Planting Bare-Root Trees and Shrubs

by on March 6, 2014Wilma Stordahl

Most gardeners are familiar with seeing plants in pots at a garden store. It is the most common way for plants to be packaged for consumers. However, there are benefits to planting bare-root trees and shrubs, and important steps to take in order to successfully transplant them.

What is a Bare-Root Tree or Shrub?

There are many benefits to planting bare-root trees and shrubs in a gardenUntil you plant them in your garden, most nursery plants spend their whole life in containers. Whether they are started from seeds or cuttings, most plants start in a pot in a greenhouse. Containerized plants are then transplanted to larger and larger containers, or “potted up,” as they grow.

Unlike garden plants grown in containers, bare-root plants are field grown. Bare-root trees and shrubs are typically sold when they are 1 to 3 years old. When bare-root plants are prepared for shipment, they are dug from the ground, stored and shipped without soil around their roots. Thus, they are bare-root.

The Benefits of Bare-Root Plants

Great Roots

If you’ve ever purchased a containerized plant, chances are you’ve seen how compacted and tangled roots can become if a plant isn’t potted up at the right time. When taking a plant out of a pot, it’s common to see roots that circle around the root ball. Bare-root trees and shrubs will not have this problem because they have been grown in the ground where the roots have plenty of room to spread out.


Because bare-root plants are field grown instead of being grown in a greenhouse, they are hardier to temperature variations and weather fluctuations such as wind, rain and snow.

They’re Cheaper!

Since bare-root trees and shrubs are grown and shipped without containers, they are less expensive than containerized plants.

Easy to Plant

Because the roots of bare-root nursery stock are able to spread out as they grow, the plants are easier to plant. With container-grown plants you have to make sure you loosen the root ball before you plant them, but with bare-root plants you just need to make sure the roots are nicely spread out in the planting hole.

Common Bare-Root Trees and Shrubs

Conifers and hardwoods used in conservation projects such as reforestation programs, wetland restoration projects, and wildlife habitat enhancement projects are common bare-root trees and shrubs.

For gardeners, however, roses are the most common bare-root shrub sold in nurseries, garden centers, and through mail-order nurseries.

Transplanting Bare-Root Plants

There are millions of tiny root hairs present on the roots of plants, and exposure to hot, dry air and sunlight for extended periods of time can cause these roots to die. Since bare-root trees and shrubs are shipped without soil around their roots, it’s important to protect the roots when planting them.

For the best chances of success, follow these tips:

  • Bare-root trees and shrubs should be planted when the plants are dormant, typically in the winter when deciduous trees and shrubs don’t have their leaves.
  • It’s important that bare-root trees and shrubs don’t break dormancy before they’re planted. Therefore, store plants in a cool area (33 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit), protected from frost and harsh light. An unheated garden shed or garage is best.
  • Plant them on the day you buy them or receive them in the mail.
  • Plant them on an overcast, cool, humid day.
  • Prepare the planting area before you take the plants out of their packages or storage area. The bottom line: Plant bare-root trees and shrubs immediately. Don’t let them lie around and dry out.
  • Keep the roots moist and protected from the sun and wind.
  • Dig a planting hole that is wide enough to accept all of the roots.
  • The roots should be spread out evenly in the planting hole. To prevent air pockets around the roots, create a slight mound in the bottom of the planting hole and spread the roots out evenly.
  • The root flare, the portion of the plant where the main stem meets the top of the roots, should sit just above or at finished grade (the finished soil level).
  • To further protect the roots from air pockets in the planting hole, gradually add soil and water to the planting hole. Wait until the soil settles and then add more soil and water.
  • Finally, when the planting hole has been filled, tamp the soil down lightly with your foot to eliminate any other air pockets.

Have you ever planted a bare-root tree or shrub? What went well or didn’t work for you?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rick December 6, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Hi Wilma,
We have a 15 year old home with 2 large Cupressess Stricta about 22ft hight and 4 feet wide, about 10 ft apart.

They are in full Australian sun year round and get watered regularly when it is hot.

One has branches that are, one by one, drooping away from the trunk….
I can send pictures if you like.
The tree is green with lots of nuts and fine seeds.
Any reason why this should happen to only one tree, and is there anything I can do?



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