Planting a Bare-root Tree Seedling
The term bare-root tree stems from the plant being dug from the ground when the tree is dormant and removing soil from the roots. According to Cornell University, a bare-root tree contains 200% more roots than the same tree if it’s dug with soil intact and wrapped in burlap. The original root system stays intact, resulting in a stronger, healthier sapling.
Before planting, always call 811 to have underground utilities located. They will not mark the feeder lines to your home, but they will mark major public utilities if they go across your property. You can usually determine feeder lines by making a straight line between the main valve on the street and where the utility enters your home. Calling 811 before you dig is the law. It will protect you from injury and expensive repairs while keeping our infrastructure intact.
Steps for Planting
- Place roots in water for one to six hours before planting – longer will drown the roots.
- Fast-moving water can damage delicate roots and break off the protective coating added by the nursery.
- Roots must stay moist during the entire planting project, but they can be drowned by soaking too long.
- If the roots are fibrous, hold your tree upright in the planting area and spread the roots out. Make a rough circle a few inches past the roots.
- Remove all grass from the planting area. Shake off soil for later use.
- Don’t dig deep. Planting trees too deep can kill them. The hole should only be deep enough so the tap root does not bend. The root flare should be level with the original soil level. To test that, place a stick or shovel handle across the top of the hole. Hold the tree against the stick so that the first root is the same height as the stick laying across the top.
- Slope the sides of your hole. It should be wider than it is deep. Rough up smooth clayey edges.
- Place some soil at the bottom of the hole to make a firm mound in the center. If your tree has a tap root, make a hole in the mound or carefully pile soil against the taproot while holding the sapling at the proper depth.
- Test the height by setting the tree on the mound and checking the root flare against the soil level. Adjust as needed. Planting at the right depth is critical.
- Gently spread the roots over the mound so that none are turned or bent. Prune out any damaged or strongly curved roots. If needed, widen the hole or dig a trench past the hole edge for a very long root. If roots curve to the side they may strangle the tree as they grow.
- Gently place the soil you took out back into the hole to cover the roots. Discard the grass. Hold the tree while you do this to keep the root flare at the surface.
- Very gently step on, or tamp, the soil to press it down.
- Check that the root flare is still at the surface. If it is too low, gently remove the top layer of soil and raise the tree. Repeat the previous two steps.
- Let go of the tree, it should stand on its own. Without holding the tree, tamp the soil more firmly.
- Thoroughly water the tree with several gallons of water to set the tree in place.
Remove any tags that are on the trunk. Tree tags should only be attached to a side branch or protective device, such as a tree tube, stake, etc.
For most plantings, you should not need to stake the sapling. However, if the root system is small or non-fibrous, the tree is grafted, or the area is windy, then staking may be needed. Remove the nursery stake from the trunk and place outside the root zone and another on the opposite side. Loosely attach guy lines to the stakes at the lowest limbs. Remove after one year. Check regularly to make sure the tree has room to grow. For staking orchards or more details, please contact your local WVU Extension agent.
Slow water once a week for the first three months, then once a month for the next six months, if there is less than an inch of rain during the week. If your tree is in a low area or near a seep, you may not need to water.
To slow water, drill five to eight small (5/8-inch) holes in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket. Set the bucket at the edge of the planting circle. Fill with water (while trees are very small, half-filled is OK). As the bucket slowly drains, take this time to examine your tree for damage and growth. If the tree is staked or wrapped, check to make sure the tree is not growing into the support.
Never use a weed eater near trees. Bark is no match for a weed eater, even on older trees. The circulatory system of a tree, along with its ability to make new cells, hides just under the bark. Damage in this area causes starvation, dehydration and an inability to close wounds.
Weed eaters are one of the leading causes of death for urban trees. Mulch can be used to protect the bark from weed eater damage and is recommended. Tree wraps can be used where mulch cannot. Always maintain an air gap around the bark to prevent decay. Loosen or remove wraps as the tree grows. Maintain mulch at a 2- to 3-inch depth.
If deer browse is a danger, place a tree tube over the sapling. If you install a tree tube, place it over the trunk while pulling limbs upwards. It is OK if the branches grow through holes, but it is critical that the main stem(s) don’t curve through a side opening in the tube.
As the branches expand, holes can be cut to allow for growth. The tree tube should be removed after three years or once the tree has outgrown it.
Authored by: Karen Cox, WVU Extension Agent – Ohio County
Last Reviewed: March 2023