Planting bare root trees

Bare Root Trees – When to Plant Them?

  • Bare root trees are younger and easier to prune and shape to create a strong, fruit bearing structure for your trees
  • Now, once you have your new bare root trees, you need to plant them right away…rain or shine. I’ll explore the pros and cons on the different planting day conditions below…

    Volunteers plant bare root fruit trees in the rain at the Gordonridge site in Scarborough, Ontario

    Planting on a Sunny Day

    My first planting this year was in Downsview Park’s beautiful orchard in North Toronto. Once a military base this site now includes almost 300 acres of parkland including a spectacular orchard of over 150 trees. Over the years we will be developing this 2.5 acre orchard in the heart of North Toronto into an extensive fruit tree arboretum. This May we added espalier apple trees, cherry shrubs and currants to the orchard – and the day was fine, warm and sunny.

    A sunny, fine day is great planting weather for us humans. There’s no need to wear raincoats and galoshes (does anyone wear galoshes anymore?). But for bare root trees, a sunny day can be challenging. That’s because if left in the sun, bare root trees may be triggered out of dormancy and their buds may start to open. To avoid stressing the trees, it is best to leave them in the shade while you dig your holes. You may also want to soak the roots in water for up to 30 minutes to help rehydrate them and prepare them for planting.

    The team of gardeners at Downsview park in Toronto plant bare root fruit tree whips in a new espalier bed.

    Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees in the Rain

    The second planting that I organized this year was on a fantastic site called Gordonridge Place in Scarborough, Ontario. This public housing site has worked with FoodShare and their generous funders to create an extensive urban agriculture program on this site including a 30-tree orchard, vegetable plots and even urban beekeeping. The soil is rich and the trees will love it. But the trees were shipped on a Friday. Planting day was Saturday. And the forecast was rain.

    That didn’t stop the volunteers who showed up in their rain gear ready to work. We had a great, if slightly soggy, morning. But the best part is that the soil was soft and easy to dig. It was also moist and ready to accommodate the new bare root trees. After planting the rain continued to “water in” the trees nicely which would help them quickly settle in to their new site. There was no hot sun to trigger early opening of the buds. A rainy day is actually a terrific day for planting bare root trees.

    Foodshare employee Yara Janes helps out the Gordonridge team on a rainy planting day.

    Planting Bare Root Trees In Wind and Hail!

    For the third planting this year we had a bit of a surprise. We were scheduled to plant a number of bare root trees at the privately-owned San Romanoway apartment towers in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto. This site is at the heart of a fantastic greening project spearheaded by Toronto and Region Conservation’s Black Creek Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Plan in partnership with FoodShare. The project includes extensive urban agriculture developments and an orchard consisting of 24 trees. But on planting day in mid-May there was an unseasonal windstorm and hail. The volunteers came ready to work but this would have been a bad day for both the trees and the volunteers.

    Planting a bare root tree in the whipping wind is not a good idea. With 37 km per hour wind (22 miles per hour), it would be hard work to just stand up straight – never mind digging holes! But this planting day would be even more challenging for the young trees. Newly planted trees have not yet established themselves and so they could easily blow away in that kind of wind. So we decided to reschedule planting for the next day and we were fortunate to have a beautiful planting day. The weather was lovely, sunny and calm.

    Fruit tree planting day at San Romanoway in 2016.

    Planting Bare Root Trees, Rain or Shine

    So, if you are planting bare root trees, plant them as soon as you can and unless there’s a terrible windstorm, hail or a hurricane, you may just want to get those trees in the ground quickly, rain or shine. Just make sure you know how to choose the right trees for your unique location and how to plant them properly. You can learn all about that and about fruit tree pruning, pest and disease prevention, soil management and more in Orchard People’s Online Beginner Certificate in Fruit Tree Care.

    Blog Continues Below
    You may also be interested in:

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    • BLOG: What’s better, planting a small fruit tree whip or an older tree?
    • PODCAST: Why willow mulch has been shown to keep fruit trees and other trees healthy

    Susan Poizner

    Director, Fruit Tree Care Education Online

    Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast. She is also an ISA Certified Arborist..

    Planting Bare-Root Trees

    Trees are typically planted from stock that is bare-root, container-grown or balled-and-burlapped (B&B). Most trees purchased at garden centers are obtained either as a container-grown tree or B&B while windbreak are generally planted with bare-root trees. Each planting type has their advantages. Containers are common packaging for the smaller size trees, those that are less than 12 feet tall or 1.5 inch caliper (the diameter of the tree 6-inches above the ground) at the time of sale. Containers are easy to transport home and the roots and soil are more protected during this process. Balled-and-burlapped trees are usually larger trees and if a 2 or 3-inch caliper tree is desired most often it will come B&B rather than in a container though larger diameter container trees are becoming more commonly available.

