Q. In today's economy, I'm looking for ways to save money on some new trees we would like to plant around our home. We have lots of room for tree plantings. A fellow at work told me that planting bare-root trees had saved him lots of money. I thought trees had to be transplanted with dirt around the roots, but he said bare-rooted trees worked well for him and were much easier to move. What do you think about his planting ideas for saving on our landscaping budget?
A. Sounds like the fellow you spoke to knows his stuff! There's an old saying that moving trees with large, heavy, soil root balls is just "an expensive way to move dirt." There's a great deal of truth in that saying, since most nurserymen do start out with bare-root trees planted in their nurseries.
A nurseryman might buy 50 bare-rooted Maple "whips" with trunks the size of your finger for planting in his nursery field. These trees will be lined-out in straight rows. Adequate space is left between each tree and every row to allow room for mowing equipment, and eventually digging equipment. The trees will be "grown-on" for 3 to 5 years until they reach a good marketable size, say 2" to 2½" caliper (trunk diameter 6-inches above the ground) and 10 to 12 feet tall.
Hydraulic tree spades for digging field grown B&B trees:
Skid steer loader with "tree spades" produces root balls like these:
Evergreen trees (like pine and spruce) are sold as seedlings or transplants. A seedling is just that, a small tree grown from select seed. One or two year seedlings may only be the size of a pencil and are easily lost in an overgrown field, so they are usually grown in tightly spaced seedling beds. Nurseries grow seedlings on for a couple years and then transplant them to another nursery bed or field with more growing space between them. These transplants are grown on for a couple more years before they are finally sold or planted out.
Numbers are used to designate how many years trees were grown as seedlings, and how many more years as transplants. A small pine designated in a catalog as (3-2) was grown 3 years as a seedling and then 2 years as a transplant, making the tree 5 years old. Younger trees are cheaper but may have to be purchased in larger quantities than transplants. Trees are usually shipped in early spring with moistened material (or moisture gel) wrapped around their root systems so the roots don't dry-out in transit. It's critical to keep roots moist, so check your shipment immediately upon arrival.
The golden rule when handling bare-root nursery stock (whether it's trees, shrubs or flowers) is to keep the roots moist and out of the drying effects of the sun and wind. While brief periods submerged in a bucket of water are OK, you are better off holding seedlings in a cool, shady spot, and having the roots covered with moist burlap, newspaper or wood shavings. Some nurseries heel bundles of transplants into well composted sawdust or shredded bark until they can be potted or lined-out in a growing field.
The biggest downside of planting bare-root trees is that timing becomes much more critical. While soil-balled trees (B&B) can be held over year round, bare-root nursery stock needs to be transplanted while it is dormant. For a deciduous tree, this would be the late fall or early spring period when it doesn't have any leaves. The shipping season for these types of trees is primarily early spring. Ideally, they should be planted before any new growth appears.
When planting bare-rooted trees it is important not to cram the roots into a constricted planting hole. The tree will eventually depend on these roots for support, so a broad rooting pattern is important. Improper planting can lead to girdling roots (ones that grow in a circular pattern around the trunk and eventually strangle the tree as it gets older) or "J-rooted" trees that were stuffed in the ground.
Over the years as I was planting evergreen seedlings, I would usually give the roots a haircut with old scissors or hand pruners, removing one-third to one-half of the root system (seedlings can arrive with long stringy root systems bigger than the tree). You will have to judge the individual plant and situation, you don't want to remove more roots than is necessary, while still ensuring the roots can be spread out properly in the planting hole. With a clean* pair of pruners that hasn't contacted the soil, trim out any broken, crossing or conflicting branches (*dirty pruners can be disinfested with rubbing alcohol). Most trees like to have a single trunk and growing point, known as a leader. Remove any second leaders from the growing tip now to prevent a forked "V-crotch" in the tree later (see photo).
The old advice is to create a cone of soil in the middle of your planting hole, then spread the roots down over and around the cone in a spread-out fashion without any bends in the roots. When backfilling your planting hole, try to use finer soil so you get good soil to root contact and avoid air pockets. Provided the soil isn't too wet, try to lightly compact the soil two or three times while filling the hole. Once planting is complete, thoroughly water the tree in. Pay close attention to keeping your tree(s) watered, especially during their first year.
As with any young trees, you will need to protect them from wildlife, primarily rabbits, deer and mice. These animals will quickly decimate young tree plantings with trunk rubbing (deer antlers) or by chewing off the branches and bark. Garden fencing and deer netting should solve the deer and rabbit problems, and plastic spiral trunk wraps will help prevent mice from girdling tree bark.