Planting Bare Root Trees and Shrubs
Bare root stock is usually shipped as a one or two year old
seedling. It will most likely look like a small stick with roots and
very few (if any) branches, depending on the species.
When you receive your plants they should be planted in their final
location or healed into some soil until you are ready to plant them.
To heal them in, find a cool, shaded location. Simply dig a hole large
enough to fit all the roots and place the whole bundle in. Fill the
hole back in with soil covering the roots and water it thoroughly. The
sooner they are planted in their final location, the better – but
plants can be stored like this until they begin to break dormancy. You
can also heal them into pots. Just make sure they don’t dry out, and
try to avoid excessive watering as well.
During the planting process, it is critical that the roots don’t dry out.
Planting on a cloudy day is ideal. While in the field, leave your trees
in a bucket of water with the roots fully submerged. Plant them one at
a time so they are only out of the water for a couple minutes before
they are in soil.
Determine your planting location: Avoid excessively damp
spots. Trees cannot thrive and will most likely die in areas
that are wet all year long. A 3 foot diameter by at least 1
foot high mound can be created to form a planting spot if a seasonally wet
site needs to be modified to accept a planting.
Dig a hole: Determine the size of your planting hole by
extending some of the roots horizontally. This will show you how
wide to make the hole. You want to make sure all the lateral
branches on the roots are fully extended and directed away from
their point of origin. What you don’t want to do is curl a root
back around just to fit it in the hole. If any of the roots are so
long that the hole would be excessively large, then they can be
pruned off. This won’t hurt the tree much, if at all. It’s helpful
to have a tarp with you to place the dug-out soil on. That way you
won’t lose any soil to the surrounding grass and vegetation when
you fill the hole back in.
Plant: Locate where the trunk to root transition is
based on the color change. You want this transition to be even with
the ground level. With one hand, hold the tree in the hole. With
the other hand begin scooping soil back into the hole. Only fill
up the hole in tiers of 4” or so of soil at a time. This way you
can spread the roots out into the proper position (see picture below).
Firm the soil in each tier as you go to eliminate air pockets.
You want to press pretty hard so the tree is well anchored in
the wind. A light step on the loose soil is enough for this but
don’t stomp on it.
Water: I like to water every new planting with about a half
bucket of water. It’s important that the roots remain moist
while they are going through this transplant shock. The water
also helps settle the soil and fill any voids.
Mulch: Add an inch or two of good compost. Then apply some kind
of mulch. I prefer wood chips and I lay them down at least 4”
thick in a 3’ diameter circle. The mulch has a three-fold
purpose: It retains water, smothers out other vegetation and it
feeds the soil microbes. It’s amazing how well the wood chips
hold the water in the soil. Even during a really dry summer I
never feel the need to water any new plantings.
Protection: Deer, rabbits, and voles (meadow mice) will all
do damage to young trees. To protect against deer and rabbits, a
circle of 4’ to 5’ high garden fencing around the tree works well.
An 8’ long section of fence makes about a 2.5’ diameter circle.
Protection from voles can be accomplished by rolling up sections of
window screen. I cut a 1’ x 1’ square of aluminum window screen and
roll it into a loose cylinder. It will hold its shape after rolled
up like this and will be easy to wrap around the base of the
tree. To hold it in place, I bury it down in the mulch about an
inch or two. Vole protection done this way will not girdle the tree
as it grows, because the screen roll will widen with the growth of
the tree. There are many alternatives to tree protections that work
just as well as the methods I’ve described, but this is my
Notice how the lateral roots are coming off of the main tap
root. These roots should be positioned in the hole so they are
radiating away from the tap root. Filling the hole with a
little soil at a time allows you to configure them in this
manner as you work your way up.