    Planting Considerations


    Bare-root is an excellent means of planting a tree and, while often limited to seedlings to be planted in windbreak, it can also be done successfully in the landscape with even 2- to 3-inch diameter trees. The advantage to planting bare-root is the ease at which the correct planning depth, indicated by placing the highest root just beneath the soil surface, can be determined and avoiding the problems with changes in soil texture between the planting site and the container or B&B ball. Surprising to many, but bare-root trees, properly planted and cared for, can have better survival and growth than either container-grown or B&B trees.


    The primary drawback is the narrow time window in which bare-root trees can be planted. While bare-root trees can be planted in the autumn and spring in most of the United States, in South Dakota only spring planting is advised. Our harsh and dry winters can often injure tender fall planted bare-root trees. Bare-root plantings are limited to the spring time period between soil temperatures warm enough to allow for root growth (at least 45° F) and when the tree’s buds begin to expand. Fortunately trees can be held in cooler to delay bud expansion.

    Root Moisture

    There are two key consideration when planting bare-root trees: 1) keeping the roots moist until planting and 2) sweating. Bare-root trees are vulnerable to drying out as their roots are exposed to the elements. Bare-root trees must never have the root left to dry and exposed to the sun. This exposure can cause desiccation injury that will result in poor survival and growth. Bare-root trees must be kept cool, about 40° F) until planting and the roots covered with a damp packing material. Ideally the tree would go directly from the packing material into a planting hole that is quickly filled with water and covered but this is always practical. However, the shorter the time between being removed from the packing material and into the planting hole, the better. Even a five minute exposure on a hot, windy day can kill tree roots. If possible hydrate the roots by placing them in a tank of water for one to two hours before planting. Only have the roots covered with water, not the tops. Also do not allow the trees to remain in water for more than two hours, longer time periods may result in root mortality.

    Bareroot Planting: How To Plant Bareroot Trees

    Many people buy bareroot trees and shrubs from mail order catalogs in order to take advantage of significant savings. But, when the plants arrive at their home, they may wonder how to plant bareroot trees and what steps do I need to take to ensure that my bareroot tree does well. Keep reading to learn more about planting bareroot trees.

    After the Bareroot Tree Transplant Arrives

    When your bareroot tree arrives, it will be in a dormant state. You can think of this as like suspended animation for plants. It’s important to keep the bareroot plant in this state until you are ready to plant it in the ground; otherwise, the plant will die.

    In order to do this, make sure to keep the roots of the plants moist by leaving the wrapping on the roots or packing the roots in damp peat moss or soil.

    Once you are ready to start bareroot planting, mix together water and potting soil to a stew-like consistency. Remove the packing around the roots of the bareroot tree

    and place into the soil slurry for about an hour to help prepare the roots for planting into the ground.

    How to Plant Bareroot Trees

    Once you are ready to start the bareroot planting process, remove any tags, bags or wire that may still be on the tree.

    The next step in bareroot planting is to dig the hole. Dig the hole deep enough so that the tree will sit at the same level that it was grown at. If you look at the area on the trunk just above where the roots begin, you will find a darker colored “collar” on the bark of the trunk. This will mark the place that was ground level for the tree the last time the tree was in the ground and should be located just above the soil when you replant the tree. Dig the hole so that the roots can sit comfortably at this level.

    The next step when going about planting bareroot trees is to form a mound at the bottom of the hole where the roots of the tree can be placed over. Gently tease apart the bareroots or the tree and drape them over the mound. This will help the bareroot tree transplant develop a healthy root system that does not circle in on itself and become rootbound.

    The last step in how to plant bareroot trees is to backfill the hole, tamp the soil down around the roots to make sure there are no air pockets and water thouroughly. From here you can treat your bareroot tree like any other newly planted tree.

    Bareroot trees and shrubs area great way to purchase hard to find plants at great prices. As you have discovered, bareroot planting is not difficult at all; it just requires some prep ahead of time. Knowing how to plant bareroot trees can ensure that these trees will flourish in your garden for years to come.

    Bare Root Trees

    Bareroot nursery stock has been around for many years. In the early 1900’s, before large scale refrigeration became possible, bareroot trees were shipped coast to coast in enclosed railroad cars in late fall and winter. Many of the tall, stately trees we see in the East and Mid-West are the results of plantings of bareroot tree material.

    Why Bareroot? Bareroot plant material is lighter in weight, costs less than containerized plants of similar size and is easier to handle, transport and plant! The dormant plants customers receive are full of stored energy in the roots and branches, so they are ready to come to life when exposed to warm soil and sunlight. There are just a few essential rules to adhere to when handling bareroot tree material:

    1. Handle carefully so bark and root systems are not scraped or cut.

    2. Do not let roots dry out at any time!

    3. Until planted, the plants must be kept out of the wind, sun, and freezing temperatures.

    Nature Hills uses modern present-day innovations and machinery to dig, transport, store, preserve, care for, package and ship bareroots. The steps we take assure our customers that they receive healthy, top quality, strong, viable bareroot specimens.

