Our far-flung correspondents have been sighting bare root trees coming into nurseries and big-box stores. It’s still a little early for planting in many parts of the country, especially considering the brutal nature of winter 2015 back east.
But places in the prairie states and west, especially the Pacific Northwest, enjoying warm winters? Why not take advantage?
Bare root trees not only cost half or so as much as their potted counterparts, they take better to planting. And there’s reason for that.
Bare root trees adapt to only one kind of soil. When you plant your tree with soil from the hole you dug, it encourages the tree to send out lateral roots. Trees planted with soil from the containers they come in tend to stay contained in the potting soil. They grow more slowly and send out fewer roots. Did we mention that container trees are more expensive?
Bare root trees, depending on size, are lighter and easier to handle. They have less root loss during transplanting than container trees. It’s easy to see where the roots will spread as you plant them. They’re not tangled and buried. And it’s easier to avoid a common mistake and reason for losing newly planted trees: planting them to deeply.
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Buying trees from a local producer or nursery is best. That way you can coordinate when the trees will come out of the ground and have their roots washed. The less time the trees are out of the ground, the better.
The nursery people will also know about the best time to plant in your area. Our experience shows that it’s good to get trees in the ground quickly and that they’ll take some cold weather (but not ground freezing) if nature happens to have some in store.
Commercial nursery vendors and big box stores most likely have their bare root stock dug and shipped when ready. The controlled storage environment they’re kept in does little damage. Check any trees you’re considering for broken or slimy roots before buying. Then, the important thing is to get them in the ground as soon as you can, or store them properly if not.
Dig your hole a bit deeper than what appears to be where the tree sat in the soil. Make it wide — serious growers recommend three feet. The hole can taper towards the bottom. And it should have a small mound at the bottom, especially if you’re planting rose bushes or shrubs, that will support the roots’ crown and help spread the growth laterally.
Again, use the dirt you took from the hole to refill it. Hopefully your soil has good texture and drainage already. But even if you’re working in clay don’t add more than a little sand or peat to encourage drainage. Let your tree adapt to its new home, dirt and all, before amending the soil. (Unless they’re fruit trees.)
If you’ve got your trees and it’s just too early to plant, you’ll need to provide proper storage conditions. If we’re just waiting for next weekend we’ve been known to keep trees in a wheelbarrow in the garage (they don’t need to be upright), covering the roots with wood chips or shredded leaf mulch or a combination.
If it looks like you might hold onto them until next month or so, dig a trench about a foot deep in a shady spot — the north side of the house works if the ground is thawed — and “toe-in” the trees, again covering the roots loosely with mulch or wood chips.
Don’t use cedar chips or sawdust to protect fruit tree roots. I had a bad experience with some apple stock I’d stood in a barrel with sawdust from our local cedar mill. The acids in the cedar wood didn’t do the trees any good and they never did take off.
If your ground is frozen, then it’s back to the garage. Trash cans make a good temporary root home and a number of trees can go into a single can. Again, mulch, wood chips, and the like will keep the roots moist. But not too moist. You don’t want your roots going slimy.
Here’s detailed bare-root information (PDF), thanks to the fine folks at the University of Cornell Urban Horticultural Institute. And here’s info on planting bare root stock from the Arbor Day Foundation. I can’t think of anything better to do if the weather cooperates than getting outside and landscaping with trees.
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