Planting bare root trees and shrubs

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on July 25, 2010

December and January are traditionally the months when bare rooted trees are planted.  Recent research indicates bare root trees actually do best when planted in January and February.  A bare root tree is a tree that is sold with no dirt or other materials around the roots.  These trees are dormant and need to be planted before they come out of dormancy and start to try to grow.  As long as the plant is dormant and the roots are kept moist, a bare root tree will do okay.  When the tree tries to exit dormancy, though, it needs to be in soil where it can draw up nutrients and water to feed its new growth.

Most bare root trees are fruit or nut trees.  Ornamental trees may be sold as bare root trees, but most of them are grown in containers or balled and burlaped.  When you chose your trees, make sure the roots are plump, there are no big knots or roots that have grown into a J shape.  Roots merging into a big knot right where the tree begins and the root ends are also not healthy.  When you bring your trees home, if you are not going to plant them immediately, keep them in a cool, dry place but keep the roots moist.  Planting the trees as soon as possible will help them survive.  Delaying planting will increase the mortality rate of your trees.

When you get ready to plant your bare root trees, dig a broad, shallow hole that is deep enough for the roots to hang straight down when the tree is planted.  Do not put the tree in a hole where the roots are folded.  This will cause the roots to form a J and they will be unable to draw enough water and nutrients from the soil to support the tree.

Once the hole is dug, stand the tree in it and fill the hole with the same soil you just dug out.  The planted tree should have the point where the roots and tree meet right at ground level.  Most of us have been taught to add lots of organic matter when growing things.  The temptation is to fill the hole you just dug with potting soil, compost, etc.  Don’t do it.  By filling the hole with stuff that is better than the dirt around the tree, you encourage the roots to grow in a circle and never leave the enriched soil.  Your tree will appear to thrive for a year or two, then die because the root system has not spread out enough to feed the tree.

After you plant your tree, water it in good.  Keep adding soil to the hole as the water compresses the dirt you put in, until the tree is planted to the proper depth.  You will need to give your tree an inch of water a week from now through the tree’s lifespan.  If it rains, deduct the amount of rainfall from the inch of water the tree needs.  Now, if it rains 4-5 inches, that doesn’t mean don’t water the tree for 4-5 weeks.  It doesn’t quite work that way.  Wait until the puddles disappear, and count a week from that before resuming watering.

Although it is hard to do, you need to cut the top 1/3 of your tree off when you get it planted.  This is because there is always some loss of roots when digging up a tree.  The reduced root system cannot support the whole tree.  In order for the tree to do well, you have to cut it back.  So just grimace as you cut the top 1/3 of the tree off and remember that it is for the tree’s own good.

Now that the tree is planted, pruned, and watered, you need to mulch it.  Put a mulch such as wood chips, pine needles, or other materials for two to three feet out from the tree.  It should be two to three inches deep.  Make sure the material does not actually touch the tree.  That can cause the tree to rot off there.  Mulch holds water, keeps down weeds, and, as it rots, provides nutrients for the tree.  Each year, don’t remove the old mulch, just add another inch or two on top of it.

What about fertilizer?  It used to be thought that you should fertilize a tree as you are planting it.  However, that can cause the tree to grow too fast and outgrow the roots.  Then the tree ends up starving itself and will not do well.  You should fertilize your trees after a year, but only if your soil test indicates that there is a need to do so.

If you carefully plant your trees, you should have years of enjoyment from them.  Good planting.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dawn from Walking Sprinkler August 8, 2010 at 11:46 pm

I live on the other side of the world from you so we are just in our “best tree planting” season now.

I’ve recently transplanted a large tree fern and so far – fingers crossed – it is doing well. A few fronds have browned at the edges and will probably die back as we go into Spring but I’m confident that the tree fern itself will survive. It’s about 5-6 feet high and is looking great in its new position.

Hadn’t heard about not adding too rich a mixture to the planting hole before but it makes sense. Might explain my occasional failure!
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Stephanie Suesan Smith August 9, 2010 at 6:42 am

Well, if you trim the dead parts it will help. Hope it does well. Yes, add too much good stuff to the soil you put the tree in and the roots do not want to leave. They eventually girdle the tree.


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