Planting Bare Root Trees

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
In general terms, the odds of a successful tree planting can be significantly increased if the planting is done in the fall. Fall planting allows the tree time to begin to develop its root system without the stress of supplying water to rapidly growing leaves. However, as in most things plant related, there are exceptions. Bare root trees are one of those exceptions.

This is not so much an optimal planting time issue as it is a plant availability issue. Bare root trees must be dug and prepared for delivery when they are dormant and kept in cold storage until delivery. This means a spring planting for us. Consider the following suggestions when planting your bare root trees.

As soon as the trees arrive, unpack and check their condition. Cover the roots with damp cloth or paper (shredded paper works very well) and store them in a dark, cool area. Immediately prior to planting, soak the tree roots in a bucket of clean water for several hours. This will help the plant begin to wake from dormancy. Now is a good time to remove any string, labels or tape that might cause girdling as the tree grows. This is one of those seemingly simple little tasks that often get overlooked-causing problems later on.

Prepare the planting hole by digging much wider than the root mass but no deeper. This is an important step as it gives plenty of loose soil for roots to begin their lateral growth. Digging the hole deeper than needed is likely to cause settling, leaving you with a tree that is planted too deeply. This is a common cause for tree failure, especially in tight soils. The uppermost roots should be just below the soil surface when the tree is planted. Any graft unions should remain above the ground.

Staking should be on an “as needed” basis. If the tree is very small, it may do fine without staking. If it is larger or has a well-developed branching structure, staking at planting is advised. Some upper trunk movement is fine as long as the base of the tree does not move around.

Finish the installation with a good watering and then apply several inches of mulch around the planting area. The larger the mulched area, the lesser the competition for valuable moisture and nutrients. A four-foot turf-free circle around a new tree would not be too extreme.

Concerning the addition of fertilizer or soil additives, if a soil test indicates a need for a particular nutrient, it can be incorporated into the back-fill soil or applied as a top dress at planting. Avoid a pile of fertilizer in the bottom on the hole as direct contact with the roots is harmful. Additives such as peat moss or potting soil should be avoided as they can create a “flowerpot” effect. This is a situation where the plant has no need to develop roots into the surrounding soil because everything is readily available close by. This is another common cause of failure as the plant matures.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at keith.reed@okstate.edu, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

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