Spring’s just around the corner. For a lot of people that means one thing: planting season! If you’re considering adding a beautiful tree to your garden this year, now’s the time to figure out what kind you’d like, and how and when to purchase it.

Bare-root stock

Bare-root trees are shipped just like the name implies – without soil.

Illustration Credit: Eva Monheim

Planting hole

The hole for your bare-root tree should be wide and shallow with a small mound in the center.

Illustration Credit: Eva Monheim

Roots spread over mound

To plant, spread the roots over the mound and down into the hole.

Illustration Credit: Eva Monheim

Planted and mulched tree

When your bare-root tree is properly planted, it shouldn’t even have to be staked.

Illustration Credit: Eva Monheim

While you can find all types of trees, you’re only able to buy them in one of three ways: balled and burlapped (commonly called B&B – they’re grown in the ground, harvested, wrapped in burlap and ready for sale), containerized (grown, sold and shipped in the same container) and bareroot (once harvested, the soil is carefully removed from the roots and readied for sale). Spring is the only time for planting bare-root trees because they must be sold and planted before they come out of dormancy (and within a week of bringing them home).

My students often ask if there are any benefits of using bare-root trees, and I always tell them, “Well, there are certainly more benefits than there are disadvantages.” In fact, I believe bare-root trees are the wave of the future – especially when considering rising fuel costs. It costs growers more to ship trees with the soil, and those costs eventually get passed on to the consumer. But that’s certainly not the only benefit of bare-root trees! Here are a few more reasons to consider buying bareroot this year:

  • You can see the root system. When it comes to B&B and containerized trees, the roots are hidden below the soil, so you can’t tell if they’re twisted (girdled) around the trunk. But with bare-root trees, the entire root system is exposed, so what you see is what you get.
  • You can see the root flare (the area between the straight trunk and the roots) on a bare-root tree, which is sometimes hidden in trees sold in soil. Maintaining the root flare slightly above the ground grade provides the best positioning for the establishment of your new tree – and you’ll have control over that with a bare-root tree because you’ll know exactly where the flare is. Burying the tree too deeply can suffocate the root system and prevent the tree from being able to sway in the wind.
  • You can get a bigger tree for a very reasonable price because you’re not paying extra for all that soil. You’re also purchasing a more environmentally friendly product because less fuel is spent transporting it.
  • You save in manpower. You can move and plant a bare-root tree yourself because it’s not as heavy or clumsy to handle. (And if it’s easier to plant, you just might want to plant more!)
  • You can get your bare-root tree established more quickly because the roots don’t have to struggle with growing from one type of soil (what they’re grown and shipped in) into another (the soil you plant them in).
  • You get more roots on a bare-root tree. In fact, bareroots keep about 90 percent of their root system compared with about 50 percent of B&B roots. Quick establishment depends on the root system and how quickly it adapts to its new surroundings. The more roots a tree has, the more water and nutrients it can absorb!
  • You can water a bare-root tree more efficiently. Since the soil it’s in is all the same type, water should flow through it more uniformly.

There is one big disadvantage to buying bare-root trees, though: You’ve got a short window of opportunity to plant them. Growers harvest the trees when the plants are dormant, and they’re shipped in early spring before the buds begin to expand and swell. (This is the time when the plants are the least vulnerable to damage and have the greatest opportunity for success.) If you wait too long to plant in spring, bare-root trees won’t be an option.

When it comes to planting these trees, there are a few things you can do to make transplanting more successful. Before you bring them home, prepare a bucket of hydrogel to dip the new arrivals. What’s hydrogel, you ask? It’s a polymer that holds water in soil and nutrients around the roots of the plant. The hydrogel will adhere to the finer roots of the stock and keep them moist even after planting. It’ll even help keep the roots moist between waterings.

The hole you need to dig for your bare-root tree is a little different, too. It should be wide and shallow with a small mound in the center to keep the tree from sinking too low. Spread the roots over the mound and down into the hole. This prevents any errant girdling roots from wrapping around the entire root structure, and it keeps the tree at a good planting level.

Firmly pack the soil on top of the roots, and make sure there aren’t any large air pockets – that’s what usually causes these trees to topple over. A thin layer of mulch spread around the tree will go a long way toward keeping down weeds, retaining moisture and reducing evaporation. (Just make sure the mulch doesn’t butt up against the root flare or trunk.) Build a small “ridge” with the mulch to create a “basin” effect around the tree to help catch water and deliver it right to the roots. If your bare-root tree is properly planted following these directions, you shouldn’t even have to stake it.

That’s all there is to it! If you’re thinking “spring” already, then consider adding some bare-root trees into your garden plan. Whether you want your trees for their flowers, fruit or foliage, buying bare-root will get you a great value for your money. You’ll also save on some back-breaking work as you make your garden – and the world – a little greener with your new trees!