    Bare-Root Fruit Trees: Five Reasons You Should Order Them This Winter

    Most people buy their fruit trees the same way they buy all of their other plants: in pots. But savvy gardeners know better. Fruit trees are cheaper and grow best when planted “bare root” — in other words, when dormant, without a pot of soil around their roots. That means planting them in winter, at least in places where the ground isn’t frozen. At the very least, you should buy them in winter and be prepared to plant as soon as the ground thaws, before the trees come out of dormancy. Here’s why.

    Better Selection

    Some local retail nurseries stock bare-root trees in winter, but usually they’re purchased by mail order. Companies like Trees of Antiquity ( and Raintree Nursery ( offer thousands of rare heirloom varieties and unique specimens from all over the globe. Most begin accepting orders in early January, but the most popular varieties often sell out fast.

    Cost Savings

    You’re not paying for a pot and soil, so you can usually get good-sized trees that are half the cost of comparable ones at a retail nursery, even after factoring in shipping costs.

    Faster Growth

    Fruit trees planted from containers go through transplant shock when transferred to the ground and often languish until the following year. Trees planted while dormant, though, begin to grow in early spring without missing a beat.

    Long-Term Health

    When a tree sits in a pot for a long period, its roots begin to grow around and around in a circle, tracing the shape of the container. They soon stiffen into that shape and remain that way after planting. New roots will eventually grow out laterally, but like the first branches, the shape of the first roots dictates the lifelong form of the tree. The circling pattern of roots, called “girdling,” is associated with weak growth in the long term and early death. Planting bare-root trees avoids this conundrum, as the roots splay out naturally in the soil from day one.


    The growing season is packed with endless gardening chores. You might not get around to planting a backyard orchard when you can barely keep up with your vegetable garden. But in winter, what else are you going to do in the garden? As is often said, the best time to plant a tree was yesterday.

    All About Bare-Root Fruit Trees: Fundamentals & 6 Common Questions

    Cherry cobbler in the springtime sun.
    Apple pie for some summer fun.
    Fresh plums for an out-the-door snack.
    I ain’t complainin’ ‘bout those fruit trees out back.

    Life is Better with Good Fruit

    Whether you’re an avid fruit grower with orchards in your backyard, or whether you’re just getting started and want to learn more about getting your first few cherry trees, you’ve found the right place. We’re here to answer your most common questions when it comes to getting started with your first few fruit trees.

    The fastest and best method for getting healthy, fruit-producing trees in your backyard is the bare-root planting method. You’ll be on your way to picking delicious fresh fruit out of your backyard in no time.

    Start With a Good Nursery

    Our nursery at Mountain Feed is always stocked with the best edible and ornamental plants, veggie starts, trees, and shrubs. This time of year we have hundreds of bare-root plants and fruit trees in stock.

    What are Bare-Root Fruit Trees?

    Bare-root nursery stock are trees and plants that are…

    • Field grown for one to three years
    • Undercut and dug in fall and spring
    • Handled with no soil left around the roots
    • Stored with moist roots and dormant tops until they are planted

    Why the Bare-Root Method? What Are the Benefits?

    Bare-root stock offers several advantages…

    • Bare-root plants are usually one-half to two-thirds the cost of plants in containers
    • Longer root lengths are possible on bare-root plants because the weight of the root ball without soil is minimal
    • Planting a bare-root fruit tree is one of the easiest ways to add a permanent, food-producing plant into your garden

    De-Mystifying the Bare-Root Process – Common Questions

    Bare-root stock planting can be unfamiliar to the home gardener, swaying some away from giving it a go. What most people don’t know is that planting a bare-root fruit tree is one of the easiest ways to add a permanent, food-producing plant into your garden. Here are the most commonly asked questions we get about bare-root tree selection, planting and care.

    1) How do I choose a bare-root tree?

    One of the first things I ask a customer when they come in to buy a bare-root tree or plant is “What kind of fruit do you enjoy eating?”. It’s really up to you and what you prefer! In ideal conditions, you will get a bumper crop (an excessive amount) of fruit from your tree and you will want to get the most out of all that delicious fruit by making jam or preserves.

    2) What are the requirements for my yard and planting space? Does it affect the kind of trees should I get?

    Once you determine what type of fruit you want to grow you will need to consider the conditions, yard, and weather in your area. Do you have especially wet soil during the Winter and Spring months? How many hours of sunlight does your planting space get per day? You’ll want to make your decision with those factors in mind.

