Are you planting your bare root trees and bushes all wrong? EEK! We take a lot of time to select the trees and bushes we plant and then even more time to plant them. That is an awful lot of work to only lose them because we failed to plant them properly.
Today we are going over 6 steps to properly plant bare root trees, and various reasons you have not had success with trees in the past (besides your goats getting in your garden and eating them!).
I have read many articles and book entries on the proper way to plant trees. They were all pretty much the same. When I started talking to a few particular nurseries, St. Lawrence Nursery and Peaceful Heritage Nursery, I began to learn that what I had read was not the most accurate. Combine that with trial and error and more research, we have learned quite a bit!
If you are in the need of some trees, especially cold hardy trees, I highly recommendSt. Lawrence Nursery. All their trees are grown in a zone 3 so you know they can handle the cold. Many other nurseries don't grow the stock in the colder zones and are basing their cold hardiness on the variety. The tree and plants are far hardier when they are actually grown in the the colder climate.
Another beneficial difference I found with St. Lawrence nursery is that they don't use dwarfing root stock. Dwarf and semi-dwarf might sound like a good idea, but what's really happening is the tree is getting greatly inhibited. In the northern colder climates/growing zones with shorter growing seasons, trees only have a little window of time to wake up, flower, and produce fruit. They need vigorous root stock so they can get all the nutrients they need in their little growing window.
If you are able to grow paw paws, mulberries, or warmer climate trees check out Peaceful Heritage Permaculture Nursery. Blake has a wonderful selection of USDA certified organic trees, bushes, and vines. He is very passionate about what he does and so knowledgable! I did a full interview with him in this post.
6 Steps to Tree Planting Success
A few things to remember before you get started:
1. Plant when Dormant
There is a reason that trees are shipped early in the Spring. Although it is not always the most ideal time for us to be out there planting in early April here in ND, our trees will do much better if we go out there despite any yucky weather, and get them in the ground.
There are several reasons for this.
1. The water table is still high which is very beneficial to the trees for obvious reason, more water.
2. Even though the tree won't leaf out for some time, the root system can actually start growing. Any head start will greatly help the tree once everything does start warming up.
Last year we were actually digging through a little frost to get our trees planted but we did it!
If you can dig the hole then it is time to plant!
2. THe planting hole
It's all about the hole, my friends! Fred Ashworth very wisely said,
"A $5 tree in a $10 hole equals a $50 end product."
Put the extra effort into the hole and it will pay off! So what makes a great tree hole?
As you dig your hole, you want to separate the different soil layers. First, remove the grass if there is any, and place in a pile. Next, make a pile for the topsoil, and yet another pile for the sub soil. Keep each of these pile separate.
Because it provides a larger volume, it is best to dig a hole with vertical edges.
Now that the hole is dug, take a look at the edges. If you have heavy clay in your soil, chances are the sides are very smooth. Whatever soil you are planting in, smooth sidewalls are not our friend. Take your shovel and rough up the walls. This rough texture will make it easier for the roots to grow out past the original hole. We want the roots to grow out and down as much as possible so that they can reach more nutrients and water. This wider reaching root system greatly stabalizes the trees in strong winds.
Always dig the hole deeper than you think you need it, which bring us to the next step.
3. Planting Depth
,Many trees and almost all fruit trees are propagated through grafting.
The graft typically makes a z shape as seen in the image below. The darker portion is the rootstock. The lighter color above the graft is the scion. The scion is the variety you purchase. So if you purchase a Hazen apple, only the scion portion is actually a Hazen apple. The root stock is usually chosen to increase or slow the tree's vigor. If you purchase a dwarf variety, most likely it was grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. There are some varieties that are naturally dwarf, but it is more common to be grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock.
If you live in a cold climate like us, you do not want to get anything on dwarfing rootstock. Our growing season is short and our trees need all the vigor they can get to thrive in our harsh winters, and then hit the ground running when spring arrives. Usually they are not going to get as big in the colder climates anyways.
If you were to plant a tree at the same depth it was growing at in the nursery, any sprouts that come up would be from the rootstock. If however, you plant it 1" - 2" above the graft, the tree will become partially self rooted. Meaning it will grow some roots from the scion portion of the tree.
This will strengthen the tree, and if the tree is ever damaged in the future and dies back from something like winter kill, any sprouts that shoot up from the roots are far more like to be from the scion portion providing you a new little tree that will still produce the fruit you had originally planted the tree for.
If you are unable to determine where the graft is, simply plant the tree several inches above where the nursery had it planted.
Now you know to plant 1" - 2" above the graft for grafted trees. We want the hole to be an additional 5" - 7" deeper than that. We aren't going to fill the hole up to the top. We want to leave that last 5" - 7" to create a nice reservoir for watering purposes.
4. Setting the tree and BackfillIng hole
We want to set the tree so that none of the roots are getting smashed or cramped in any way. If they are, make the hole bigger. Remember, it's all about the hole.
You may have heard that you should add compost or peat moss. Recent studies have shown that this practice can actually be harmful. Tree roots don't stretch out well beyond this pocket of enriched soil, thus weakening them. Furthermore, compost and peat most creates air pockets. Air pockets are not good for the roots!
Instead, we are going to backfill the hole the opposite way that we dug it out. This is why we kept everything in different piles.
