Naked-root Strawberries vs. Plugs: Which is Higher?

Planting strawberries presents an overwhelming number of options: You must decide between June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral types. Then, you need to select a variety from the nearly 600 strawberry species and cultivars available worldwide. Finally, you must choose how you want to establish your berry patch. Bare-root crowns and plugs are the most commonly available strawberry propagation material, but which is better for your garden?

Bare-root strawberry crowns are dormant plants with naked roots and little to no green leafy growth. In contrast, plugs are established seedlings with several leaves growing from cell trays filled with soil. Both types of plants are ready to grow in your garden, but they differ in price, speed of growth, shipping or local availability, storage capacity, and planting method.

Let’s examine everything you need to know about bare-root strawberries vs. plugs, including the pros and cons of each.

The Short Answer

Bare-root strawberries are the cheapest option, with the most varietal availability. Because the crowns are dormant and soil-less, they are easy to order online for shipment to your home. The crowns take slightly longer to establish and require a little extra knowledge to store and plant them properly. Strawberry plugs are more like vegetable seedling cell trays, arriving with leaves and roots actively growing. They are better suited to beginners, but they can be more expensive, and your varietal options are limited to local nursery stock.

Both types of propagative material can yield equally abundant, delicious strawberries. The decision to plant one over the other is mostly based on price and planting methods. If you want to grow a lot of strawberries of a unique variety, bare-root crowns are best. But if you prefer a quick-and-easy planting for a smaller amount of plants, strawberry plugs are recommended.

What is the Difference Between Bare-root and Plug Strawberries?

Plug strawberries are already green and growing with established roots in soil-filled containers. Bare-root strawberries are dormant, leafless, and soil-less, but they are typically cheaper than plugs.

Comparison Table

Bare-root Strawberries Strawberry Plugs
More varieties available online Varieties limited to local nursery supply
Cheapest option for lots of plants More expensive and better for small volume of plants
Roots shipped without soil Plants rooted in soil
Arrive dormant with little to no actively growing leaves Thoroughly rooted with several sets of green, growing leaves
Can be stored in refrigerator to wait for planting Must be stored in greenhouse or windowsill if you cannot plant right away
Requires a little extra planting knowledge Transplant just like vegetable seedlings
Plant in late winter or early spring Wait until the risk of frost has passed
Generally plastic-free Typically grown in plastic nursery containers

The Long Answer

Bare-root strawberries and plugs require careful selection and planting for optimal growth and yield.

Once established, strawberry plants are very easy to care for. You can grow juicy strawberries in raised beds, hanging baskets, or pots, but you must first choose the right planting stock to ensure a season of continuously abundant yields. Improper planting, timing, or varietal selection can be detrimental to your berry growing efforts.

These herbaceous low-growing plants are different from other garden fruits and vegetables because they grow from crowns. Sometimes, you can purchase the crowns pre-rooted in cell trays that look similar to vegetable seedlings. These rooted young strawberry plants are called plugs, and they are commonly available at nurseries. 

However, most strawberries are sold as bare-root plants. Much like fruit trees or shrubs, bare-root plants have been lifted from the ground and shipped without any soil attached to their roots. They are usually in a dormant state when they arrive in your garden and ready to grow as soon as you put them in the ground. 

As a strawberry-obsessed backyard gardener and former organic farmer, I am pro-bare-root because they’re affordable and vigorous. With a little knowledge of the crown anatomy, you can easily plant dozens of strawberry plants for tremendous harvests. Still, many growers prefer plugs for their ease of handling and similarity to vegetable seedlings. 

Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each so you can start your berry patch with a bang!

What are Bare-root Strawberries?

A close-up reveals a bare root strawberry nestled low on the ground, awaiting planting. Its vibrant green leaves shimmer in the sunlight, promising future growth and juicy fruit to come.These strawberries are reliable and cost-effective in commercial berry farming.

Bare-root strawberries are dormant crowns shipped without any soil on their roots. The plants sometimes have small buds or stems of green growth but generally lack leaves or any signs of growth. 

