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Planting Bare Root & Container Fruit Trees: A Step-by-Step Guide

There’s something incredibly satisfying about planting fruit trees and watching them grow over the years. But it’s not just a case of digging a hole and hoping for the best. Learn how to plant bare root and container fruit trees so they produce abundant fruit and enjoy a long and healthy life.

Planting Bare Root & Container Fruit Trees: A Step-by-Step Guide
Container and bare root fruit trees

Deciduous fruit trees

How to Plant Deciduous Fruit Trees

A deciduous fruit tree is a type of tree that bears fruit and sheds its leaves each year. These woody perennials require a certain amount of chilling hours during winter to ensure proper growth and fruit production. Examples include apple, pear, nectarine, plum, apricot, and peach trees.

How to Plant Deciduous Fruit Trees and how to plant bare root fruit trees

Bare root trees

Usually offered in the winter, a bare root tree is a dormant tree that isn’t planted in soil but instead usually has some moist packing material around the roots.

Bare root trees are an excellent choice for planting. They are usually the most affordable option, and most nurseries have a good selection of varieties. 

how to plant bare root fruit trees
Bare root trees at a local nursery in early January

One of the advantages of bare root trees is their ability to establish quickly after planting due to their unconfined root systems. This characteristic allows young trees to thrive and grow rapidly.

The upper fruiting (scion) portion of the tree is grafted onto a rootstock chosen for particular qualities like disease resistance or drought tolerance.

Tips for purchasing bare root trees:

  • Always purchase from a reputable local grower and nursery if possible. They should guarantee the tree. You won’t know it’s alive until it “breaks bud”.
  • Choose young trees, ideally 1/2″-3/4″ (1-2 cm) trunk diameter; a year old. A thin-trunked tree will recover more quickly from a hard prune (more about that later).
  • Purchase the right variety and number of chill hours for your climate.
  • It should be dormant with no leaves and a healthy root mass.
  • Purchase at the correct bare root planting time for your area. Do not purchase old stock that is past the planting window.
how to plant bare root fruit trees
Bare root trees in a local nursery

Follow instructions from the grower or nursery for caring for them after purchase. It’s crucial to plant a bare root tree as soon as possible after getting it home from the nursery.

how to plant bare root fruit trees
Bare root trees in a bag to protect roots when going home

Tips for preparing bare root fruit trees for planting:

  • Take it out of the bag, spread the roots out, and let it soak in a bucket of water for up to, but not longer than, overnight.
  • Inspect the roots and trim off any broken or rotten roots.
  • Trim the ends off all over the root ball and soak in fresh water until you plant.

Container fruit trees

As with bare root fruit trees, select small container-grown trees (1 to 5 gallons [4-19 liters]), but preferably not larger.

Planting Bare Root & Container Fruit Trees: A Step-by-Step Guide

Before buying a container fruit tree, ensure the roots are not circling the container. Look for healthy root growth and a tree that does not look too large for the container. 

If it is early in the season and the tree has few leaves, the container tree may be nothing more than a newly-planted bare root tree. If so, remove the tree from the container and shake off the soil. Treat the container tree as a bare root tree. 

Where to plant container and bare root fruit trees

Choose a location with plenty of sunlight. Do not plant in a lawn; this encourages shallow roots rather than nice, deep ones that benefit the tree’s health and longevity. 

How to plant container and bare root fruit trees

How to Plant Deciduous Fruit Trees
Bare root tree in a hole before planting and after covering with soil
  1. Dig the hole, but don’t go too deep. The planting hole should be 2-3 times as wide and only as deep as the roots or the container. Plant slightly below the root flare – where the roots begin and the trunk ends, usually a few inches below the graft.
  2. Fill the hole with water and let it drain. If it does not drain within several hours, check for caliche or other drainage issues. Ensure good drainage before proceeding to the next step.
  3. Bare root: Build a cone of soil in the middle of the planting area. Gently untangle and spread the roots out evenly over the cone of soil.
  4. Container: Gently remove the tree from the container. Handle the tree by the root ball, not the trunk. Stand the tree in the hole.
  5. Fill the hole with the soil you removed from the hole (do not amend). The top of the root flare should be just above the soil. Do not cover the graft. Grafts should be 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) above the soil line.
  6. Water the tree in and gently firm up the soil if needed. Don’t tamp down on the soil.
  7. Add a layer of compost on the surface of the soil, several inches away from the trunk.
  8. Add a layer of wood chips on top of the compost.
  9. Build a berm 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) around the tree to act as a basin that will direct water to the roots. 
How to Plant Deciduous Fruit Trees

You might be surprised about the advice not to amend the soil. A must-read book for fruit tree growers is “Grow a Little Fruit Tree.” In this book, Ann Ralph states, “Roots of plants and trees in unamended soil adust to native soils. Roots that must transition from potting soil to amended soil, then to regular garden soil have a harder time. The bare roots of a tree in native soils experience no such rude awakenings – a good reason to plant bareroot when you have the opportunity.”

Consider spraying the tree and surrounding soil with worm castings tea after planting. Worm castings tea may:

  • Reduce transplant shock.
  • Improve the families of microbes in the soil, which will add food for the trees.
  • Reduce pathogens and soil diseases.
  • Provide natural growth hormones (and they tell the plant to protect itself from the inside).
  • Give the tree some immediately available nutrients.
  • Stimulate root growth.
How & Why to Make Worm Castings Tea

Prune newly-planted bare root and container fruit trees right away

Cut the tree down by ⅔ to 18-24 inches (45-60 cm)(about knee height). Make a clean cut at a 45° angle just above a bud. Ensure there are several buds below the cut and above the graft (where the tree is grafted onto the rootstock).

How to Plant Deciduous Fruit Trees and how to plant bare root fruit trees

This aggressive heading cut will benefit your tree for the rest of its life. Quoting Ann Ralph again, “The resulting low-branching, open-center tree will grow to be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and far more usefully fruitful.” (Grow a Little Fruit Tree)

This advice is for deciduous fruit trees like apples, plums, peaches, and apricots. Do not do a hard prune on pomegranates or citrus trees. Their growth habits are different. 

Caring for your newly-planted tree

Water in the tree. Don’t let the soil dry out. Check soil moisture and, if needed, water daily for the first 10-14 days. Water to the depth of the root ball.

Pay attention to the newly-planted tree to determine how much water to give it. As more leaves develop, the water needs will be higher. As the roots grow, water to a depth of 2-3 feet (60-90 cm).

Once the tree is actively growing, feed the soil around the fruit tree using the worm casting, compost, and mulch method discussed in this blog post to stimulate root growth. Repeat before summer and again in the fall.

Provide shade for the first summer. Do not feed with additional fertilizer (other than the compost and worm castings) for the first year. Remove blossoms and fruit for the first 2 years. And finallly, do not prune again until the following winter.

How to Plant Deciduous Fruit Trees

Visual planting guides for vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers & vines.

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