How to . . . plant a bare-root tree

by Rhiannon James

credit: Thomas Crenshaw

With their bare branches inked on wintry skies, trees are playing a waiting game during these colder months, before they shoot into new leafy growth in the spring. This makes winter a good time to plant a new tree, particularly if it’s a bare-rooted one. The most economical option for cash-strapped times, bare-root trees are grown in a field (rather than a container) and are lifted out of the ground for sale from about November until March. Planting is pretty straightforward but it’s worth taking a little time to get it right, to give your tree the best chance to prosper.

Things you’ll need

1. A bucket of water

2. Scissors

3. A bamboo cane and a spare piece of wood

4. A fork and a spade

5. A tree stake and a tree tie

6. A sledgehammer or a lump hammer

7. A hammer and nail

Step by step

1. If you need to prepare the soil, do this in advance of planting. Loosen it to get rid of any compaction and to improve drainage. Then fork in some organic matter such as garden compost to improve the fertility and structure of the soil. If possible, it’s best to do this across a reasonably wide area (up to a couple of metres around the spot where you’re planning to plant the tree).

2. Once you’ve got your tree, if you can’t plant it straight away, make a small hole or trench and cover the roots with soil so they don’t dry out.

3. When you’re ready to plant (pick a time when the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged), start by working out the size of the hole you need to dig. Unwrap the tree’s roots (unless there are specific instructions to leave the wrapping in place) and tease them out so you can see their spread. You’ll need to dig a hole that’s larger than the tree’s root system (up to three times the diameter of the root ball) to allow the roots to spread outwards once the tree is planted.

4. Next, work out how deep to make your hole. This is one of the most important things to get right – planting trees too deeply is one of the most common reasons for their failure. The tree should be planted so the soil only comes up to the root collar (the spot just above where the roots start to grow). If you’re not sure, look for the water marking that shows how deeply the tree was planted in the nursery and copy this. You can mark the depth on a cane or spare piece of wood and then use this as you’re digging. Once you’ve done this, wrap the tree’s roots again so they don’t dry out (this can happen surprisingly quickly).

5. Then dig a square hole to the size and depth that you’ve decided on. It’s best not to dig a round hole because this can encourage the tree’s roots to wind around in a circle rather than spreading outwards into the soil.

6. Don’t turn over the soil in the bottom of the hole because this can cause the tree to sink deeper into the ground after planting. If the base or sides are compacted, you can spike them with a fork instead. There’s also no need to add any fertiliser. Before you move on to the next stage, just double-check that the depth of the hole is correct. Put the tree in place and lay a cane across the top of the hole. The water line on the trunk should be level with the bottom edge of the cane. If the hole’s too deep, just firm some soil back in with your heel.

7. Unless your tree is small, you should stake it. This will prevent wind rock and movement of the roots while the tree’s becoming established. The tree should be staked close to the ground. Ideally, the stake should be no taller than one-third of the height of the trunk when the tree is planted (unless the tree has a very long or flexible trunk in which case you’ll need a longer one) so the roots are anchored in place but the trunk can flex in the wind. This will encourage the trunk to thicken and strengthen. Choose a spot to put the stake where it won’t interfere with the tree’s roots. The stake should also be on the side of the prevailing wind so the tree will mostly blow away from, not into, it. Drive the stake into the bottom of the hole using a sledgehammer or lump hammer and then check it’s secure.

8. Soak the roots of your tree in water prior to planting.

9. Then you’re ready to plant your tree. Get soil around and between all the roots to eliminate air pockets. Then firm in each layer of soil by gently pushing your heel towards the tree. This will help to ensure the tree isn’t pushed deeper into the ground as you plant it.

10. Fasten the tree to the stake using a tree tie. If you need to, use a spacer as well to prevent the tree rubbing against the stake. Loop the tie around the tree and the stake in a figure of eight, and secure it in place with a nail.

11. After planting water the tree in well.

12. Keep your tree well watered in the first few years after planting (insufficient water is another common reason that new trees struggle) and the ground around it free from weeds. To help the soil to retain moisture, you can add a mulch around the tree but be careful not to push it up against the trunk as this can cause rotting. It’s also important to check the tie regularly to make sure it’s not fastened too tightly around the trunk, which will thicken over time. Once the tree can stand unsupported without moving in the ground (usually after a couple of years), the stake can be removed.




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