Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bare Root Fruit Trees: Choosing and Planting

What is a bare root fruit tree? A young fruit or nut-bearing deciduous tree, offered for sale in the winter. “A stick with roots”. Fruits include apples, apricots, apriums, cherries, figs, mulberries, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, pluots, nectarines and pomegranates. Nut varieties are also available bare root in the winter, including walnuts, almonds, pistachios, filberts, chestnuts and pecans. Vine and bush fruits are also for sale in the winter, including blueberries, grapes and kiwi. Citrus is an evergreen plant, available year round.
Why grow your own fruit? For better health and better taste. Nothing beats the taste of home grown fruit! What follows are some tips for

turning this...

 Into this!                                                                                                Or this!

Shop local.
Your local nurseryperson knows your soil and growing conditions, and will carry fruit tree varieties that will do well in your area. Of those, choose fruit trees that you enjoy! Wondering which ones taste the best? Master fruit tasters have their favorites listed online, at, a wholesale grower of fruit and nut trees. Consider getting several trees that will ripen at different times.

Before You Buy, Plan Ahead.
Fruit trees do best in a sunny location with good drainage. They need eight or more hours of sun. Six hours of sun is pushing your luck. Wet soils are a major cause of fruit tree failure. 

If that hole you dug doesn’t drain within 24 hours, build a raised bed, at least 4’ x 4’x 12-16” high. Cherries and apricots need the best drainage for success. The fruit trees most tolerant of slow-draining soils are apples and pears.

Don’t be too concerned about a crooked top. After you plant a three to five foot tall bare root fruit tree, you can cut it off at knee-height. That way, the fruit-bearing branches will be lower, within easy reach. If you don’t let the tree get taller than seven feet, that fruit will ALWAYS be easy to reach.

Pay attention to the bud union. This is the spot where the tree variety is attached to the rootstock. It should be straight, not bent.

Look at the roots. They should not be brittle, damaged or cracked.

Walk away from bare root trees that:

• Have tunneling around the bud union (they might be borers).
• Oozing, dark colored bark (might be bacterial canker).
• Have been at the nursery for more than two years, if they are in containers. If in doubt, ask the nurseryperson.

When you get the tree home:
Treat it nice, immediately. Don’t let the roots dry out. If you are going to plant later that day or the next day, place the tree in a bucket of water or cover with a wet blanket. If it is going to be several days before you plant, bury the roots into soil (“heeling in”). This can be in your garden soil, compost, potting soil, or even a pile of wet leaves.

Dig a $50 Hole for that $20 Tree.

The hole should be wide, not deep. About four feet wide and as deep as the rootstock portion of the tree. Loosen the six feet of surrounding soil outside the hole to that depth. Feeder roots travel outward, not downward.

Plant the Tree Correctly.
Set the tree on a slight mound in the middle of the hole, and gently coax the roots to face outward. Look for  a color change on the tree below the bud union; the tree should be planted no deeper than that. Ideally, plant the tree with that mark about an inch above the existing soil line to allow for settling. Set your shovel handle across the hole to determine that point. Use only the soil that came with the hole.

Top With Mulch. After planting, surround the tree with three or four inches of organic mulch; the mulch should extend out several feet. Mulch feeds the soil, suppresses weeds, cools the soil in the summer and helps maintain even moisture, too. Don’t let mulch touch the trunk, though. That can lead to rot problems.

Wait until the tree is actively growing, choosing a fertilizer that lists fruit trees on the label. Whichever fertilizer you use, read and follow label directions.

Add Water. Carefully.
The primary cause of fruit tree failure is poor irrigation: either too much or too little water. Use a moisture meter or a soil auger to determine how wet or dry the soil is at root level. Or, grab a handful of the soil at a depth of 8 to 10 inches to determine how wet the soil is. Start doing this when that new fruit tree begins to flower. And, do it before you water.

Give the tree some sunburn protection. Paint that bare stick with a 50-50 mix of interior white latex paint and water; or, purchase tree whitewash at a nursery. That new tree is very susceptible to sunburn, which can lead to a cracked trunk…an entry point for insect and disease problems. 

In a few years, with a little bit of care, your kitchen counter will be overflowing with homegrown, healthy fruit.


  1. I really enjoy reading these posts! Thank you for all the good information!

    I don't have a great in-ground place to plant trees, and I'd love to see a post about bare root trees planted in large planters or half barrels.

  2. It's all true. I've done it :-) 60 times :-)

  3. Last year I did all the wrong things with fruit trees. This year, I'm doing it right, thanks to this post.