Planting Bare Root Trees

I’ve been sick for over a week with some sinus thing that managed to sneak its way into my lungs and try to give me pneumonia. No, it’s not the “C” word. After several days of antibiotics I’m starting to feel human again.  Today its 74°F outside. In December. Even if I was half dead, I’d have to drag myself out on a day like today.  Plus, I had trees to plant.

I’ve decided that our yard is seriously lacking in fall color. We are mostly surrounded by oaks, hickory, walnut and cedar.  Even the sweetgum up by my soon to be shop don’t get that gorgeous red and orange that I see along the streets in town,  they are a disappointing yellow.

I did a little research and decided I’d like to start incorporating a few maples into the landscape. Not only are they usually stand outs in fall color,  they provide good shade, they don’t have a reputation for being as breakable as the Bradford pear I cut down last year (always a gorgeous red in fall, but vile and invasive, had to go). I opted for a bare root sugar maple from Arbor Day’s website; as an added bonus it came with a free red maple. 🍁

Hopefully not a deer snack

Arbor Day sends decent instructions with their bare root trees, but I’ve heard lots of folks complain their success with them is hit and miss.  The maple I paid for was almost 4 ft and had a really decent mass of established root on it. We’re having a mild fall right now,  so I feel pretty good about getting this in and getting it settled before it’s subjected to harsh weather.

I’ve been bad in the past about skipping the pre-planning part of tree planting, only to later curse myself for not considering how TALL, how w-i-d-e or how invasive surface roots can be in some areas.  I gave it a lot of thought this time.  I researched,  I read up on species before deciding, I watched light conditions, stuck my shovel in the ground and looked at it from different angles and inside the house.  See the shovel at the corner of the barn?

I cannot stress enough the headache it will save you later, just planting your tree in the right place. You need to picture how it will look when it’s at full height and maximum spread. Some trees can be trimmed up underneath, some look ridiculous if you do this,  it can even destabilize a few. Plant in the wrong spot and you’re making a lot of work for yourself later, if it doesn’t grow too large to be moved at all. I’ve seen lots of folks have to cut out beautiful trees because the wrong tree was planted just too close to their house or foundation.

2. If you get bare root trees like these, and the roots look like this with very little root ball, you may want to hold them back a season or two. I know the little pamphlet says they’ll establish roots over fall and do better in spring, but if your fall goes from mild to Siberia a week after you plant, those little guys just may not have quite enough root to pull through. I looked two weeks out and it looks ok, but if I were worried, I’d pot them up in potting soil and they’d spend a year or two like that until they have a nice, strong root ball. I put them in ground when they’re about 4ft tall and have a pot full of roots to get them started. Potted trees frim the nursery are way more expensive, but often perform better than tiny, fragile bare root trees. Have a little patience and you can save a fortune. The same sugar maple I bought for $15 was at least $50 when purchased in a pot.

3. I don’t want to just reiterate the rest if the tree planting instructions, but I do have one more piece of advice for those of you planting in clay soil. The instructions will tell you not to amend your soil. This is good advice, because your tree may not work to push its roots past the amended area. Trees can be lazy, like people. It’s also hard on fragile roots to work themselves through heavy clay.

If you don’t want to wait on potted trees or spend 3x the price, you can help a bare root tree by digging a HUGE hole. By this, I mean dig your hole out several feet from where the actual tree stands and a couple feet down from where it’s going to sit in the ground. Backfill your hole with loosened clay and sit the tree on top if that, you don’t want to bury it below the line it was planted at in the nursery. The reason for digging, then filling is to mechanically break up the clay, so the tree roots don’t have to do all the hard work.

We have cow pasture dirt- no rocks, at least 6 inches of topsoil, it drains and holds water fairly well for clay. You can see in the photo, I still dug a hole much larger than the tree required before planting. If we still lived at the Lake of the Ozarks, where our clay was either paste or concrete, I would have dug an even wider hole.

Final advice- don’t skip the mulch. When cold, sun, wind or heat start abusing your new trees, mulch can make the difference between a tree that pulls through or dies. This is in the tree planting instructions I got from Arbor Day, but it can’t be stressed enough. Mulch for a new tree is really, really, really important.

If you don’t have mulch on hand when you plant, chopped up leaves or straw work well. I’ve even used torn up cardboard. The trees I plant around our fields I throw an old tire on. It’s a good wind break and helps hold moisture around the roots. It also keeps me from running them over with the lawn tractor.

For detailed step by step instructions on planting a bare root tree, you can go to Arbor Day website. (They have video too)

Happy Holidays in case I don’t get back here until after NY.

-B

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