To begin, take the grass pieces and chop them up with your shovel. Then press them into the bottom of the hole, grass side down. We don't want any air pockets, so chop them up accordingly, and press firmly into the bottom of the hole. The grass will provide extra nutrients to the tree as it breaks down.
Your tree may or may not have a tap root. For those with a tap roots, hold the tree in place being sure not to cramp the root. If your tree has a fibrous root system, you want to set it on top of a small mound in the center of the hole. Now add the top soil carefully, but firmly compressing the soil around the stem. We don't want to leave any air pockets.
When the hole is halfway full, add 2- 3 gallons of water. This watering helps to eliminate air pockets around the roots.
Now add the sub soil. The sub soil is added last because it allows us to put the best soil right on the roots. It is easier to amend this sub soil when it is on the top as well.
Remember to pack the soil in really good.
If your soil is very poor, you can fill it with borrowed soil from your garden.
Once you are done backfilling, you can add a layer of compost and then mulch. Compost will help improve that sub soil and can also be used as a mulch if put on thickly enough.
Woodchips, straw, compost, aged manure, or any organic matter can be used for mulch. You want to put on a nice thick layer to affectively prevent weeds and grass. The water will soak through the mulch during watering, but not evaprate from the soil as it would if there was no mulch.
Mulch really makes a huge difference in keeping the moisture in the soil. Don't skip this step.
Water is even more important than the hole, and you know how important the hole is! The first year is the most crucial so this is not the time to slack. You need to water each tree 5-10 gallons of water, at a minimum of 3 times a week, and up to daily if you live in a very dry climate. You may also want to increase the watering in the hot, and typically drier months of July and August. Pay attention to the weather and increase your watering if needed.
Allowing the soil to dry out can cause the soil to shrink away from the roots, making it difficult for them to absorb the water next time you water. The roots need to have that constant contact with the soil to adequately absorb the water and the nutrients. This is why we took such effort to eliminate air pockets.
When we first moved here almost 11 years ago, one of the first things we did was plant trees. There were like 3 trees on the entire property, and none of them were fruit bearing.
We planted them, we watered them, we caged them, we added compost every year.
They didn't grow.
They leafed out nicely but they did not grow.
We have learned a lot since then, but I can say the lack of growth was from 2 main reasons.
1. A lot of the trees we planted were potted trees. We already talked about that so enough said there.
2. We watered them all with well water.
I did have the water tested when we first moved here. I was told that there was nitrates (salt) in the water, but that is was fine for the animals and even the garden. Nothing was said about the trees.
I didn't think anything of it because if the water was good enough for the garden, why wouldn't it be good enough for the trees? Well, well, I know all about it now. Now that we have had numerous trees that would not grow when everything else around it thrived!
Trees do not like salt, and salt in particular will stunt them if not kill them out right.
If you are using well water, have it tested my friend, and specifically ask if it is ok to water your trees with.
6. Feeding your new trees
Young trees do not need much feeding wise. If you added compost on top of the sub soil when planting, you should be good for the first year.
In proceeding years, you can add more compost or use fish emulsion, liquid fish, or seaweed. You can add these directly to the soil or you can use them as a foliar spray. With the compost, you would have to make compost tea and then use that as the foliar spray.
Foliar sprays are so wonderful because they get the nutrients to the plant super quick by taking it in through the leaves.
I've gone into fertilizers in more depth in my post on container gardening if you would like to learn more about fertilizers. But before we are done with the subject of fertilizers we need to go over one more very important detail.
The majority of trees set their terminal buds by the begining of July. OK, why is this important Jaci? You ask.
Well, it is very important my friend. Let me explain. The terminal buds are located at the end of main shoots or branches. They are formed in the growing season and grow or bud out the following year. When the tree sets their terminal buds they start preparing for winter. Part of this preperartion is "hardening off." If we fertilize them at this point it will mess with the "hardening off" and it will promote more growth. This new growth will be tender and vulnerable to winter injury.
For this reason you don't want to fertilize after July 1.
Small trees don't typically require staking, but it is still a good idea to place a marker stake next to each tree to make them more visible when mowing the lawn or plowing snow in the winter for example.
If you are planting large trees on the other hand, you need to use staking. The wind will eventually work the tree back and forth and prevent it from developing root hairs which are vital for the tree's success.
Stay away from plastic tree rings!
These are recommended all the time to prevent damage from small rodents and rabbits, but in fact they can do more harm than good.
Instead of using the plastic tubes, create your cages using hardware wire. Leave several inches between the tree and the wire. Secure the wire in several spots to hold it together. Wrapping the hardware wire around a pipe will help it form and keep a round shape. The cage should be 1 1/2 - 2 feet high to adquately protect from rodents and rabbits.
As the trees grow, replace with larger cages.
Well, that was another long post, but I can't help myself, there is just so much info that is important, what could I leave out?
This post was a long time coming. I actually took all the pictures last spring, but was not able to get to the post. Now here I am with a new order of trees on their way to us right now.
I'm so glad I was able to get it done for you this spring, and I hope you were able to learn some new things from this post that will help you achieve great success with all the trees you plant! And please, keep any salty water and plastic tree rings way away from your trees!
Until next time, happy planting friends!
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Hello, I'm Jaci. I look forward to sharing my gardening and homestead adventures to help you reach your gardening goals! If you have any questions then don't be shy, I'd love to hear from you. Send me a message and I will be glad to help!