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How to Plant a Bare-Root Tree or Shrub

Bare-root trees and shrubs are an economical alternative to those sold as balled-and-burlapped or in containers. Follow these tips on how to plant them.

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Step 1: Prepare the Bare-Root Tree or Shrub for Planting

Remove the plant from its packaging and dunk the roots into a bucket full of water. Allow it to soak for about two to six hours. The ideal planting time of bare-root trees or shrubs is during the dormant season, such as in winter or early spring, when the soil is workable and not frozen. Plants will have time to establish their roots before the new top growth comes on in spring.

Tip: It's best to plant bare-root trees and shrubs as soon as possible; this helps to keep the roots from drying out. If it isn't possible to plant immediately, store plants in a cool, shady area and keep the roots moist.

Step 2: Determine the Planting Location

One of the most common mistakes homeowners make when planting is spacing trees and shrubs too close to buildings, structures and power lines or to other woody plants. Always keep in mind the plant's mature size and cultural requirements and site it accordingly.

Tip: Prior to planting, have underground utilities professionally located to ensure unforeseen problems don't occur when digging.

Step 3: Dig the Hole

The planting hole should be about twice as wide as the roots. Avoid digging the planting hole too deep. In such a case, the soil settles after planting, and the plant sinks deeper into the ground. If the trunk flare (the swollen area where the trunk meets the roots) of the plant is buried, it will be more susceptible to fungal rot. Score the sides of the hole to loosen the soil.

Step 4: Place the Roots in the Hole

Mold a loose cone of soil at the bottom of the hole, and set the plant in the hole, spreading the roots around the cone.

Step 5: Replace Soil in the Hole and Water

Firmly press the soil in place around the root ball; this removes any air pockets. Make sure the trunk flare is even with the soil surface, not covered in soil. Water evenly around the entire root system. If the soil settles and uncovers the roots, add more soil to cover the roots and water.

Tip: It isn't necessary to add compost or other soil amendments in place of the existing soil that you're adding back to the planting hole. In fact, the rich nutrients may encourage the roots to grow within the basin of rich soil amendments but not penetrate the existing soil outside the basin. The roots may begin to circle the planting hole and choke the tree or shrub at its base.

Step 6: Apply Mulch and Water

Apply a two- to three-inch layer of mulch around the base of the tree or shrub. The mulch will help the new plant retain moisture at its roots and suppress weeds from growing. It also creates a barrier around the plant so string trimmers and mowers won't damage the trunk flare and bark. Keep the plant evenly moist, but not too wet, throughout the growing season; water about once a week, adjusting accordingly to periods of drought and rain.

Tip: When watering a newly planted tree or shrub, make sure to water not only the root ball but also the undisturbed soil immediately surrounding it. This keeps the soil moist at the root level, making it more inviting for the roots to penetrate.

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