    Also, most fruit trees are self-pollinating. But you may need to buy more than one tree to get fruit setting with several varieties. Make sure to check the label.

    The rootstock you choose will always depend on your growing conditions and individual needs. Perhaps you are limited on space and would do well with a Dwarf variety meant to be grown in pots or smaller areas. It is always best to consult your nursery on your individual situation so they guide you in your choice.

    3) When is the best time to plant my bare-root tree?

    The best time to plant a bare-root fruit tree is January-March while the plant is still in its dormant stage. Good nurseries will only have bare-root stock available during this time. That’s a good indicator that it is time to plant!

    Bare-root trees need to be planted before they start “waking up”. You want your tree to start developing its new permanent roots in its permanent home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums, and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground earlier. Fruit trees like pears and apples start waking up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

    4) How do I plant my bare-root tree?

    Planting a bare-root tree is simple. Select the site you want to plant the tree and dig a hole 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep, or as deep as your trees root systems’ height. Keep organic matter that you dig up separate from dirt you are digging out of your hole.

    Place the dirt to the side to be used for filling in the hole later keeping your sub-soil separate from your top-soil. Then place your tree in the hole and move backward filling in the hole with the sub-soil first then topsoil, tamping it down to remove any air pockets and water it well.

    Lastly, adding a layer of compost and mulch will give your tree a good start and keep weeds at bay. Mulch around the base of the tree giving the trunk some space to breathe. Mulching directly up against the trunk of your tree can cause more harm than good.

    Your tree should not require another watering until its leaves start to appear in the Spring.

    5) When Should I Be Pruning my Fruit Tree?

    Another part of the planting process that is often skipped is pruning. Once your tree is in the ground you will need to prune the branches considerably. The size of your tree’s canopy should mirror the root system. A new bare-root tree has a small root system so you should prune the trunk and branches by about half to ensure its stability in the ground.

    6) How do I maintain my bare-root tree as it matures?

    A young fruit tree needs at least a gallon of water per week once its foliage starts to appear in the Spring. Regular watering is important for the first two seasons of growth. Pruning in winter is essential in helping keep your tree healthy during its dormant season.

    Also during the dormant season, a regimen of Dormant Oil Spray applications is a good way to help your tree stay disease-free through the winter. Consider regular mulching to keep weeds and pests away from your tree’s young trunk and apply compost or beneficial microbes to build the soil your tree is living in.

    Each species of fruit tree can have its own special needs. As always, consult your nursery when planting a new bare-root tree to get the most out of your new planting. There is a lot of information out there on maintenance, planting and choosing a tree. Consider taking a class or reading a book on fruit trees to get detailed information on keeping your tree healthy.

    Let’s Get You Started – You’ll Be Snacking on Fresh Fruit in No Time!

    Are you ready to get started with your first backyard fruit trees? Or maybe your dream is to have an entire orchard with a variety of trees producing throughout the year or even just expand the varietals that you’ve already got growing out back.

    Cherries, apples, pears, plums and more… hmmm.

    Luckily you’ve found yourself in the right place. Here at Mountain Feed, we strive to offer the best products, resources, and education across the board for homesteaders like you. So here are a couple of resources you can check out to keep heading in the right direction…

    Check out our nursery page to learn more about what we offer. Wondering what to do with all your fruit once it’s popping off the branches? Check out our water bath canning or homemade applesauce video workshops. See our must-have list of canning supplies for preserving all that delicious fruit throughout the year.

    Over to You…

    It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make delicious, sustainable, homemade food more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.

    Keeping a great journal leads to delicious results (and healthy trees!). Get inspired by new recipes, expert articles and more homemade food adventures in our Monthly Journal.

    What to Do If You Can’t Plant When Your Order Arrives

    It’s not always possible to plant immediately when your order arrives. Here are some tips for how to delay planting your trees and plants.

    In fall or spring, planting trees and plants can be an invigorating adventure. When your Stark Bro’s order arrives, it’s best to be prepared to plant your new additions within a day or so. We understand, however, that sometimes you’re simply not ready to put them in the ground right away. In this article, we focus on some tips on how to delay planting.

    If the weather is unfavorable, or you don’t have time or help to plant right away, still be sure to open the box containing your order.

    Bare-Root Plants and Trees

    When you open the package, you will see strips of damp paper around the bare-root plants and trees’ roots. Make sure the paper remains damp, but avoid drenching it.

    Wrap the bare-root plants and trees in the shipping plastic and store in a cool, dark place, like an unheated basement, cellar, garage or shed. It is ideal to store the tree at a temperature of 40ºF, but anything under 60ºF should work for a short period of time. This method will help keep your bare-root plants and trees dormant so you can safely delay planting for up to a week.

