Bare Root Trees – When to Plant Them? 

Whether you are planting an apricot tree in your yard or a small orchard in your local park, you may wonder when the best time is to plant your bare root trees. Bare root trees must be planted when they are dormant in the early spring or late fall. But is it best to plant on a sunny day? Or a rainy day? During a windstorm? This year I had planting days scheduled in all of those spring conditions.  In this article I’ll explore the best – and worst – conditions for planting bare root trees.

What are Bare Root Trees?

A bare root tree is a dormant tree shipped with no soil around its roots. Photo credit; Dreamstime.

A bare root tree is a dormant tree shipped with no soil around its roots. Photo credit; Dreamstime.

First of all, what are bare root trees?  Bare root trees come from specialist fruit tree nurseries. These nurseries dig their trees out of the ground in the early spring or late fall when the they are dormant, with no leaves, flowers or fruit. Without soil on their roots, these trees can be boxed up and shipped far and wide. The tricky thing is that they can only remain in this bare root condition for a short time, and they must be kept in a cool, dark place until planting time.

That’s because if these bare root trees encounter heat and sun, they’ll emerge from dormancy and they will get stressed and soon die without soil protecting and nourishing their roots. So, once you receive your shipment of bare root trees, you need to plant them as soon as possible to avoid the risk of their buds opening up, a sign that they are emerging from dormancy.

So, why do I only plant bare root trees? Well, there’s lots of reasons and here are just a few:

  • Bare root trees grow quicker and adapt better to their new conditions than potted trees
  • Specialist nurseries offer a wider selection of varieties to choose from including easier to grow disease-resistant varieties
  • Bare root trees are younger and easier to prune and shape to create a strong, fruit bearing structure for your trees

Now, once you have your new bare root trees, you need to plant them right away…rain or shine. I’ll explore the pros and cons on the different planting day conditions below…

Planting on a Sunny Day

The team of gardeners at Downsview park in Toronto plant bare root trees in a new espalier bed.

The team of gardeners at Downsview park in Toronto plant bare root trees in a new espalier bed.

My first planting this year was in Downsview Park’s beautiful orchard in North Toronto. Once a military base this site now includes almost 300 acres of parkland including a spectacular orchard of over 150 trees. Over the years we will be developing this 2.5 acre orchard in the heart of North Toronto into an extensive fruit tree arboretum. This May we added espalier apple trees, cherry shrubs and currants to the orchard – and the day was fine, warm and sunny.

A sunny, fine day is great planting weather for us humans. There’s no need to wear raincoats and galoshes (does anyone wear galoshes anymore?). But for the bare root trees, a sunny day can be challenging. That’s because if left in the sun, the bare root trees may be triggered out of dormancy and the buds may start to open. To avoid stressing the trees, it is best to leave them in the shade while you dig your holes. You may also want to soak the roots in water for up to 30 minutes to help rehydrate them and prepare them for planting.

Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees in the Rain

Foodshare employee Yara Janes helps out the Gordonridge team on a rainy planting day.

Foodshare employee Yara Janes helps out the Gordonridge team on a rainy planting day.

The second planting that I organized this year was on a fantastic site called Gordonridge Place in Scarborough, Ontario. This public housing site has worked with FoodShare and their generous funders to create an extensive urban agriculture program on this site including a 30-tree orchard, vegetable plots and even urban beekeeping. The soil is rich and the trees will love it. But the trees were shipped on a Friday. Planting day was Saturday. And the forecast was rain.

That didn’t stop the volunteers who showed up in their rain gear ready to work. We had a great, if slightly soggy, morning. But the best part is that the soil was soft and easy to dig. It was also moist and ready to accommodate the new bare root trees. After planting the rain continued to “water in” the trees nicely which would help them quickly settle in to their new site. There was no hot sun to trigger early opening of the buds. A rainy day is actually a terrific day for planting bare root trees.

Planting Bare Root Trees In Wind and Hail!

Fruit tree planting day at San Romanoway in 2016.

Fruit tree planting day at San Romanoway in 2016.

For the third planting this year we had a bit of a surprise. This was a planting at the privately-owned San Romanoway apartment towers in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto. This site is at the heart of a fantastic greening project spearheaded by Toronto and Region Conservation‘s Black Creek Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Plan in partnership with FoodShare. The project includes extensive urban agriculture developments and an orchard consisting of 24 trees. But on planting day in mid May there was an unseasonal windstorm and hail. The volunteers came ready to work but this would have been a bad day for both the trees and the volunteers.

Planting a bare root tree in the whipping wind is not a good idea. With 37 km per hour wind (22 miles per hour), it would be hard work to just stand up straight – never mind digging holes! But this planting day would be even more challenging for the young trees. Newly planted trees have not yet established themselves and so they could easily blow away in that kind of wind. So  we decided to reschedule planting for the next day and we were fortunate to have a beautiful planting day. The weather was lovely, sunny and calm.

Planting Fruit Trees, Rain or Shine

So, if you are planting bare root trees, plant them as soon as you can and unless there’s a terrible windstorm, hail or a hurricane, you may just want to get those trees in the ground quickly, rain or shine. Just make sure you know how to choose the right trees for your unique location and how to plant them properly. You can learn all about that and about fruit tree pruning, pest and disease prevention, soil management and more in Orchard People’s Online Beginner Certificate in Fruit Tree Care.

Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards and the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training portal at www.orchardpeople.com. She is an urban orchardist, journalist and film maker living in Toronto, Canada.