Caring for Bare Root Trees

Instructions for Planting and Caring for Our Trees


Realize that all bareroot stock, though dormant, is also in a state of shock. They have been dug up from the field with an inevitable loss of roots, and need special care even before planting. The most important things to remember are KEEP THE ROOTS MOIST and DON’T LET THE ROOTS FREEZE, even for brief periods, i.e. while transporting them to the planting site. If you have not pre dug the holes for your trees and must keep them unplanted for more than a few days, they should be heeled in (the roots buried in a moist, but NOT saturated medium), in a shady spot and watered thoroughly. Keep the roots packed in moist sand, peat moss, potting mix or mature, cool compost. Fully dormant trees can be kept like this for several weeks if necessary, but should always be permanently planted before showing any signs of bud swell or growth. Protect roots from freezing before planting. Prior to planting: Submerge tree roots in water for 12 to 24 hours. This will afford them a good long drink to compensate for any moisture loss in storage. Adding 2 Tbs. of liquid kelp per gallon of soak water is beneficial. Use the soak water to water in the trees after you plant them.

Each plant has specific needs such as drainage, soil type, soil fertility, exposure and moisture. Generally, a moderately fertile and well drained site is best. All fruit and nut trees and grapes perform best in full sun, Do some research to find out the requirements of your plants. When choosing a site, pay attention to microclimates. Cold air, which may cause damaging spring frosts, drains away from slopes and ridges, making them good sites for planting. Planting near a south facing wall can help late fruits to ripen in colder climates. Trees such as almonds and peaches, which bloom early, can benefit from a colder site such as north facing slope a north side of a building, to keep them from blooming to early and losing their blossoms to winter rains and frost. After choosing the site and spacing desired, lay out the orchard by placing stakes at each tree location to line up and visually determine the planting sites. Remember that pollenizer varieties, when required, should be within 50 feet of each other, the closer the better.

The long held rule of thumb is to dig a ten dollar hole for a one dollar tree. Dig the hole at least twice the root diameter and twice the root mass of the tree, at least 3’ by 3’ for grafted trees. When digging keep the topsoil and subsoil separate. Place the excavated soil on a tarp or board to preserve it for replacing in the hole. Loosen the sides and the bottom of the hole. Put the subsoil back in the subsoil when panting, topsoil back at the top. Note that the shovel may “glaze” the sides of the hole, especially in wet clay soils, leaving a hard, compact surface that is impenetrable to young roots. For this reason it is advisable to fracture, or scratch with a shovel or rake, the sides of the hole before filling in. After digging the hole to the proper depth, pour 5 gallons of water in the hole and see how long it take to drain out. If it requires more than 6 hours to fully drain, that site is likley too poorly drained to provide a good environment for the tree to thrive. If it drains poorly dig a “French” drain to improve drainage from the bottom of the hole. Or find another location for your tree.

Amendments: Placing too many goodies in the planting hole such as manure, compost, planting mix or potting soil will create an environment that the tree roots will never venture out of, which will stunt the tree and reduce health and productivity. Never use manure. Add only fully composted mature (cool, good smelling compost) or quality organic planting mix, adding a maximum of 25% amendment. The other 75% should be the native soil. Add soft rock phosphate as you fill the hole, 5-10 pounds per tree. Mix the compost with the soil as you backfill the hole, scattering soft rock phosphate at all levels of the hole, especially near  the bottom, where most active root growth will occur. After all the soil is returned to the hole, create a 6″ tall berm around the  entire tree, higher on the downhill side if on a slope. This will provide a location to fill the soil with water when irrigating.

If your tree has a bud union, face it north to avoid sunburn, or on the opposite side of strong prevailing winds. Carefully note where the soil line was on the plant so that you can plant it at the same depth as it was grown, or slightly higher. With grafted trees it is important that the graft union be 3”-6” above the soil. Soil tends to settle as its watered so start a bit high so the graft union ends up well above the soil line. Inspect the roots and prune off any damaged roots just above the break, as well as unusually long roots. If there is a definite taproot (typical of nuts) leave this longer than the side roots. Remember the tree lost several roots when dug, and this must be balanced by top pruning, so that the roots can feed the branches without strain. Trees over 4 feet are usually cut back to a 3 foot single whip, cutting back any side branches and about a third of the top. Be sure to leave a healthy, plump bud at the top of the tree, cutting 1/2 inch above it. A rule of thumb: branched trees and multi-stem shrubs should have 50% of each twig pruned off.

When ready for planting, put about 1/3 of the soil/compost mix in the hole and place the tree in, spreading the roots. Often a mound of soil at the bottom of the hole is useful for keeping the roots spread out. Avoid placing any weeds or green plant material in the hole – they emit methane gas when decomposing, which does not agree with young roots. Put the rest of the soil in and tamp lightly. Make a ring of soil about 6” high all around the low side of the tree, or all around the tree on flat ground, to hold water in. It is important to eliminate air pockets and ensure that the roots are in good contact with the soil. This can be achieved by puddling the tree roots with large quantities of water. Fill the hole and let it soak in, gently wiggling the tree and poking the mud with a stick to eliminate air bubbles. After the water has soaked in, fill the rest of the hole with the subsoil and tamp it firmly with your feet, keeping the stem upright.

Proper care is essential during the first few years of a tree’s life, with the first season being the most crucial. A healthy soil and vigorous growth is the best insurance against pests and diseases. Be sure you can weed and irrigate regularly during the summer, at least 1” of water per week (drip or microsprinkler works great, but hand watering is fine). Note that standard and semi-standard trees can usually be weaned to dry farming as they mature, but supplemental water is necessary to get them established, at least the first 3-4 years. Top dress in the spring with compost or aged manure at the dripline. Paint the trunk of all young trees from an inch or two below the soil level up to the first branches with white interior latex paint that has been thinned with equal parts water. This is especially important in hot summer areas, to protect the tree’s young sensitive bark from sunburn and flathead bark borers, whihc can kill a sunburned bark young tree. During the growing season, remove any sprouts from the rootstock. Cultivating or mulching the ground in a minimum 2 foot circle around the tree will greatly help the growth. Keep mulch and organic matter away from the tree collar (where the trunk meets the soil) to avoid collar rot. When necessary, use screening to protect tree roots from gophers and voles. Always protect from deer!