Trees and shrubs which have been dug without soil around the roots, or bare-root, require the most care when planting. These should have been dug and shipped to you or to a nursery during the time when they are dormant. Almost always these plants are deciduous because evergreen plants seldom survive bare-root digging.
You will find many of these plants in nurseries and in mail-order catalogs for shipment during the winter months while their roots are mainly inactive and before their leaves appear. Their chances for survival are greatly diminished if you plant them after they leaf out.
The time you plant is very important for dormant, bare-root shrubs and trees. Late fall and early winter planting is generally the best. The closer to the growing season you plant the tree, the poorer the first-year growth will be because the roots will not have had sufficient time to develop before they have to meet the demands of the new top growth.
Remember that the roots will grow even in very cold weather, and the better the root system, the better the first year’s growth. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Plants which are marginally hardy like figs and blue or pink Hydrangeas are best planted after the coldest part of the winter has passed.
Handling bare-root plants
Though bare-root plants are dormant, they are still alive and must be treated carefully. After you take them home or receive them by mail, prepare them for planting as soon as possible.
First, examine the material around the roots carefully to see if there is still moisture in the packing materials. If it seems to be dry, pour a cup or two of water into the package to freshen the roots before planting.
Nowadays many mail-order nurseries will ship plants which are laid in a box with a plastic wrap around the roots and no packing material. Even though this is quite satisfactory, you should never leave such plants in the sun or in a hot place. If they look particularly dry, use a mister to spray a small amount of water to freshen the roots while you are preparing to plant.
Remember that excessive moisture may cause rotting to begin. Try to be ready when you get your bare-root plants. Do not buy them at a nursery on the spur of the moment. It is difficult to hold these plants at home for long.
Bare-root trees and shrubs should be cared for regularly during the first spring. Water during periods of drought, prune any branches that die and keep them well mulched. If a plant is slow to come out in the spring, prune it back to reestablish the proper root-top balance. This will usually force new growth quickly. However, do not cut the main stem (leader) of a shade tree. This will ruin its shape.
- Dig a hole larger and deeper than the root system.
- Make a good soil mixture out of the soil taken from the hole. Use ⅓ peat moss or ground bark, ⅔ soil from the hole, and a large handful of cattle manure (dehydrated is much better than composted). Do not add any fertilizer to the mixture.
- Now check the feeling of your mixture. If it still feels tight and slick, add more humus and perlite to loosen it up. If the pH of the soil needs to be corrected, add lime or aluminum sulfate to the mixture.
- Next, observe the bottom of the hole. If the soil layers are particularly tight, sticky and damp, dig the hole a little deeper and place some fine gravel, sand, or chunks of bark in the bottom to allow drainage.
- Take the plant out of the bucket of water and position it in the hole.
- Begin filling the prepared soil around the roots. Be sure that the planting depth is the same as it was at the nursery. Do not plant too deeply!
- Continue filling the prepared soil around the roots, packing it down as you do.
- Water larger plants thoroughly when half the hole is filled. This settles the soil around the roots and prevents air pockets from forming in the root zone.
- Continue filling the hole until it is full, and water again. Now make a collar of dirt around the outer edge of the hole to hold water as growth begins or during any dry periods during the first growing season.
Mulching new trees and shrubs is always helpful. A good pine-straw or bark mulch will keep weeds under control and prevent excessive water loss.
Small trees up to 6 feet in height should not be staking. However, larger trees do need to be staked to prevent the swaying of the tree in the wind from breaking the young feeder roots.
Some gardeners prune the tops of the plants rather severely after planting. This may be very helpful, especially if the roots were damaged or dry when you planted. However, shade trees should not be pruned except to remove any broken or damaged limbs. The main trunk should never be pruned. Altering the growth habit of a shade tree by pruning the main trunk may ruin its natural shape.
After new growth starts, fertilize the top of the ground in a circle at the outer edge of the hole on top of the mulch. For starting new trees and shrubs, use a tree and shrub fertilizer which is formulated with a slow-release nitrogen, or a 10-10-10 fertilizer. Always water after adding fertilizer.