until the frost recedes. You can also dig out your bare root hosta plants after you cut them back and hang them up to dry. Bury the dried hosta roots in a box of barely moistened sand or peat until spring.

I like to leave my hostas in the ground for winter. I just cut them back in the fall and let them go dormant when the frost rolls in. They survive just fine and I see new growth in early spring.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do you soak the hosta roots before you plant them?

Your hosta roots should stay moist until you’re ready to plant them, and it’s a good idea to give them a short soak in a tub of water before they go into the ground. Soaking them can help encourage a much stronger start for each plant.

Will bare root hostas bloom the first year?

I wouldn’t count on seeing flowers on your hosta plants the first year. When planting out a large lot of hostas some do flower the first year. These are more likely to be the smaller, fast growing plants, not your large or giant hostas. Generally speaking, I’ve found that the plants use this year to get their root system established. So, you should see good leaf growth, but flowers should not be expected.

What is the crown of the hosta plant?

The crown is the point on your bare root hosta where all of the roots come together. It’s usually very easy to spot. This is the area on the plant that you want to be at soil level or slightly above it when you plant it, either in the ground or in containers.

Closing Thoughts

So, is it difficult to grow bare hosta roots? Personally, I don’t think so. It’s an economic way to get a larger amount of plants, and there aren’t that many additional steps to getting them in the ground and establishing root systems. If you’re on the fence, give it a try! You will be impressed with the performance of a bare root hosta in the second year!