How to Plant Bare Root Plants

Care and How To

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 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 & Disadvantages  |  Before Planting Care  |  Trees  |  Shrubs & Roses  |  Perennials  |  After Planting Care  |  FAQs  |  More Information


bare root tree in planting hole
Planting bare root plants is an economical way to grow new plants in your landscape.

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.

Plant bare root trees, shrubs, and perennials as soon as possible after receiving them. 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 around the roots and ensure 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. 


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, avoid confusing the graft union with the trunk flare.

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.  Use two or three stakes and wide flexible material to hold the tree upright, allowing some movement.  Remove all staking materials the following spring, if not sooner.

Planting a Bare Root Tree Step-by-Step

Plant bare root trees as soon as possible after receiving them.

Soak roots in water for several hours just before planting.

bare root tree root system after soaking
Inspect the root system and prune out any damaged, soft, or broken roots inspect the root system of a bare root tree
Locate the top of the root system on the trunk to determine the planting depth Look for the top of the roots to determine planting depth

Dig a hole wide enough to accommodate the roots and just deep enough to place the top of the root system just below the soil surface.

The planting hole will be shallow and wide.

hole for bare root tree planting
Place the tree in the planting hole and spread the roots out evenly.   bare root tree in planting hole
Backfill the hole with the soil that came from the hole.  Lightly compress the soil, but do not over compact. backfill soil around bare root tree
Once planted, the top part of the tree's root system should sit just below the soil surface.  Do not plant too deeply. Tree at proper height after planting bare root
Water well to help settle the soil around the root system and support new root growth, allowing the tree to establish quickly. watering newly planting bare root tree

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See the entire process in this video: How to Plant a Bare Root Tree


Planting Bare Root Shrubs and Roses

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

Bare Root Roses By Paul Maguire AdobeStock
These bare root hybrid tea roses should be planted so the graft union (swollen area at the base of the green stems) is 2 to 4" below the ground.

  1. Prior to planting, soak the shrubs’ roots in a bucket of water for one to two hours. Also, prune off damaged or broken roots. 
  2. 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.
  3. The depth of the hole is determined by the location of the plants roots.
    • Identify the base of the stem by locating 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 plant stem) should be planted 2 to 4 inches below the soil surface. This helps protect the rose from harsh winter weather. The hole depth for these roses should be deep enough to accommodate the root system and bury the graft union at the appropriate depth.
  4. Build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole.
  5. Place the shrub on top of the mound. Spread the roots evenly over the mound.
  6. 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.
  7. Finally, water the shrub thoroughly.

Planting Bare Root Perennials

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

Bare Root Peony by maryviolet AdobeStock
Position bare root perennials in the hole so the bud or crown is no more than one or two inches below the soil surface. 

  1. 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. 
  2. When ready to plant, dig a hole two to two-and-a-half times wider than the spread of the plant’s root system. 
  3. 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.
  4. Inspect the bare root plant and identify the upper part of the plant.  Typically, a mass of roots is connected to a few buds forming the crown of the perennial.  Orient the bare root plant with the crown up.
  5. If needed, build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole to help spread the roots outward.
  6. Place the perennial on 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.
  7. 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 not to press down so firmly that you break roots or snap off buds at the crown. 
  8. Mark the location with a wooden maker or stake to remember where you planted it. 
  9. 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 watering frequency 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 plant's root zone 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.


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Authors: 

Aaron Steil Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist

Aaron Steil is the consumer horticulture extension specialist at Iowa State University where he works with county Extension offices across the state to answer home gardening questions for all Iowans.  This includes information related to trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennials, ...

Last Reviewed: 
November, 2023
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