Q. In today's
economy, I'm looking for ways to save money on some new trees we
would like to plant around our home. We have lots of room for tree
A fellow at work told me that planting bare-root trees had saved him
lots of money. I thought trees had to be transplanted with dirt
around the roots, but he said bare-rooted trees worked well for him
and were much easier to move.
What do you think about his planting ideas for saving on our
Sounds like the fellow you spoke to knows his stuff!
There's an old saying that moving trees with large, heavy, soil
root balls is just "an expensive way to move dirt."
There's a great deal of truth in that saying, since most nurserymen
do start out with bare-root trees planted in their nurseries.
How bare-root trees are used
A nurseryman might buy 50 bare-rooted Maple "whips" with trunks the
size of your finger for planting in his nursery field. These trees
will be lined-out in straight rows. Adequate space is left between
each tree and every row to allow room for mowing equipment, and
eventually digging equipment. The trees will be "grown-on" for 3 to
5 years until they reach a good marketable size, say 2" to 2½"
caliper (trunk diameter 6-inches above the ground) and 10 to 12 feet
Tree spades for digging field grown B&B trees
Skid steer loader with "tree spades" produces
root balls like these:
Evergreen trees (like pine and spruce) are sold as seedlings or
transplants. A seedling is just that, a small tree grown from select
seed. One or two year seedlings may only be the size of a pencil and
are easily lost in an overgrown field, so they are usually grown in
tightly spaced seedling beds. Nurseries grow seedlings on for a
couple years and then transplant them to another nursery bed or
field with more growing space between them. These transplants are
grown on for a couple more years before they are finally sold or
Numbers are used to designate how many years trees were grown as
seedlings, and how many more years as transplants. A small pine
designated in a catalog as (3-2) was grown 3 years as a seedling and
then 2 years as a transplant, making the tree 5 years old. Younger
trees are cheaper but may have to be purchased in larger quantities
than transplants. Trees are usually shipped in early spring with
moistened material (or moisture gel) wrapped around their root
systems so the roots don't dry-out in transit. It's critical to keep
roots moist, so check your shipment immediately upon arrival.
How to handle bare-root nursery stock
The golden rule when handling bare-root nursery stock (whether it's
trees, shrubs or flowers) is to keep the roots moist and out of
the drying effects of the sun and wind. While brief periods
submerged in a bucket of water are OK, you are better off holding
seedlings in a cool, shady spot, and having the roots covered with
moist burlap, newspaper or wood shavings. Some nurseries heel
bundles of transplants into well composted sawdust or shredded bark
until they can be potted or lined-out in a growing field.
The biggest downside of planting bare-root trees is that timing
becomes much more critical. While soil-balled trees (B&B) can be
held over year round, bare-root nursery stock needs to be
transplanted while it is dormant. For a deciduous tree, this
would be the late fall or early spring period when it doesn't have
any leaves. The shipping season for these types of trees is
primarily early spring. Ideally, they should be planted before any
new growth appears.
When planting bare-rooted trees it is important not to cram the
roots into a constricted planting hole. The tree will eventually
depend on these roots for support, so a broad rooting pattern is
important. Improper planting can lead to girdling roots (ones that
grow in a circular pattern around the trunk and eventually strangle
the tree as it gets older) or "J-rooted" trees that were stuffed in
What else do you need to know?
Over the years
as I was planting evergreen seedlings, I would
usually give the roots a haircut with old scissors or hand pruners,
removing one-third to one-half of the root system (seedlings can
arrive with long stringy root systems bigger than the tree). You
will have to judge the individual plant and situation, you don't
want to remove more roots than is necessary, while still ensuring
the roots can be spread out properly in the planting hole. With a
clean* pair of pruners that hasn't contacted the soil, trim out any
broken, crossing or conflicting branches (*dirty pruners can be
disinfested with rubbing alcohol). Most trees like to have a
single trunk and growing point, known as a leader. Remove any second
leaders from the growing tip now to prevent a forked "V-crotch" in
the tree later (see photo).
The old advice is to create a cone of soil in the middle of your
planting hole, then spread the roots down over and around the cone
in a spread-out fashion without any bends in the roots. When
backfilling your planting hole, try to use finer soil so you get
good soil to root contact and avoid air pockets. Provided the soil
isn't too wet, try to lightly compact the soil two or three times
while filling the hole. Once planting is complete, thoroughly water
the tree in. Pay close attention to keeping your tree(s) watered,
especially during their first year.
As with any young trees, you will need to protect them from
wildlife, primarily rabbits, deer and mice. These animals will
quickly decimate young tree plantings with trunk rubbing (deer
antlers) or by chewing off the branches and bark. Garden fencing and
deer netting should solve the deer and rabbit problems, and plastic
spiral trunk wraps will help prevent mice from girdling tree bark.