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Planting A Bare Root Tree

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

A friend called the other day so excited because “they’re giving away free native trees at the farmers market downtown.”  She’s a novice gardener and is passionate about planting to rejuvenate the earth. An hour later, I heard from her again, only this time the enthusiasm was definitely gone from her voice. “I’m sending you a picture of our trees,” she said, “only I’m not sure they really are trees. I think they gave us sticks in plastic bags.” 

bare root trees

It hadn’t occurred to me to explain to her before she went about what to expect from the free tree give away. In retrospect I now realize that in her mind, she was seeing rows of potted 8 or 10 foot well-branched specimens ready to give instant healing to the earth.   She’d probably never thought about what a tree looked like in the years before it wound up on a garden center lot for sale. And she certainly had no idea what to do with her “sticks in plastic bags.”

trees in pots


Although planting bare root trees or shrubs can seem like a daunting task, it’s actually a simple procedure. It just requires some preparation and a bit of physical labor to be successful. 

woman digging


Bare root specimens typically need some rehydrating before planting. Plan on soaking your bare root tree for at least 2 or 3 hours before planting, longer if the roots seem dry when you remove the packaging. Use tepid water for soaking, making sure that all the roots are completely immersed and gently untangling them if necessary. Rehydrating the roots helps eliminate some of the planting stress and gives the tree access to water as it settles into the dry soil. 



While the tree is soaking, begin prepping the planting space. Strip the sod or remove any vegetation within a 3 foot diameter of your tree’s new home. Removing existing vegetation cuts down on competition for moisture for the newly planted specimen. 



For a sapling tree, dig a hole that is about 18 to 24 inches across and deep enough to accommodate the root system. The crown of the tree should remain above ground so that the tree sits at the same depth it was at the growing facility. 



Keeping the tree upright, begin filling the hole with the soil you removed from the hole. Do not use a potting mixture or bagged compost to refill the hole. Fertilizer is not advised either. Gently tamp down the soil around the lower roots to remove air pockets, but be careful not to totally compact it. 



Once the lower roots are completely covered and the soil firmly in place, then begin backfilling the rest of the hole.As you shovel, continue tamping the soil and checking to make sure that the tree remains upright. Finally, build a very short ridge around the hole that acts as a water-holding basin.



Water the newly planted tree thoroughly, making sure that the water soaks into the ground.If you’re afraid that your new sapling will become dinner (or at least an appetizer) for local wildlife, then surround it with a 24 inch tall mesh hardware cloth stuck several inches into the ground.



Spread a 2 inch layer of mulch around the tree, covering the three foot diameter you cleared earlier. Be careful not to touch the tiny trunk with the mulch. Soak the mulch until it is wet but not soggy..



Throughout the first year, be diligent. If the weather turns dry – or more likely when the weather turns dry, your new tree should be thoroughly watered every 7 to 10 days. Always water a tree at its dripline, or the area under the outer circumference of the branches, because this is where the tree’s feeder roots are located.


It’s really disappointing when you’re anticipating a specimen and the reality is a sapling. But, like I told my friend, watching the tiny tree you planted and nurtured grow from its infancy into its maturity will fill you with a sense of pride and satisfaction. By planting that tree, as small as it is today, you are offering the planet hope for tomorrow.