Fruit Trees in the Nude - Modern Farmer

Fruit Trees in the Nude

Why it’s best to plant them “bare root” style in late winter.

A young bare root tree waiting to be planted in a hole.
Photography by mirti on Shutterstock

We typically think of spring as prime planting season, but when it comes to deciduous fruit trees, it pays to get an earlier start. Starting in mid-winter, mail order nurseries start shipping “bare root” fruit trees—because they are fully dormant, the trees do not require soil or a pot—which may be planted as soon the ground thaws in your region. Advantages abound:

Less Stress
Planting is a fundamentally stressful experience for plants, because their roots get disturbed in the process. They cannot immediately absorb water or nutrients, leading to what horticulturalists term “transplant shock.” The hotter the weather, the worse the shock. But planting when a plant is fully dormant eliminates this issue.

Establishes Faster
Fruit trees are often slow growing, taking three years or more to begin bearing a crop. If you plant them in spring or summer, they typically languish for the first growing season, adding a full year until you can enjoy the harvest. But if planted while dormant, trees emerge from their winter slumber ready to grow, none the wiser to having been uprooted from the nursery and plunked down in some stranger’s yard.

Leads to a Long, Healthy Life
Fruit trees raised in a pot develop root systems that coil around and around in the shape of their container, which is not what nature intended. Trees grown for bare root planting, however, are typically grown in the ground in mild-winter climes such as California, where they are gently uprooted and shipped off to customers. Their roots splay out naturally when you plant them, which is important for healthy growth and to anchor the tree in high winds. When the roots are coiled, however, they tend to keep growing in a circle after planting, leading to a weak foundation—a big problem for a plant you hope will live to see your grandchildren swinging from its limbs.

Easier to Plant
The old saying that you need to dig a $100 hole for a $10 tree doesn’t apply to bare root trees. When planting potted trees, it is wise to dig a hole several times the size of the root ball, so those poor coiled roots have an easy time spreading out in the soil. But bare root trees only require a hole as big as the root system, which in their case is usually wider than deep, saving your back. 

Bare root trees tend to cost less than half of what potted trees go for, because pots and soil cost money, and because it’s more economical for growers to produce a tree on farmland and ship it to customers, rather than paying staff to take care of it while it sits in a retail nursery on expensive urban real estate.

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4 years ago

What is the best way to water a bare root? How soon should we begin watering? How often should we water and how much is too much or too little water?

Sherry Scott
4 years ago

How do you plant any tree with the threat of pocket gophers? I have used garden mesh, everything I can come up with, and they have managed to annihilate every one for 20 years.