    If planting must be delayed for more than 10 days, “heel in” your trees outdoors. To do this, start by digging a sloping trench long and wide enough to hold the roots. Lay the tree in this trench, with the roots against the steep side. Then, cover the roots with soil, and soak with water. As soon as possible, plant trees in their permanent location as you normally would.

    Small Bare-Root Plants

    Some small bare-root berries and other plants can be stored in the lower section of your refrigerator or in the “crisper” drawer. Do not store them with produce unless your plants are completely sealed in plastic (in gallon-sized re-sealable bags, for example). To be extra cautious, you can double-bag your plants in the airtight plastic. Doing so will help avoid exposing your plants to the often lethal (to living plants) gases that are naturally given off by produce in your refrigerator.

    Potted Plants and Trees

    Plants and trees that arrive in temporary pots (like our Stark® EZ Start® pots and 4-inch pots) should be treated like houseplants until the outdoor soil warms. Water them occasionally, when the soil appears dry, and keep them in a cool, dark place to encourage dormancy, especially in the fall.

    When planting time comes, these potted trees and plants will need to be gradually acclimated (“hardened off” or slowly reintroduced) to outdoor temperatures prior to planting in the ground. Doing so will help you to avoid shock and help to ensure the transplanting will be more successful.

    Learn how to acclimate your new potted plants and trees ›

    Tips for Planting in Winter Weather

    If snowfall arrives or freezing temperatures set in when your order arrives, don’t panic! Just follow these simple suggestions:

    • Scoop snow away from the planting site; you may find the ground is not frozen yet.
    • Remember that snow makes an excellent insulator; the extra moisture is good for plants.
    • Keep any frozen topsoil from falling into the planting hole around the root system.
    • Do not expose roots to below-freezing temperatures while planting.

    If your order arrives in the spring, you might find that your soil may be frozen or otherwise unworkable. If this is the case, you should keep your tree or plant in the package until the daily temperatures are above freezing and the ground thaws.

    Please note: you may plant, even if the low temperatures are in the high teens, as long as the daytime temperatures are above 40ºF. You can delay planting for up to two or three weeks if you are able to keep the roots from drying out. However, in cases where the delayed period is longer than a week, you should consider applying additional damp paper to bare-root tree roots to provide sufficient enough moisture for longer storage.

    If you have any order-related questions or concerns, our Customer Support Team (800.325.4180) will be able to work with you.

    Now that you know how to delay planting, there’s no need to worry if you’re not ready to plant right away. If you are facing inclement weather or other unforeseen problems, you can feel confident in your ability to safely store trees and plants for a short period of time until you’re ready to plant outdoors.

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    • Frequently Asked Questions

    It’s still cold outside and many plants in your garden may be dormant. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait until the warmth of spring to dig in and add plants to your garden or yard.
    Many plants are available as bare root selections, which are sold as one- to three-year-old nursery stock that have been dug from the ground in the fall when dormant. After the soil has been washed off the roots, the plants are packed in a moist material such as sawdust. They are kept in cold-storage facilities and then shipped in late fall, winter or early spring without any soil or potting mix surrounding their roots.
    This type of system works well for many woody based plants, like fruit and nut trees, cane fruit and some herbaceous edibles such as strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb. Of course, bare root roses are always in high demand, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Other ornamentals available at many nurseries and garden centers as bare root stock include a wide variety of perennials such as asters, astilbes, coneflowers, daylilies and milkweeds, as well as numerous ornamental trees, shrubs and vines.
    Bare root planting season is pretty short, and if you’re not on the ball it can slip right by you. Most plants need to be shipped and planted while still dormant and before their buds start swelling. January to early April is typically the time to buy and begin planting your bare root stock, depending on your plant.
    Many of the local nurseries and garden centers offer a variety of bare root plants. But if a wider selection is what you seek, buying online or via mail-order is the way to go–especially when it comes to ornamental trees, shrubs and rare heirloom varieties. Regardless of whether you buy bare root plants locally or order online, it’s better to place your order earlier rather than later.
    Bare root benefits
    While container-grown plants do have their place in the landscape, planting bare root stock does come with several advantages.
    For starters, bare root plants are typically 20 to 50 percent less expensive than container-grown selections and traditional balled and burlapped (B&B) plants since no pots or potting mix are used in their production. As such, you’re able to get more bang for your buck and buy more plants.
    Since bare root plants are dormant with no soil around their roots, they are lightweight, less cumbersome and easier to package and therefore less expensive to ship. As such, bare root specimens are easier to plant and easier on your back.
    Another advantage that bare root stock has over container-grown is its stronger and wider root system, which provides better anchorage once established, especially when it’s a tree. And when properly planted they establish much faster, with less transplant shock and often a higher rate of survival.
    When they arrive
    Once your plants arrive, the first step is to inspect them carefully. Healthy bare root specimens have plump, fresh and firm stems, twigs, roots and buds. The roots themselves should be moist and well formed, with lots of fine, fibrous feeder roots growing from the main root system. Avoid plants that are dried, brittle or shriveled; roots that are slimy, squishy or moldy; and dried or leafed out buds.
    Ideally, bare root plants should be planted within 24 hours upon arrival. But if this is not possible there are ways to keep them viable for short periods until you are ready to plant.

