Planting Bare Root Trees & Shrubs

Reiman Gardens bush with green leaves and small white flowers

Bare root trees and shrubs are an economical way to start new trees and shrubs, especially hard to find plants from mail-order sources. For many gardeners the idea of establishing plants from bare root is intimidating. Despite this, planting bare root at the appropriate time is a very good way to establish young woody plants and with a little know-how and these tips, any gardener can be successful with bare root plants.

  • Plant while dormant. Bare root plants are dug in the fall after they enter dormancy, and its best to plant them in early spring before they break bud. March and April can be a great time to plant.
  • Unpack and inspect as soon as they arrive. Roots should be plump, firm, and healthy. Avoid plants with dry, brittle stems/root; slimy, moldy roots; or buds that are dry or already leafed out.
  • Avoid desiccation. Soak dry roots for 3 to 8 hours after unpacking and before you plant. The number one reason for failure with bare root plants is allowing roots to dry out.
  • Plant as soon as possible. Most mail-order nurseries ship at the appropriate time to plant. The sooner you can get them in the ground the better – ideally within 24 hours.
  • Store in a cool location. An unheated garage, three season porch, or root cellar are all great options if they cannot be planted right away. Ideal temperatures are between 30° and 40°F.
  • Dig the hole shallow and wide. It should be deep enough to accommodate the root system and two times the width of the extended root mass. Put a small cone of soil in the middle of the hole to spread the roots across.
  • Plant at the right height. It should be at same level it was in the nursery. Use the shovel handle across the hole to align the root flare just above the surrounding soil level. The plant will settle after planting.
  • Fill the hole with the soil removed from the hole. Firm the soil as you fill to remove any air pockets being careful not to break any roots.
  • Water well when the hole is ¾ full to help settle the soil and remove air pockets. Once water has drained, fill hole the rest of the way with soil and water thoroughly again.
  • Place 2 to 3 inches of mulch and/or compost on top of the root zone. It’s best to keep grass and other plants away to avoid the competition.
  • Do not fertilize. The young plants can be damaged by too much fertilizer too soon. If needed, wait until year two to fertilize.
  • Stake trees for support and fence young plants to protect from rabbits and deer.
  • Continue to water throughout the season. Check weekly and supplement water if needed. Do not over water. Poor follow-up is the number two reason bare root plants fail.

Below are a few woody plants that do well planted by bare root. These are great species to start with in the home garden.

  • Crabapple (Malus )
  • Maples (Acer)
  • Flowering Cherry (Prunus)
  • Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
  • Linden (Tillia)
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
  • American Elm hybrids (Ulmus hybrids)
  • Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
  • Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata)
  • Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)
  • Katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
  • Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas)
  • Persian Parrotia (Parrotia persica)
  • Sycamore (Platanus )
  • Rose (Rosa )

prepared by Aaron Steil, Assistant Director  |  photo caption: crabapple (Malus sp.)