buying bare root fruit trees

No-Stress Bare Root Planting Guide

by | Feb 14, 2023

February is great for bare root planting

Hey everyone! While I’m still in disbelief that it’s already one month into the new year, February brings many exciting things to the garden that I want to share with you! First, it’s bare root planting season! If you’ve ever dreamed of planting fruit trees in your garden and harvesting your very own homegrown fruit, this is the time to turn your dreams into action. This goes for roses as well as a whole bunch of other plants. Stay tuned, and I’ll show you how!

Second, it’s time that we can finally start some Summer seeds indoors (mainly tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants). I finally sat down with my seed collection and set aside what I want to plant this Summer. As you can imagine, I struggled the most with narrowing down which tomatoes to grow! There are now 17 different seeds started in my indoor garage seed setup (about 8 tomatoes, 7 peppers, and 2 eggplants). If you’re a fellow Southern California gardener, you can check out my personal seed starting schedule by clicking on the Garden Resources Library at the bottom of every newsletter.

For my little nook of Southern California, February is the start of everything that screams SPRING!!!! 

mature espalier plum tree that started as a bare root

This is one of the first trees we ever planted as a bare root. It is a plum that I have trained as an espalier to sit flat against our fence.

What plants can be planted as bare roots?

There are too many to list, but many plants can be purchased as bare root plants. Some examples are:

fruit trees

roses

strawberries & berries

grapes

asparagus

many perennial flowers

Bare root plants are really just dormant plants that have been dug up and sold to you without soil. Today I’m really going to focus on bare root planting for fruit trees and roses.

Our Bare Root Planting Experience

Almost all of our fruit trees were planted as bare root plants. Despite popular belief that bare root fruit trees produce more slowly than an already potted plant, I find that we often get one or two fruits within the first two years, and the third year typically gives us a healthy harvest! Occasionally, there are outliers of course. For example, our Anna’s apple gave us incredible harvests within the first two years whereas the Ein Shemer apple just started producing a tiny bit in its third year (PS: I would not recommend the Ein Shemer apple). Both trees were planted at the same time, as bare roots, in the same location. Some high performing bare root fruit trees in our Southern California (zone 10b) garden are: ‘double delight’ nectarine, ‘ultra-dwarf ‘royal’ apricot, ‘wonderful’ pomegranate, and our 4-in-1 peach tree. Before choosing fruit trees for your climate, I highly recommend you check out Things to Consider Before Buying a Fruit Tree for a breakdown of some basic terms to know.

homegrown 4 in 1 peach tree

This is our 4 in 1 peach tree that we bought as a bare root and planted a few years ago. The varieties on it are: Mid Pride, Desert Gold, Florida Prince, and Eva’s Pride. We have already harvested peaches from it! I personally feel like some of the grafts are doing better than others, but time will tell!

When is the best time for planting bare roots? A simple sign is to observe when your local nurseries start stocking bare root plants. Bare root plants are in their dormant stages, so ideal planting times would be while plants are dormant for winter in your area—-although I assume it would have to be after major snow in colder zones? I can only speak for warmer climates (specifically here in Orange County), and that’s January-early Spring. Furthermore, many online retailers have charts that show their shipping dates for each gardening zone, and suppliers won’t typically send out bare root plants before it’s appropriate to plant them. Although, if Californians order from a company in a much colder zone, their supply is often not ready as soon as we need our bare root plants in some cases.

Here’s the “no-stress” part

Now, this is called my “no-stress” bare root planting guide for a reason. Here’s the thing, I’ve planted over fifty bare root plants (roses and fruit trees) since we moved into our home. Surprisingly, the one thing I’ve learned in my years planting bare root plants is that, most often, the failure or death of a bare root plant is often NOT due to anything that happens during the actual planting process—often, problems with bare roots have nothing to do with the minute details of how we planted them.