Although they look like dead alien-shaped roots with bad haircuts, rest assured that bare-root strawberries are a very reliable planting material. They are popular on commercial berry farms because it is cheaper to purchase them in large quantities. Once you get the hang of planting bare-roots at the proper depth, this propagation material is very rewarding to work with.

Pros and Cons of Bare-root

The benefits of bare-root crowns make them the most popular option amongst professional growers. However, they can be a little more difficult for beginners because of their special storage, dormancy, and planting requirements.

Pros

Most Affordable

Transparent container holding murky water and bare-root strawberry plants, their delicate roots visible. Placed on a weathered wooden table, the juxtaposition of growth and decay evokes a sense of resilience amidst neglect.Bare-root crowns are cheaper and easy to transport.

If you want to plant a large number of berry plants, bare-root crowns are the way to go. Strawberry crowns are typically more affordable than plugs. The unrooted specimens are dug up from mother plants after they go dormant in the fall. The crowns are easy to package and transport, which makes them cheaper.

More Varieties Available Online

A close-up view reveals the intricate network of bare roots, stark against the blurred backdrop. Their jet-black hue glistens with moisture, hinting at their vitality and readiness to anchor and nourish a thriving plant above.The bare-root strawberries are less prone to shipping damage compared to soil plugs.

There are over 600 varieties of strawberries worldwide, and many rare or unique types are difficult to find in brick-and-mortar nurseries. Because bare crowns are so easy to ship, you can select from a much wider array of choices through online stores. 

After growing thousands of strawberry plants, I’ve found that online sourcing makes it far easier to get the exact varieties and quantities I want to grow. This is particularly notable if you wish to try out strange or unique berries, like ‘Purple Wonder’ or ‘White Alpine.’ Unusual varieties are rarely available at standard garden stores, so you must order them online and have them shipped to your home. 

As you can imagine, soil plugs are much messier and heavier to ship. Bare-roots are lightweight, easy to package, and already in a dormant state, so they are less likely to be damaged in shipping.

Dormancy and Planting Time

A bare root strawberry plant lies nestled in rich, dark soil, ready to sprout life. Its tender shoots stretch upwards, yearning for the warm embrace of the sun, eager to unfold their delicate leaves.Strawberries require protection from freezes to prevent injury to leaves and buds.

You can plant bare-root crowns in the fall, late winter, or early spring, depending on your climate. In contrast, plant plugs later in the spring when the weather has thoroughly warmed. This is because the bare-root plants are usually still in dormancy when they arrive at your doorstep. They can handle harsher weather because their tender leaves are not yet actively growing. 

Remember, strawberries are frost-tolerant plants, but they can only handle freezes when they are dormant. Frost can easily injure the leaves, buds, and blossoms. In northern regions, the most common time to plant bare-root day-neutral strawberries is in the spring, a few weeks before the expected last frost. This could jumpstart growth, but the plants may still need frost protection (like row cover) if they break bud too soon.

Cons

Improper Planting Can Kill Them

Strawberry plugs nestled snugly in holes punctured through black fabric, offering a glimpse of vibrant red amidst the dark weave. The lush bed of fruit finds its home within the confines of a sturdy black wooden structure, promising abundant harvests.Plants with bare-roots require more water for establishment.

Crowns are the most susceptible to improper planting because the gardener must understand the anatomy of a strawberry plant. If the crown is buried too deep, it may rot or fail to grow. But if it is planted too shallowly, the roots may dry out, and the plant can topple over.

Bare-rooted plants generally need more water to get established because they must regrow all of their roots and foliage. It’s important that the soil doesn’t dry out or become soggy. Generally, plugs are easier to irrigate because they are more adaptable to stress.

More Difficult for Beginners 

A close-up of a brown pot filled with strawberry seedlings nestled in rich, dark soil. In the blurred background, green grasses provide a natural setting, enhancing the sense of growth and renewal.Ensure soil covers the bottom third of the crown of bare-root strawberries.

Beginners often think bare-root strawberries are dead because of their barren appearance. In reality, they are just “hibernating” in dormancy. As soon as they’re planted, the crowns will send up new green shoots and strong fibrous roots.

