Plant Bare-Root Trees for the Greatest Bargain and Best Chance of Success

Claire Splan

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Photo by The Greenery Nursery and Garden Shop

If you have plans to add some fruit trees to your garden next spring, you’d be wise to make those purchases this winter when you can get the trees in bare-root form. You’ll often find your local nurseries stocking bare-root trees in the winter and you can buy them online as well.

Bare-root trees are young (usually less than two years old) saplings in their dormant state that are shipped from the growers without a container. The naked root ball is wrapped up during shipping to keep it from drying out and then stashed in a bed of sawdust, wood chips, or leaves when they arrive at the nursery.

There are clear advantages to buying a tree in the bare-root stage. Because growers are spared the labor costs of potting up the trees and the shipping costs are much lower, bare-root trees generally sell for 30 to 50 percent less than container trees. Not only do you get a better price buying a bare-root tree but you also get the chance to really see what you’re buying. You can make sure the roots are well developed and not damaged or girdling the trunk. You can easily see if the trunk is straight. Everything you need to know about the tree is right there, exposed to view.

Making the right purchasing choice is only half the job, however. You also need to make sure you plant the new tree correctly to get it off to a healthy start.

When you get the tree home from the nursery, brush any sawdust or wood chips off of the roots and let it soak in a bucket of tepid water for several hours to make sure the roots are completely hydrated.

Once you’re ready to plant, dig a hole twice as wide but the same depth as the root ball. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and then create a mound in the center of the hole. Position the tree over the mound so that the roots can extend out all around. Begin filling the hole back up with soil, making sure that the tree is straight and that you aren’t burying it too deep—the soil should cover the roots entirely but not pile any deeper around the base of the trunk. Burying the tree too deeply can lead to crown rot, which will eventually kill the tree.

It’s not usually necessary to stake a young tree unless it’s in a particularly windy spot. If you do stake it, use flexible ties to secure the trunk to two stakes, one on each side. The idea is to allow the tree to move a bit, which helps to strengthen the trunk, but not let it fall over. Don’t leave the stakes and ties in place for more than the first year or the ties will end up cutting into the tree as it grows.

Now, here comes the shocking part. Immediately following planting, cut the trunk of the tree back by at least one-third, or as short as 18 inches above the ground, depending on how low you want the branching to start. I know it sounds severe, but cutting back like this right after planting encourages better root and branch development.

Water the tree deeply after planting to settle the soil around the roots and eliminate air pockets. Regular deep watering will encourage the roots to grow down rather than shallowly below the soil surface.

By spring your young tree will be ready to leaf out and surprise you with its rapid growth.

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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