Yard and Garden: Planting Bare-root Trees

AMES, Iowa – Bare-root plants begin their life growing in a nursery field and are harvested in the fall, when all of the soil is shaken from their roots. Because they do not have a soil ball they are considerably lighter, less expensive to ship and therefore cost less than balled and burlapped or container-grown plants. Retailers prefer to sell them before they break bud and produce leaves – which comes very early in the growing season (March and April). But early is not always better as horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach explain. To have additional plant and garden questions answered, contact the ISU Hortline at 515-294-3108 or hortline@iastate.edu.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of bare-root trees and shrubs?

As the name suggests, bare-root trees and shrubs have no soil around their roots. Bare-root nursery stock is dug in late fall, placed in cold storage, then shipped to garden centers or gardeners in early spring. Bare-root trees and shrubs should be dormant upon receipt of shipment or purchase. Disadvantages of bare-root trees and shrubs are the length of the planting season and size. Bare-root plant material should be planted in early spring before it begins to leaf out. Bare-root deciduous trees are generally available up to 8 feet in height. Evergreens are usually less than 2 feet tall. Bare-root trees and shrubs, however, are the most economical type of nursery stock. They are usually the best choice when purchasing large quantities of trees and shrubs for windbreaks or hedges.

When should bare-root trees be planted?

Bare-root trees and shrubs must be planted in early spring before growth begins. If rainy weather or other circumstances prevent planting within a few days of purchase, store bare-root material in a cool location, such as a garage or root cellar, until planting is possible.

What is the proper way to plant a bare-root tree?

Prior to planting, soak the tree’s roots in a bucket of water for one to two hours. Also, prune off damaged or broken roots.

When ready to plant, dig a hole that is 2 to 2.5 times wider than the spread of the tree’s root system. The depth of the hole should be equal to the distance from the tree’s trunk flare to the bottom of its roots. The trunk flare is the point where the trunk begins to spread out as it meets the roots. Build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole. Place the tree on top of the mound. The trunk flare should be even with the surrounding soil surface. Spread the roots evenly over the mound. Then begin backfilling with the original soil. As you backfill, firm the soil in the hole with your hands. Place soil to the trunk flare. Finally, water the tree thoroughly.

Many shade and fruit trees are propagated by grafting. The graft union is located near the base of the tree’s trunk and is denoted by a bulge or crook in the trunk. The graft union is typically 1 to 3 inches above the trunk flare. When planting bare-root trees, be careful not to confuse the graft union with the trunk flare.