Planting Bare-root Trees vs. Container-grown Trees

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Richard Jauron
Program Specialist, Horticulture
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

Planting Bare-Root Trees

The most common way to establish trees in the home landscape is to purchase balled and burlapped or container-grown plants at local garden centers and nurseries.  However, bare-root trees are the most economical type of nursery stock when purchasing large quantities of trees for screens and windbreaks.  Additionally, shade and fruit trees purchased from mail-order nurseries are often bare-root. 

Bare-root trees 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 trees in a cool location, such as an unheated garage or root cellar, until planting is possible. 

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 2½ 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.

Planting Container-Grown Trees

cypress trees in a containerWhen planting a container-grown tree, dig a hole that is two to three times wider than the diameter of the container.  The depth of the hole should be 2 to 3 inches less than the height of the soil ball.  Slope the sides of the hole so the top is several inches wider than the bottom.  In poorly drained soils, the depth of the hole should be approximately two-thirds of the height of the soil ball. 

Once the hole has been prepared, carefully lay the tree on its side.  Tap the sides of the container to loosen the soil ball from the container, then slide the tree out of its container.  All containers should be removed, even purportedly plantable containers.  If the sides of the soil ball are a mass of roots, carefully shave off the outer one-half to 1 inch of the soil ball with a sharp spade or saw.  Place the tree in the hole.  The top of the soil ball should be 2 to 3 inches above the surrounding soil.  In poorly drained sites, the top one-third of the soil ball should stick above the surrounding soil. 

Gradually fill the hole with soil.  With each new addition of soil, firm it in place with your hands.  Place soil to the top of the soil ball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil.  Once planted, water thoroughly.


Date of Publication: 
May, 2017