Previously, anytime I’ve lost a bare root plant it’s due to low quality plants, watering practices afterwards, disease, or it simply was not a good spot in the garden. Seriously! I’ve planted bare root fruit trees all at the same time and with the same conditions, and one might not take. It just happens sometimes. Hopefully, this eases your mind. The best plants for your future garden will be vigorous, resilient, and not so picky as to die if you do one thing wrong. That being said, let’s get started planting bare root plants!

Planting Bare Root Roses ~ An Example

The most recent pictures and examples of bare root planting that I have is from our David Austin Rose Garden that I planted last Spring. While these pictures pertain specifically to roses, they also demonstrate the basic tenets of how to plant a bare root fruit tree as well. We planted the majority of our fruit trees when we first moved in—-before I was ever blogging—so I just don’t have many photos or documentation of that process!

Check out how the David Austin roses arrived on our doorstep last January (pictured below). Isn’t it incredible that sticks like this turn into luscious shrubs and trees?

First, when in doubt, just follow the package instructions. Maybe your favorite gardener told you to do something different, but as beginners both Sam and I used to follow the instructions and weren’t steered wrong.  In fact, any fruit trees we’ve lost were from trying different things which led to their untimely death.

how bare root roses arrive

Bare root plants can arrive in many different ways. Our David Austin bare root roses arrived in a cardboard box, with the roots in a plastic bag.

Bare Root Plants Should not be Dried Out

The first key to understanding bare root roses and plants is to not let them dry out! You’ll notice that some bare root plants arrive in plastic bags to keep in moisture, or some fruit trees are packed with peat or sawdust or wood shavings in order to prevent the roots from drying out. So, with that in mind, you’ll want to plant your bare roots right away or at least keep the root packaged well enough that they won’t dry out. Please keep in mind, this does NOT mean to store your bare root plants in water. 

Help! My plants arrived too early!

Last year, our David Austin roses arrived before we had even started preparing our rose garden area! Our roses arrived on January 25th, and their area was still basically covered in grass!  The solution to this dilemma? I used five gallon pots that we already had, some high quality G & B Organic Raised Bed & Potting soil, and simply planted my bare roots in those so they could have a chance to start rooting and establishing. In fact, this would give them a head start on leafing out before going into our planned rose garden area. You can also plant bare root fruit trees in pots like this as well. If you’d like to learn more about this detour in bare root planting, this quick YouTube video is a mashup of that whole process:

Soaking Your Bare Root Plants

Before you do ANY planting at all, bare root roses and fruit trees need to soak in water. Personally, we use 5 gallon buckets or the occasional plastic tub (you can check out how we soaked our roses in that same YouTube video above). Essentially, the goal for soaking is to fill the conatiner with enough water to cover the root system of your plants. You can follow the package instructions for specific timing, but it’s usually for a few hours. Again, don’t fret if it soaks for a little shorter or longer (well, I’ve never soaked anything overnight or anything) but a few hours is a safe bet.

Preparing the Soil for Planting

You probably all know that soil health is quite possibly the largest determining factor in garden success. We periodically test our soil by sending it out (I find this much easier and more informative than home tests) to a professional lab. You can find labs via your local Master Gardener Extensions, but I’ve used the UMass Lab and WayPoint Analytical in the past. You’ll get a full results printout, along with suggested amendments, etc. Honestly, I don’t have the budget for this every year, but try and test my soil every few years (and definitely test new areas). Aside from soil testing, I treat soil preparation for bare root planting according to the type of garden—in-ground, container, or raised bed.

I’ve laid out our basic soil amending process for raised beds on the blog before, and still follow that process for most everything—but the majority of bare roots I plant don’t go into raised beds.  For in-ground gardens, I simply mix in some compost or organic chicken or steer manure and that’s it.

Planting bare root fruit trees or roses in pots is doable, but I’d definitely use a potting mix. Drainage is important, as you don’t want the roots to rot (also make sure your container has drainage holes). Personally, I find gardening in containers more difficult in our hot climate because the soil tends to dry out faster with lighter soil mixes, and yet heavy soil dries out on top and gets soggy and compacted at the root ball below. The only trees we’ve ever lost were in containers because I let them dry out too much and the roots did not establish well. That being said, we currently have fruit trees currently growing successfully in containers.

small rose garden area

This was our rose garden area that we amended with different composts and organic chicken manure. Our native soil already wasn’t bad, so it just needed some good organic matter to keep it happy and living.

