Planting Bare-Root Fruit Trees
Bare-root trees have been excavated at a young age from growing fields and transported for sale without soil while they are dormant. Planting these young, leafless trees in winter has several advantages. They are less expensive than older, potted nursery stock, but more important, they will develop stronger new roots in native soil in your garden, bypassing a transition from a potting mix in a nursery can. After planting, as roots break out of their restful state, they take up water and nutrients for a burst of spring growth.
Purchasing and Transporting a Bare-Root Tree
Because they’ve never been in a container, these bare, young roots have not become circled or compacted and are often more fibrous.
- Look for a tree with well-developed, fibrous roots balanced evenly around an intact undamaged, tap root.
- After purchase, transport the tree with roots in damp compost, shavings, mulching material, or wet newspaper. Do not allow exposed roots to dry out.
- Store trees temporarily out of the sun and wind with roots covered in a moist material.
- If planting is delayed more than 2 days, heel-in trees—similar to planting—by sinking roots in a moist medium of compost, wet shavings, sand, garden soil, or a thick pile of wet leaves.
Preparing the Site
Wherever fruit trees are to be planted, evaluate the soil beforehand. It is critically important to know how easily the soil drains since trees will not survive in completely soggy conditions. Soil that remains saturated after rains is particularly troublesome to cherries and apricots, but saturation is a challenge for any kind of fruit tree.
- Select a site that receives 6-8 hours of sun a day where there is ample space for a tree’s mature height and width.
- Dig a hole 2-3 times as wide as roots extend but only to the same depth as the longest root, never deeper. A shallow hole prevents the tree from sinking too low.
- Fill the hole with water, allow it to drain, then fill again. If it takes longer than 3 or 4 hours to drain, the site is not adequate. Either select a different site or plant on a mound.
- If drainage is adequate, build a cone in the center of the hole with the excavated soil, leaving ample space all around where roots will spread. The top of the cone must not be below the soil surface, preferably 2-3 in. above to allow for settling.
- Keep in mind that promoting strong root growth and tree health begins at planting time. The goal is to encourage roots to grow out of the planting hole—both laterally and deeply—into the surrounding native soil with no amendment materials inside the planting hole. Amendments may be added to cover the top of the root area if you need extra material.
- If drainage is poor, dig a shallower hole so that the cone extends 4-6 in. above the surface so that most of the roots will spread out in a wide mound above ground level where drainage is adequate. Be sure to loosen all soil at ground level where roots will spread.
Planting the Tree
Plan in advance to remove roots from packaging material and to rehydrate. Soak them in a container for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours. Use a sharp tool to trim off any diseased, kinked, or broken roots.
- Place the trunk on top of the soil cone in the hole with the bud union or graft facing north to avoid sun-scald. To find the graft, look for a small jog on the lower stem, often where the trunk joins the roots, sometimes several inches higher up.
- Fan out roots over the soil cone, cover halfway with the excavated soil, and water gently.
- Finish filling the hole or covering roots on a raised mound; tamp the soil lightly, and water thoroughly but gently to eliminate any air pockets around roots. If the soil cone and stem have settled below grade level, gently tug the stem to lift it slightly and continue covering roots.
- If additional soil is needed, especially when mound-planting, mix one part native soil with an equal part of any amended soil to cover roots.
- Take care that no part of the stem will be covered with soil—only the roots.
- Scoop out a shallow, narrow moat encircling the planted area, about 8-12 in. from the trunk or as far from the trunk as the tips of the roots extend. Use this soil to finish covering roots if needed.
- Fill this moat when you irrigate. Water will filter down to fibrous roots as they grow outward and downward away from the trunk. Do not allow the root area to dry out.
- Cover the exposed surface area with 3-4 in. of compost or other mulching material to help preserve soil moisture, leaving a 4-6 in. area exposed around the trunk to prevent moisture in mulch from rotting the crown, that is, where roots join the base of the stem.
- Fertilizer is not necessary at planting time but may be applied after 1 year of growth. Staking is generally not necessary either as there is no heavy root ball or crown to secure.
Preparing for New Growth
For convenience in future pruning, thinning, harvesting, and pest management, trim the trunk after planting—head it back—to about knee height or 18-24 in. from the ground. Be sure to remove at least 1/3 of the original trunk height.
- Remove any spindly branches that remain but leave any ¼ in. or larger equally placed around the trunk and reduce them to 2-3 buds. These will become main scaffold or structural branches.
- New branches will grow the following spring.
- To protect a young tree from sunburn, cracking, and possible insect invasion, paint the trunk with a 1:1 mixture of white latex interior paint and water. This paint needs to be applied from 2 in. below the soil line to 2 ft. up the trunk or to the lowest branch.
- When installing drip irrigation, place emitters in the same area as the watering moat and, in subsequent years, gradually move the drip line and emitters farther away from the trunk as roots expand.
Bare-root planting is not restricted to fruit trees. Many gardeners prefer to plant roses and other shrubs bare-root as well. Keep in mind that bare-root planting refers to dormant plants, even dormant conifers.
- Trees or shrubs recently purchased in a nursery can may be planted bare-root when they become dormant by removing all potting mix in the root ball and separating roots completely.
- If roots are congested or circled in the can, prune off 1 in. all around the root ball, separate all roots, cut off any diseased, kinked, or broken roots with a sharp tool, and recycle potting mix.
- Pest Notes Library (UC Integrated Pest Management)
- Pruning & Training (UC The California Backyard Orchard)