Planting Bare Root Plants

Trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials are all available bare root.  Bare root plants have no soil around their roots. They are dug by the nursery in late fall or early spring (plants dug in fall are over-wintered in coolers) and are often sold by mail-order retailers. Bare root plants are shipped in the early spring and they are usually delivered to your door at the appropriate time of the year based on your location and USDA Hardiness Zone. Bare root trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials must be planted in spring before growth begins.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The big advantage of bare root plants is the cost. Bare root trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials are the most economical type of nursery stock. They are usually the best choice when purchasing large quantities of plants, such as for planting a windbreak.  Because they are easily shipped, they are often the best way to purchase unique or hard-to-find plants from specialty mail-order nurseries.  

Some disadvantages of bare root plants are the length of the planting season and size. Bare root plants should be planted before it begins to leaf out or grow. There is a small window of time between when bare root plants are shipped and when they must be planted in the landscape.  Additionally, bare root trees and shrubs are often much smaller than container-grown or balled and burlapped plants.

Care Before Planting

Open and inspect bare root trees, shrubs, roses, or perennials as soon as they arrive.  Plants should be in good condition with firm, heavy roots that are not dry or brittle.  The packing material around the roots (usually coarse sphagnum moss) should be damp, not dripping wet or completely dry.  Buds on trees and shrubs and buds or growing points on perennials should be green and firm.  There should be no obvious signs of mold or freezing damage.  Plants should not have mushy roots, foul odors, or many broken stems or roots.

If you cannot plant as soon as the bare root plants arrive, store them in a cool, non-freezing location at around 40°F, such as a refrigerator, unheated garage, or root cellar.  Keep the packing material positioned around the roots and make sure it is damp, but not wet.  The packing material should feel like a wringed-out sponge.  While in storage, moisten packing materials as needed.  Do not let any part of the bare root plant dry out, especially the root system. 

Plant bare root trees, shrubs, and perennials as soon as possible after they are received. 

Planting Bare Root Trees

Plant bare root trees as soon as possible before spring growth begins.

Prior to planting, soak the tree’s roots in a bucket of water for one to two hours. Also, prune off damaged or broken roots.

When ready to plant, dig a hole that is two to two-and-a-half times wider than the spread of the tree’s root system. The depth of the hole should be equal to the distance from the tree’s trunk flare to the bottom of its roots. The trunk flare is the point where the trunk begins to spread out as it meets the roots.
Build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole. Place the tree on top of the mound. The trunk flare should be even with the surrounding soil surface. Spread the roots evenly over the mound. Then begin backfilling with the original soil. Do not amend the soil with compost, sphagnum moss, sand, or other soil amendments.  The soil that comes out of the hole, should go back into the hole.   As you backfill, firm the soil in the hole with your hands. Place soil to the trunk flare. Finally, water the tree thoroughly.

Many shade and fruit trees are propagated by grafting. The graft union is located near the base of the tree’s trunk and is denoted by a bulge or crook in the trunk. The graft union is typically 1-3 inches above the trunk flare. When planting bare-root trees, be careful not to confuse the graft union with the trunk flare.

Planting Bare Root Shrubs and Roses

Plant bare root shrubs, including roses, as soon as possible before spring growth begins.

Prior to planting, soak the shrubs’ roots in a bucket of water for one to two hours. Also, prune off damaged or broken roots. 

When ready to plant, dig a hole that is two to two-and-a-half times wider than the spread of the shrub’s root system. Identify the base of the stem by locating the place where the uppermost roots attach to the stem.  These uppermost roots will be placed just below the soil level.  The depth of the hole should be deep enough to place the shrub at a level in the ground that puts the uppermost roots just below the soil surface and allows for the remainder of the root mass to fit comfortably in the hole.

Some roses, such as hybrid tea, grandiflora, and floribunda types, are grafted.  In Iowa, the bud/graft union (denoted by a knob or crook in the stem of the plant) should be planted 2 to 4 inches below the soil surface. This helps protect the rose from harsh winter weather. The depth of the hole for these roses should be deep enough to accommodate the root system and bury the graft union at the appropriate depth.

Build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole. Place the shrub on top of the mound. Spread the roots evenly over the mound. Then begin backfilling with the original soil. Do not amend the soil with compost, sphagnum moss, sand, or other soil amendments.  The soil that comes out of the planting hole, should go back into the hole.  As you backfill, firm the soil in the hole with your hands. Finally, water the shrub thoroughly.

Planting Bare Root Perennials

Plant bare root perennials as soon as possible before spring growth begins.

Prior to planting, soak the plant’s roots in a bucket of water for 30 to 60 minutes. Also, prune off damaged or broken roots. 

When ready to plant, dig a hole that is two to two-and-a-half times wider than the spread of the plant’s root system.  Inspect the bare root plant and identify the upper part of the plant.  Typically, there is a mass of roots that are connected to a few buds forming the crown of the perennial.  Orient the bare root plant with the crown up.  Plants sometimes come with instructions on how deep to place the crown under the soil.  If no instructions are present, plant at a depth that puts the crown no more than one or two inches below the soil surface.  Do not plant too deeply.

If needed, build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole to help spread the roots outward. Place the perennial on top of the mound, distributing them evenly in the planting hole. The buds/crown should be no more than one or two inches below the surrounding soil surface. Begin carefully backfilling with the original soil. In most cases, for perennials, the soil that comes out of the planting hole should go back into the planting hole.  As you backfill, firm the soil in the hole with your hands.  Be careful to not press down so firmly that you break roots or snap off buds at the crown.  Mark the location with a wooden maker or stake so you remember where you planted it.  Water the perennial thoroughly.  It will take 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the weather and soil conditions, for the perennial to emerge. 

Care After Planting

Water plants as needed throughout the first growing season until fully established.  Check plants once or twice a week and water when the soil around the roots is dry.  Reduce the frequency of watering as plants become more established later in the growing season.  Supplemental water may be needed in the second and third growing seasons if conditions are dry. 

Mound the soil into a ring around the root zone of the plant to make watering easier.  The ring allows water to stay in place and soak in around the rooting zone rather than running off while watering. 

Place mulch around the base of the plant to help conserve soil moisture and reduce competition from weeds. 

Wait at least four weeks before fertilizing.  The young roots are easily damaged by too much fertilizer. 

Bare root trees will likely need to be staked for the first year.  Place stakes in undisturbed soil, not in the planting hole, so they stay firmly in the soil to support the tree.  Remove all staking materials the following spring, if not sooner.

More Information

Planting Bare Root Hybrid Tea Roses (video)

Category: 

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on March 11, 2022. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.