Yard and Garden: Planting Bare-root Trees

March 26, 2020, 10:11 am | Richard Jauron

There’s a popular saying that goes "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Spring is an excellent time to plant trees in Iowa. Trees can be purchased as container-grown, balled and burlapped, and bare-root plants. By following proper planting procedures, bare-root trees can be successfully established in the landscape. Follow the recommendations of Iowa State University horticulture specialists for successful planting. Contact the Hortline at hortline@iastate.edu, or 515-294-3108, with any additional questions.

container plants.Bare-root trees and shrubs have no soil around their roots. They are dug in late fall or early spring (plants dug in fall are over-wintered in coolers). Bare-root plants are shipped to garden centers or directly to consumers in the spring. Bare-root trees and shrubs must be planted in spring before growth begins. If rainy weather or other circumstances prevent planting within a few days of arrival or purchase, store bare-root material in a cool location, such as an unheated garage or root cellar, until planting is possible.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

The big advantage of bare-root trees and shrubs is the cost. Bare-root trees and shrubs 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. 

Some disadvantages of bare-root trees and shrubs are the length of the planting season and size. Bare-root plant material should be planted in spring before it begins to leaf out. Bare-root trees and shrubs are often much smaller than container-grown and balled and burlapped plants. Bare-root deciduous trees are typically 8 feet or less in height. Evergreens are usually less than 2 feet tall.

How do I plant bare-root trees?

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 two to two-and-a-half 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 1-3 inches above the trunk flare. When planting bare-root trees, be careful not to confuse the graft union with the trunk flare. 

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