    You can keep them in their original package for several days as long as you keep the water-retaining packing material around the roots moist–not soggy–and move the boxes to a cool and shady freeze-free location.
    Dipping the roots in a hydrogel slurry will buy you up to an extra week of planting time. Hydrogels are synthetic compounds that look like table sugar when dry, but when moistened they can hold several hundred times their weight in water. Leave the slurry on the roots after dipping and secure a large, pleated plastic bag around the roots to hold in moisture, then cover the bagged roots with a tarp. Store plants in a cool, shaded freeze-free location until you’re ready to plant, but wait no longer than a week.
    Another option for delayed planting is to heel in the plants. The most common way of doing this is to dig a trench deep enough to accommodate the plant roots in a shady and wind-protected area. After soaking the roots for several hours, lay plants in the trench at an angle, then cover the roots with soil and water thoroughly. Mulch with moist sawdust, straw, or shredded leaves. This will buy you one to two weeks holding time as long as you keep the soil moist.
    No matter which “holding” process you choose, it’s vital that you keep the roots covered and protected at all times. The most common reason why bare root plants fail is desiccation or, more simply put, because the roots were allowed to dry out.

    Mulching is beneficial when planting a tree, especially when planting a bare root specimen.

    How to plant
    To prepare your bare root specimen for planting, you first need to prune any damaged, broken or blackened roots back to healthy-looking tissue. Shortening long roots will also make it easier to plant and increase the number of water absorbing root tips soon after planting.
    Next, rehydrate the roots by soaking in a pail of water for several hours or overnight. Time your soaking so that you can leave the roots in water buckets until the minute you’re ready to plant, but no longer than 24 hours.
    To plant, dig a hole that is shallow and tapered: make it deep enough to accommodate the height of the root system and one-and one-half to two times the width of the extended root mass. This gives roots plenty of room to grow outwards. Use a spade to break up any compacted soil and loosen the soil on the sides and bottom, then throw in several shovelfuls of loamy topsoil or compost, digging it into the surrounding native soil until blended. Fill the hole with water and allow to drain.
    Once the plant is properly positioned, gently fill in the hole with loose soil or a blend of compost mixed with native soil. Steady the plant with one hand, then use your hands or feet to gently firm in the soil and stabilize the plant. This, along with a thorough watering, will help remove any air pockets and settle the soil around the roots.
    You can help roots access the water they need by building a ring of soil around the plant’s base. Water deeply, filling the basin several times if needed. Then spread a two- to three-inch layer of mulch around the plant to help retain moisture, moderate soil temperatures, prevent weeds, and protect its roots. Leave a mulch-free zone around the base of the trunk or stem to reduce the risk of fungal infection or rodent damage.
    Growing on
    Providing adequate and consistent moisture for the first year is key to ensuring continued development of the root system. The rule of thumb is 1 inch of moisture per week for most plants. The goal is to keep the soil moist but never soggy or the roots may rot. By summer the plants will be engulfed in foliage and on their way to a great finish, which is a beautiful and fruitful garden.

    –Kris Wetherbee

    Growing, Harvesting, Transporting, Storing and

    Planting Bare Root Plants

    What is a bare root?

    Technology has changed the industry in many ways over the last 100 years. Prior to the development of the gas engine, all nursery stock was harvested and shipped bare-root due to weight considerations. Bare-root is when a plant and its roots are removed from the soil and sold this way. This limited the harvest and planting season to a few weeks in springtime.

    Bare-root plant production involves growing plants in rows or beds for one to three years. These plants are then harvested by removing the plants and roots from the soil. These plants may then be sold, planted in soil again or placed in containers to be grown into larger plants.

    What kind of site can you use to grow bare root?

    Fields being considered for nursery stock production should have a minimum of 8 to 10 inches well-drained profile. A soil probe can be used to determine the soil profile. Soil type can be sandy for bare root production. Heavy clay soils should be avoided due to poor drainage and aeration, but can be improved by the addition of organic matter or several years of a green manure crop.. The best sites for field production have moderate slope for air and water drainage, or if flat, have good internal soil water drainage. Nursery stock that has been flooded is often weakened and predisposed to increased disease and insect problems. Soils should be tested to determine whether the pH needs adjusting, and if particular nutrients need to be incorporated prior to planting. Soils should be tested for pH, P, K and certain micronutrients, and possible pesticide residues, depending on prior uses of the site. Soil pH should range from 6 to 6.5 for most plants, lower (5 to 6) for acid-loving plants like azaleas. Fields should be plowed and disced prior to planting. Most planting is done in the spring, with some also in the fall. On some sites, depending upon plant spacing, erosion potential and other factors, it may be desirable to establish a cover crop.

