Planting bare root trees

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Burning Hunk
Dec 11, 2013
Watertown, WI
I'm wondering if anyone has any suggestions for me on planting some dormant trees I just purchased. Basically, my yard is being slowly clear-cut due to a mix of 100y/o boxelders, a dangerously overgrown silver maple, and a series of Ash trees that will likely be dead in the coming years.

I wound up purchasing 6 honey locust, 4 red oak, and 4 autumn blaze maples and will be receiving them in the coming days. All are bare root (dormant) variety, not nursery trees. At ~$8ea for bare root vs. $80-$90 each at the local nursery, I figure I can put some work into this.

I have thoughts of starting the trees in 5 gallon pails for this year with adequate drainage in the bottom. Then in the following year, cut the bottom of the pails off, and bury that into the ground so I have a nice border to mow around while things get established. I'm hoping within a year or two that the trees will be shoulder-height. Maybe the 5 gallon pail idea isn't a good one?

For those who have done bare root trees before, I'd love to hear about your experience and success (or lack thereof). Any tips on soil to use, fertilizer, watering frequency, stakes vs. no stakes, etc. would also be appreciated.
Wow, I know all about that. Done hundreds of them. You always want to plant directly into the ground whenever possible. If that is impossible, a 5 g pail is OK but not as good. Seems counter intuitive but it's the truth. The trees need to be in the ground and stretch their roots down as far as they can. The tops will show little growth but it's the roots that count.

Make sure the roots are damp as soon as you get them and keep them damp. Some people like to soak the roots but don't do that if there is any dirt at all clinging onto the roots.

All transplants will take a few years to show growth, depending upon species. Do not fertilize, it will burn the roots if it touches them. Stakes, yes, for sure for the first few years. Some bare root stock may only be a foot or two high and doesn't need stakes. Higher ones will because wind catches the leaves and will want to pull the tree over. Bare root normally go into the soil directly without adding new soil. You do not want the roots to aim for the rich soil near the surface, you want them to head straight south.

Water, water, water. The minute you plant them, add a gal. of water to the area that is hilled up around the tree. After you add water, stomp the ground so all air pockets are gone. Air on roots is bad. I have to water new transplants every few days during a dry spell for the first 2 years. Lots of water (one gallon or more) per tree is way better than a bit of water more often. Do not wait for the leaves to wilt, by then the tree will be going into dormant phase due to drying out.
Thanks a ton DougA!! Fantastic instructions.
I've found some trees (and bushes) need to have the pots heeled in over the Winter. I've used leaves. A nursery down the street uses sand. Pots and bagged. In fact they use sand year round for some of their trees. Water less and heat may be a factor. The tree roots find those drain holes to escape pretty darn quick ! :)
I have planted probably 30 with 100% success using Don A's method.

Dig a hole bigger than the full root spread. Watch out if you have clay soil- you don't want a compressed area that acts like a pot.
Plant only to the line where it was grown- if you plant too deeply, it may cause an issue with rot that kills it.
Put dirt back in on the spread out roots. Step on the dirt all the way around the tree.
Water again.

The stepping and watering both reduce air pockets and make the soil have better root contact in this delicate time for the tree.

Never add compost, peat, or other good stuff to the hole- it will make the tree effectively "pot bound" in the hole.
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Spot on advice above. I would also mulch around the trees. Maybe not for 100 or more trees but 14 bags ain't gonna break the bank. Spread it around the base of each tree about 3" thick being careful to leave a couple inches space between the base of the tree and the mulch to avoid rot and fungal infections. The mulch will hold moisture in and keep nutrient robbing weeds and weed wackers away.

Plan wisely where to plant them according to there needs. Red Maples don't mind soil on the moist side. Also keeping in mind where the Silver Maple and Ash trees will fall when cut. A Weeping Willow that I planted for my wife on her birthday a few years ago has created a narrow window to drop a couple large Maples for me.

Should have checked the date on your post befor replying. Guess it's a done deal now?
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