Basic guidelines for establishing plants quickly

Bare-root plants are sold in late winter and early spring by retail nurseries and mail-order companies. Many deciduous plants are available this way, including fruit and shade trees, flowering shrubs, roses, grapes, and cane fruits.

Though venturing out in the cold and wet of winter to set out bare-root plants takes a certain amount of determination and effort, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Bare-root plants typically cost only 40 to 70% as much as the same plants purchased in containers later in the year; beyond that, they usually establish more quickly and grow better initially than containerized plants. This faster growth is in part due to the fact that, when you set out a bare-root plant, you refill the planting hole with soil dug from that hole–and the plant’s roots thus grow in just one kind of soil. When you plant a containerized or balled-and-burlapped plant, on the other hand, you put two soils, usually with different textures, in contact with each other. The presence of two differing soil types side by side can make it difficult for water to penetrate uniformly into the rooting area.

If you’re buying from a local nursery, select bare-root shrubs or trees with strong stems and fresh-looking, well-formed root systems. Avoid those with slimy roots or dry, withered ones; also reject any that have already leafed out.

It’s best to plant bare-root plants as soon as possible after purchase. If bad weather prevents immediate planting, heel in the plants by laying them in a temporary trench dug in a shady spot in the garden and covering the roots with moist soil. Before planting, soak the roots overnight in a bucket of water. Just before planting, cut off any damaged roots.

The planting hole

To plant trees and shrubs, dig a planting hole with sides that taper outward into the soil. Make the hole at least twice as wide as the roots of the plant. Roughen the sides with a spading fork; if the sides are smooth, it can be difficult for roots to penetrate the soil.

To keep the plant from settling too much after planting and watering, make the hole a bit shallower than the root ball or root system, then dig deeper around the edges of the hole’s bottom. This leaves a firm plateau of undug soil to support the plant at the proper depth.

In areas with heavy clay soil or hardpan, a wider hole will give the roots more growing space. Once the hole is dug, you’re ready to set in the plants.


Planting steps

1. Make a firm cone of soil in the planting hole. Spread the roots over the cone, positioning the plant at the same depth as (or slightly higher than) it was in the growing field. Use a shovel handle or yardstick to check the depth.


2. Hold the plant upright as you firm soil around its roots. When backfilling is almost complete, add water. This settles the soil around the roots, eliminating any air pockets. If the plant settles below the level of the surrounding soil, pump it up and down while the soil is saturated to raise it to the proper level.


3. Finish filling the hole with soil; then water again. Take care not to overwater while the plant is still dormant, since soggy soil may inhibit the formation of new roots. When the growing season begins, make a ridge of soil around the hole to form a watering basin; water when the top 2 inches of soil are dry.