Fertilizing Bare Root Plants

Honestly, it’s said not to fertilize your bare root plants at planting time because you don’t want to burn the roots. As beginners, we did! We used to take our fertilizer and add it to the fill soil (that’s the soil you remove and then add back in after you’ve placed the plant in the hole), and we never experienced a loss. Was this because we use organic fertilizers with lower NPK numbers? Maybe?!

But now we know better and, all in all, I think these experiences are why I don’t stress about it. These days we add an organic fruit tree fertilizer (some favorites are Kellogg, Down to earth, and Espoma) to our fill soil for fruit trees only. For roses, I don’t add fertilizer to the planting hole, but instead fertilize once the buds start to push growth. For some reason I find roses more sensitive to burn than fruit trees, so that’s just what I do. Furthermore, make sure to read Getting Started Growing Roses if you are interested in my basic care tips!

Mycorrhizae for Bare Root Growth

There is one exception to the “don’t fertilize” rule. If I have mycorrhizae on hand, I sprinkle it directly in the planting hole and on the roots as we plant our bare root plants. Mycorrhizae isn’t fertilizer—they are fungi. Mycorrhizae fungi exist in healthy soil. They basically form a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of plants. As the fungi grow, they increase the surface area of the root system which allows the roots to absorb more nutrients and grow stronger. My favorite mycorrhizae is from Plant Success Organics, but again, don’t worry that your plant will die simply because you didn’t add mycorrhizae. Pictured below are our bare root roses (that were potted up) about to be planted into the prepared rose garden area. Since these were already starting to leaf out, I added Rose Tone to the planting hole as I was transplanting. Mycorrhizae was applied to the roots upon potting up originally, so I did not add more.

adding mycorrhizae when planting bare roots

When adding mycorrhizae to bare roots, I sprinkle some directly on the roots and then let the extra fall down into the planting hole.

Dig a Hole for Your Bare Root

Whether you are planting from a potted tree or from your soaked bare root tree, simply dig a hole that is large enough to encompass the entire root ball. The depth of your hole might be based on the graft union as well (discussed below). My biggest tip for bare root planting is to make sure the soil fills in all the way around the roots. For example, don’t let air gaps remain as you bury the roots, and tamp down the soil slightly at the end. You can see the hole we dug for our rose in the YouTube video above as well. 

Selecting the best bare root tree or specimen

Sometimes, we simply have no choice what companies send us. For example, I didn’t get t handpick the bare root specimens that were sent to me. Honestly, this will be the case for all mail order bare root plants, and there’s no reason to worry about that! Simply check to make sure that your plants are not dried out, moldy, squishy, and that there is very little breakage. If you see these types of problems, photograph it immediately and contact customer service. I’ve yet to have a bad experience. 

If you are able to visit a local nursery to select your bare root fruit trees or roses, there are some things you can watch for. Again, I tend not to get too worried about this kind of stuff though. First, make sure to look for the common sense things: avoid dead branches, squishy/rot areas, breakage, etc. Second, take a peek at the overall shape. Depending on how you plan to grow your tree, this can influence why you’d pick one shape over another. For example, one might look like it’s developing a flatter/fan/espealier shape versus one that is a more traditional vase shape. Lastly, look for a well-healed graft union and a strong, thick trunk. 

buying bare root fruit trees

Me holding our apple trees as bare root plants. You can see how they were packaged in a bag, roots surrounded by sand/wood chips. These varieties are Annas and Ein Shemer. I would not grow Ein Shemer again, but we have since added a Golden Dorsett and Pink Lady which are doing phenomenally well!

What is the Graft Union?

Did you know that most of our commercially available fruit trees and roses are grafted onto rootstocks? There’s a lot of science involved there, but rootstocks are generally selected for their disease resistance, vigor, etc. and therefore are used as the “base” to graft specialty varieties of plants. This is one reason you see bare root roses sold as “own root” or “grafted.”