However, this requires special handling at planting. While plugs can be planted at the exact same soil level as they were in their containers, you must plant bare-roots carefully at the proper depth.

A strawberry crown has three main parts:

  1. Top/Leaves: The part of the crown where leaves will sprout. Some bare-roots arrive with green leaves, but others may have brown, wilted leaves or none at all. This is OK as long as there is no mold.
  2. Crown: The middle of the bare-root strawberry plant is woody and rounded. It is the source of all growth—shoots grow from the top, and roots grow from the bottom. The crown must be planted partially above ground and half below.
  3. Roots: The roots anchor the plants in the ground and allow them to develop runners, fruit, and leaves above.

When planting bare-root strawberries, you must ensure that the soil level properly covers the bottom third of the crown so the roots are thoroughly buried and anchored in the soil. The upper two-thirds of the crown should be above the soil surface so the growing tips can emerge as soon as the weather warms and the plants break dormancy.

This propagation material is also challenging for beginners because it can be difficult to tell if the crowns are dead or just dormant. Some people panic when their bare strawberries arrive because they look dead, and sometimes, you don’t know that the crowns are dead until you plant them and they fail to grow. 

Mushy roots or blackened crowns are key indicators that bare-roots are dead. In contrast, dormant plants may lack green growth, but the roots and crown will be tan or brown, with firm tissues and no rotten parts. 

Storage is Important

A collection of strawberry plug plants, nestled closely together in a container, showcasing their lush green leaves and delicate roots. These young plants are patiently awaiting their next journey, poised to thrive once transplanted into their new home.Store strawberry crowns in a breathable container in the fridge until planting.

Ideally, plant bare-root crowns ASAP. If your strawberry crowns arrive before the ground is workable, you must store them properly to prevent rot. Rot is the biggest enemy of this propagation material. 

They typically arrive in rubber-banded bundles in small packages. It’s important to unbundle them immediately and lay them out on moist paper towels for airflow. Immediately check for any signs of mold or fungal growth and remove any infected specimens to prevent spread.

Place the dormant crowns in a breathable box or bag in the refrigerator until you’re ready to plant. The refrigeration ensures they don’t break out of their dormancy until they are ready to go outside.

Maintaining the right balance of moisture can take some extra TLC. The crowns should be slightly damp but not soggy. You also don’t want them to fully dry out, as this can kill them. A dead crown will feel brittle or mushy.

Pro Tip: When it’s time to pull crowns out of storage, soak the roots in a diluted kelp and water solution to rehydrate them and encourage quick establishment.

What are Strawberry Plugs?

A close-up of a strawberry plug plant showcases green leaves with intricate veins, suggesting robust growth. The serrated edges of the leaves imply readiness for photosynthesis, promising healthy development and eventual fruit-bearing.Young strawberry plugs can be planted like vegetable seedlings.

Strawberry plugs are fully rooted, growing strawberry plants typically sold in 4-cell or 6-cell trays. The young fruiting plants have several sets of green leaves and established roots in a soil blend. Plant them just like vegetable seedlings by digging a hole, placing the plug inside, and backfilling to the same soil level as the container.

Pros and Cons of Plugs

Plugs are the best option for beginners because they’re easy to handle. However, they are more expensive and more limited in varietal availability.

Pros

Easy to Handle

A hand gently cradles a strawberry plug plant, promising future fruitfulness. In the backdrop, orderly rows of black seedling trays stretch into the distance, each harboring the potential of a thriving garden.Transplanting strawberry plugs is effortless as they arrive in trays.

Strawberry plugs are easy to handle because they arrive in trays that are ready to plant with ease. These plugs will remind you of the same seedling starts you use for vegetable plants. Transplanting is a breeze because you can dig a hole and place the rooted plug inside without worrying too much about the crown. As long as you backfill the soil to the same level it was at in the container, the plants will take off growing fairly quickly.

Plugs also require less water than bare-roots. Since their fibrous root system is already in the soil-filled cell, they are slightly more resilient to infrequent warming. Still, it’s best to keep your strawberries consistently moist during the establishment phase.