    Do you have to irrigate the plants?

    Considerable field production is done without any supplemental irrigation, but this increases the potential for poor growth and survivability. Some fields are irrigated on an “as needed” basis with portable overhead systems (rainreels, moveable pipes, etc.), with the ideal situation being to have drip irrigation available for all plants. Water source, water quality, soil type, plant type and spacing, climate and topography must all be considered when designing an irrigation system, with each type of system having advantages and disadvantages.

    How do you control for weeds?

    Many nursery fields are chemically treated or fumigated prior to planting to help control weed problems prior to planting. Weeds are also controlled by applying herbicides (both preemergent and postemergent), mulching, hand weeding, mowing, and cultivating.

    Should the soil be amended?

    Most soils benefit from the addition of organic matter. In addition to improving soil structure, water retention and drainage, aeration, and the quality of nursery stock grown, digging is usually easier in mineral soils that have been amended with organic matter. Also, some nursery species develop a more fibrous root system as the amount of organic matter is increased.

    An alternative to applying organic materials over the entire field is to incorporate the organic matter in planting rows only.

    What should the planting density be like?

    Spacing is always a concern in new fields, especially if you are uncertain about the size of plants you will need or about the market for your crops. If you anticipate that you will sell trees to professional landscapers or that they will be used as municipal street trees, space them wider to allow for more growth before they become crowded and so that you will have better access during harvesting. Wider spacing is also encouraged if the market strategy is uncertain, because it allows more opportunity for finding a market before the trees become overgrown. In choosing planting dimensions, it is important to account for space required by fertilizing, cultivating, mowing, and spraying equipment. Each tree is considered to “own” half the space between it and the next tree or row for calculations such as the number of trees per acre. In reality, the canopies and roots may exceed half the distance by harvest time.

    One method of increasing planting density is to plant some species, such as dogwoods, 3 feet apart within rows and after two years, dig and sell every other plant down the row. The following season, the remaining trees would have additional space to develop caliper and full, well-branched canopies. In theory, this method seems like a good idea. The critical issue with this plan is that you must have a sales mechanism in place for the trees that are dug after two years. If all the alternating trees are dug and sold, or possibly containerized to be sold during the current season, this plan may be feasible. However, in many cases, if the grower has no immediate market for the smaller trees or place to hold them, then the entire crop becomes over-grown and diminishes in value. Spacing between seedlings is 6″x 6″ and is accomplished by eye while planting. Soil moisture is critical and the bed may require watering prior to planting.

    How do you harvest bare root?

    Some techniques with larger nurseries involve machine digging with a tree spade. Tree spades are equipped with three or four hydraulic blades that extract a cone of soil and roots, which are placed in a wire basket, but this method is usually used for balled and burlapped trees.

    A grower of bare-root liners will likely use a “U”-blade or lifter to cut the roots, lift the plant and shake much of the soil from the plant while in the field.

    Total Time to Harvest: Two years from sowing in the woody beds to harvest as bare root seedlings.

    Harvest Date: Dormant bareroot plants are harvested in early to mid-December

    Do you have to prune the bare root seedlings?

    Pruning may be necessary for seedlings with extremely long roots. However, prune conservatively because seedlings will die soon after planting if they do not have sufficient root area to absorb water. Always prune with a sharp tool such as

    hand pruners or garden shears. Prune in a cool place where seedlings are out of the wind and sun. Handle roots as little as possible. In general, seedlings can have their roots pruned 8 to 10 inches below the root collar. The root collar is the point on the main stem identified by a change in color or slight swelling in the stem. Larger seedlings (3-year-old or transplanted seedlings) require a larger root system, so don’t over-prune these. When you are done, re-moisten the seedlings and re-seal them in the original packaging.

    How do you transplant bare root?

    Seedlings can be damaged by overheating, too little moisture, and physical damage during transportation. A refrigerated truck is the best way to transport your seedlings safely. If refrigerated transport is not available

    or travel distance is short, protect seedlings from sun, wind and excessive drying by:

    1. Placing foam insulation or spacer boards under the boxes and leave gaps around boxes.

    2. Covering packages with a light-colored or reflective tarp to protect against the sun.

    3. Traveling in the early morning when temperatures are cooler.

    4. Using ice packs, snow, or a large cooler to keep seedlings cool.

    Do not place seedlings in a hot car trunk or leave them in a sunny location. If you suspect the seedlings have not been kept consistently cool since leaving the nursery, sprinkle cool water on them and reseal the packages. Consider

    transporting the seedlings in stages during the workday.

