Planting Bare Root Trees
by Jesse Saindon
Careful planning of your planting site and using the proper planting technique will go a long way to ensuring your planting is a success and that your trees grow as well as possible. Consider using the instructions below as a guide when you are planting your new bare root trees:
Care Prior to Planting
Inspect the contents of the package to make sure the material (peat,sawdust,etc) around the roots is moist. If it's a little on the dry side, give it a sprinkle of water. The ideal state is moist, not soaking wet. Plan to plant within a couple days of receiving the package. In the meantime, store them in a cool, shady area where there is no risk of freezing temperatures.
Planting Day and Digging the Hole
Before planting your tree, remove the tree from its packaging and soak the roots in room temperature water for thirty minutes to an hour, but no more. Try to time this soaking so that planting occurs immediately afterwards.
At your planting site, dig a hole that is at least twice as wide as the root mass and just a bit deeper than needed for the roots to sit in the hole without bending or being crowded together. This will give the roots plenty of room to grow. Depending on the general shape of the root system, it can sometimes be helpful to create a little mound of soil within the hole that the tree can sit on and the roots can be draped over. This can make it easier to ensure the roots are all spaced out nicely before you begin backfilling the hole
Before placing the tree in the hole, you may consider driving stakes now (if using them) so that you don't accidentally damage the roots when pounding them in the ground. This is entirely up to you. Staking is often useful to help the tree grow straight until it really digs in and develops a thick stem.
To Amend or Not to Amend the Soil
You might be wondering whether or not you should add some good stuff to the soil that will be added back into the hole. There are a couple schools of thought on this, but we fall somewhere in the middle. Amending the soil with all kinds of nutrient rich composts and additives may spur growth, but too much of a difference in soil structure between the hole and the surrounding natural soil could cause issues with drainage, or result in roots that aren't encouraged to really drill out of the hole. Your tree is eventually going to have to survive on the natural soil on the planting site anyway.
Generally, we'd recommend adding a bit of bone meal or mycorrhizal fungi (if you have it), and if you're going to blend in compost, make it no more than 20% of the overall mix with natural soil.
Placing the Tree in the Hole
Now it's time to put the tree in the hole. Position the roots in a manner such that they are all spaced out nicely and not bent at the bottom of the hole. You'll also want the root collar of the tree to be level with the soil line once it's planted. The root collar is a spot located just above the roots and can be identified by a change in color or slight swelling of the main stem.
While holding the tree firm and upright, being gently filling the hole back in, first by adding it all around the roots, then continuing with the rest of the hole. Pat it down a little bit once it's halfway full and again at the end to ensure the roots are set in place. Not too much though, we don't want to compact the soil, just firm it up a bit.
A 2-3" layer of mulch on top of the planting hole helps regulate moisture/temperature and keeps competition from grasses down. Make sure there is less mulch around the immediate base of the seedling though, as too thick of a layer can suffocate the tree. If you are planting in the fall and in a region with winters with an unreliable insulating snow cover, consider using a thicker layer of mulch just for the winter, and removing most of it in the spring.
Fall Planting: After planting, give it a good thorough soaking then leave it alone until spring.
Spring Planting: After planting, give it a good thorough soaking, then water weekly (if it doesn't rain) for up to two months until the tree gets established. Monitor in the first summer during dry periods and water as needed.
Tree seedlings are often preyed upon by rodents who girdle the stem, or deer and rabbits who chomp at the tasty buds. Protection is an additional investment, but a worthy one. It's no fun to pay $15 or more for a tree only to have it wrecked by a deer in the first year. We prefer making tall homemade tree cages from chicken wire or hardware cloth. These can be keep around the tree for the first few years with little maintenance before removing and reusing them for the next planting project. There are also great products on the market aimed specifically at protecting the stem, which are often called bark guards, tree guards, or spiral guards. All work great. If you do happen to be in the unfortunate circumstance that your tree has been reduced to a ground-level nub, wait it out for at least a growing season to see if it doesn't just sprout back from the roots.