Knowing where the graft union is located is important for a couple reasons. First, when a plant sends up a growth shoot from below the graft union, it’s typically something that needs to be removed. This is because it is stealing nutrients and won’t turn out to be the desired fruit/rose variety you purchased—it’s basically the original rootstock trying to takeover, and we don’t want that! Second, depending on your climate, you might want to plant the rootstock above or below the soil line. I can only speak for mild climates, but it’s generally considered best to keep the graft 1-2 inches above the soil line in climates that have warmer winters Ithis is what I do). In cooler climates, you bury it to protect from freezing temperatures. Now, is this the “most important” thing ever? Not really. Sometimes you’ll read garden forums and see that gardeners also argue over these points sometimes.

If your plant doesn’t have a graft union, which can happen with own root roses, then I simply plant it so that the bottom of the canes are at the ground.

closeup of graft union on bare root fruit tree

This is the graft union on one of our bare root plants. Can you see where the special variety was inserted into the rootstock?

Watering bare root plants

As with any transplanting, I always water deeply and thoroughly right after bare root planting. Take it slow, and use this time to make sure your area has proper drainage and isn’t holding water forever. From that day onward, how much to water will depend on your soil and weather conditions. Lighter potting mixes might need to be watered every few days—unless there’s rain. Meanwhile, bare root plants that are in the ground will need water much less often. The key is to keep your newly planted bare roots just moist enough so it can recover from transplant shock and the roots don’t dry out. I like transplanting before rain, as I’ve noticed that rainwater rarely (if ever) leads to rot or problems in my garden. Finally, watering deeply is much more important than frequent, shallow waterings. Deep watering, less often, encourages roots to grow deeper beneath the soil and creates a much better root system in the long run.

Maybe an unpopular opinion

Have you ever heard that you should trim or cut bare root fruit trees down to knee height after planting? It’s something mentioned in lots of fruit tree articles, but we personally have had terrible experiences doing it. First, one tree just died. Second, the other tree had only rootstock start to grow. A third tree survived, but it’s growth hasn’t been anything better than what we have seen before. Plus, when I look back at all the trees we planted and how great they are, I don’t see why you’d need to. So, both of us agreed we won’t do it again.

What bare roots are coming this year to our garden?

For fun, I thought I’d share the new additions to the garden this year. Maybe some of you are adding the same ones? Or care to tell me what you’re planting? Our first acquisition is our only new fruit tree: a Royal Crimson Cherry (tag pictured below). This selection was a bare root plant that the nursery potted (so they can sell it for more), but it’s a low chill cherry variety that I really want to try as someone who writes about gardening in Southern California.

Second, we purchased four types of bare root raspberries so we can start experimenting with growing them in our climate. The package we bought comes with 3 bare roots for EACH variety so….soon we will have 12 raspberry plants! Oh my!

low chill cherry that might be for warmer climates

Here is our newest addition: a Royal Crimson Cherry. This is a relatively new variety that is supposed to have only 200-300 chill hours (which is awesome for warmer climates like ours). The tag also says it is self-fruitful! I’m excited to see how this one grows and report back.

Third, I added several new bare root roses to the garden this year. A couple of them being more accustomed to shade since I want to grow one around our kitchen window. The bare root roses I’m getting are: Claire Austin, Mary Delaney, and Ispahan. Ispahan is a once-flowering Old Rose and I think David Austin’s website describes old roses better than I can:

“It was these roses that played a key part in the development of David Austin’s English Roses. The true Old Roses consist of the Gallicas, Damasks, Albas, Centifolias and Mosses. Although they only flower during the early summer, with one or two exceptions, they give a magnificent display.”

Last but not least, I am getting a Wollerton Old Hall rose as a replacement for a mailing mistake. Needless to say, there is so much to look forward to as the months grow warmer. I hope you all enjoy planning and planting your bare root roses and fruit trees this month!

no stress bare root planting guide

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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