    How do you store bare root before planting?

    If you cannot plant immediately, store them properly until you can plant. Moisture loss is the greatest threat to the survival of bare root plants. Exposure to room temperature and humidity will cause bare root plants to lose as much as two to three percent of their fresh weight in moisture every hour. Such an exposure for even overnight can easily result in the plant’s death. Preventing desiccation should be your highest priority in handling bare root perennials. Store the plants as close to but not below 32 deg. F, as you can, until you are ready to plant them.

    Keep them in their shipping bags until planting time. Shade the bags so the roots will not heat up. Don’t leave an unprotected plant lying on the ground while preparing the planting hole. Dessication can occur rapidly on a sunny and breezy spring day. Water the plant thoroughly to settle it into the soil and get it off to a good start.

    Bare root plants can be held in cold storage with their roots exposed or packed in damp moss or other material; they can also be process (or peat) balled where their roots are surrounded by organic matter that is then packaged to look like a root ball; they can also be containerized or potted in a container with soilless substrate. There are also many new (and largely untested) products that may reduce dessication of bare root plants during storage. These products may be root dips, gels, or clay products designed to maintain a high moisture environment around roots.

    Storage Conditions: Bareroot plants are bundled into groups of 25 (or whatever is manageable), and long roots are trimmed. Bundles are placed into plastic bins with drainage holes. The roots are covered with sawdust and the bins are placed into cold storage (40ºF) and watered as needed during the winter.

    Storage Duration: December to mid-March.

    How do you plant bare root plants?


    1. Plant bare-root trees and shrubs in winter and very early spring (from mid-November to mid-March in most parts of the country) when the plants are dormant and the ground isn’t frozen solid. They’ll have a chance to put out new roots before they have to cope with hot sun, drying winds and the added stress of producing leaves.

    2. Remove any packing material carefully, and rinse off or gently pull off any clumps of earth clinging to the roots; clip off any dead or damaged roots.

    3. Immerse the roots in a bucket of water to soak for at least one to four hours, but no longer than overnight. Supplying enough moisture is key to the success of bare-root planting.

    4. Dig a hole that’s at least two feet wider than the root system and about as deep as the point where the roots flare from the trunk (or stems in the case of a shrub). Using your shovel, loosen the soil on the sides of the hole so it doesn’t solidify around the plant’s roots.

    5. Mound soil in the bottom of the hole so that the peak reaches just about ground level.

    6. Place stakes in the hole if you’re planting a tree that will need support

    7. Set the tree or shrub on top of the mound so the roots cascade down over the sides. Spread them gently with your hands if you need to, and add or remove soil so that top of the root system is just at ground level.

    8. Fill the hole about halfway with soil and tamp it lightly with your foot to remove large air pockets.

    9. Make sure the tree or shrub is standing straight up, then water slowly to saturate the soil and remove any remaining air pockets.

    10. Finish filling the hole with soil. Use any extra to build a temporary berm above the perimeter of the roots and water again.

    11. Keep the soil moist for the first year after planting. Mulch to retain moisture, but keep at least six inches bare around the trunk. Check frequently; if you see yellow leaves or the soil feels dry, water immediately.


    Unless you’re planting a small shrub or a street or patio tree in a small, confined space, avoid amending (improving) the soil in the planting hole. The “good” soil will encourage the roots to confine themselves within that small area rather than spread out as they need to, and the result will be a weak plant. Instead, choose trees and shrubs that thrive naturally in your soil conditions.

    Deep, thorough watering is the key to healthy shrubs and trees. Give new trees at least an inch of water a week all around the root zone. (The roots of a woody plant extend about the same distance as its branches).

    What are some advantages and disadvantages to using bare root?

    A major advantage to using bare root plants is their light weight and relatively low cost but there are several advantages. Bare-root trees can be produced less expensively than trees produced in other systems due to easier digging, storing and shipping, since the soil is not kept with the roots when the tree is dug. The root system can be inspected, and inferior or defective roots can be removed. Some disadvantages are the range of tree sizes is limited in bare-root transplants due to the inability to move larger trees successfully. Seasonal constraints are greater in this production system because bare-root trees should be dug and transplanted during the dormant season (December-March). Careful handling of bare-root transplants is necessary to avoid root desiccation. Bare-root trees

    often require staking to avoid windthrow following leaf emergence.

    What plants can you propagate as bare root?

    Bare root production and harvesting is generally restricted to small groundcover, herbaceous perennial and ornamental grass divisions, and small deciduous shrubs and trees. Due to the potential for desiccation, few evergreen shrubs or trees are harvested bare root, with the exception of small conifer liners for Christmas tree planting and reforestation


    Maddi Schweitzer, 2005

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