No Special Storage

A strawberry plug plant, its delicate green leaves reaching out eagerly, nestled against the rich, dark soil below. The promise of juicy red berries to come, a symbol of nature's bounty and the joys of summer gardening.Strawberry plugs need temperatures around 45°F for safe transplanting.

As long as the soil is about 45°F (7°C), you can plant strawberry plugs right after you buy them. But if the ground is frozen or unworkable, you must keep the plugs indoors. They don’t require the special post-shipment handling of bare-roots, but they do need a sunny windowsill or greenhouse to continue growing while they await transplanting. 

Cons

More Expensive

Vibrant strawberry seedlings bask in the warm sunlight, nestled within black pots. The pots neatly align within pristine white plastic trays, offering a clean and organized arrangement for nurturing these delicate plants.Growing strawberries from plugs requires more resources and time.

Rooting and growing plugs takes more time, effort, and materials. This is why trays of established strawberries tend to be much more expensive than bare-roots. This can be fine if you are growing a small amount of plants. A half-dozen or a dozen plugs won’t break the bank. 

But if you want to grow a larger berry patch or share fruits with your neighbor, you will definitely want to purchase bare-roots. You can also plant the bare-roots in your own nursery and sell or give away the plugs!

Limited Varietal Selection

A close-up of a strawberry plug, showcasing its delicate leaves and intricate network of roots. In the backdrop, rows of budding strawberry seedlings blur into a promising landscape of future harvests.Purchasing online becomes essential to acquire unique varieties of strawberry plugs.

When shopping for plugs, you will be limited to the cultivars available at your local garden store or nursery. Although some sources ship strawberry plugs, it is more difficult to handle and ship rooted plants with soil. Soil is heavy and messy, which usually limits plug-cell trays to brick-and-mortar shopping.

Wild strawberries and rare pineapple-flavored berry cultivars may not be available at standard nurseries because they typically offer a select few varieties that are the most popular for gardeners. If you want to grow a unique type, you’ll likely have to order bare-roots online.

Later Planting

Several young strawberry plants with green leaves and delicate white flowers blooming. Their promising growth suggests a healthy environment, likely rich, dark soil providing ample nutrients for their development and flourishing in the garden.Plant green-growth plugs with buds after the frost risk to prevent damage.

Since plugs already have green growth, buds, and sometimes flowers, wait to plant them after the risk of frost. Strawberries are frost-hardy, but only when they are dormant. Established plugs are very sensitive to cold temperatures. If the nights dip below freezing, you must protect the vulnerable plants. Otherwise, the foliage can die back and may not recover.

If the plugs have flowers already on them, it’s best to remove the initial blossoms. This tells the plant to channel its energy into root establishment. Don’t worry—new blooms will emerge in a few weeks! 

Strawberry Planting Tips

Two potted strawberry seedlings nestle atop rich, dark soil, promising future harvests. Adjacent, a sleek black trowel with green handles rests partly submerged in the earth, ready for nurturing gestures of planting and care.Start growing strawberries by rehydrating bare-root crowns in a diluted kelp solution.

This decision may seem complicated, but rest assured that growing strawberries is simpler than you think. Order some bare-roots, buy some plugs, or do an experiment with plants from both types of propagation materials! 

Here are some tips to get your berry patch off to a running start:

  • Rehydrate bare-root crowns by soaking the roots in a diluted kelp solution before planting.
  • Choose day-neutral varieties if you want to enjoy fruits in the first year.
  • If you want to grow strawberries as annuals, you can refresh the patch each year.
  • To grow a perennial patch, ensure consistent mulching and pruning.
  • Remove runners as often as possible. These long stems will suck energy away from fruit production.
  • Amend the soil with generous amounts of compost to ensure drainage and organic matter.
  • Plant strawberries on raised mounds to encourage moisture drainage.
  • Never bury the crown, as this can rot the entire plant.
  • Ensure 8-12” spacing between plants for maximum airflow and reduced disease risk.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, you only need to make the decision between bare-root strawberries vs. plugs once. After you establish your strawberry patch and find a planting method that works for you, you won’t have to worry about these nuances again. For the easiest, beginner-friendly option, look for plugs. For a cheaper start and more diverse varieties, go for bare-roots.

Leave a comment