Spring — as soon after the ground thaws as possible — is the most frequently recommended time to plant bare root fruit trees. Commercial nurseries take advantage of this, providing most of their bare root tree stock to sellers well before winter ends.
The truth is that orchard trees can be planted any time they are dormant as long as you can get a spade into the ground. And fall planting makes for a number of advantages that tree growers can use to their benefit.
Bare-root trees — those that have the soil shaken from their roots after they’re dug up — make for easier and lighter handling. Fruit trees of every kind, from apples to olives (nuts and berries, too) are now available as bare-root stock.
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Bare root trees are almost always cheaper than their container-held counterparts. That’s because they weigh considerably less, making for cheaper shipping costs.
It’s long been believed that trees sold without a pot or burlap-encased ball of soil for roots are less hardy and more prone to root damage before being planted. In truth, bare root trees establish themselves more quickly than soil-ball or containerized stock. And with a little care, it’s easy to avoid damage to bare root trees before they’re planted.
Nurseries usually harvest their bare root trees in late fall and hold them over the winter, sometimes with the roots protected by mulch or straw, other times kept viable with a gel that helps keep the roots moist. They’re shipped in late winter, so that they’re ready for buyers as soon as the soil can be worked but before the tree starts to bud.
Savvy shoppers can often get trees direct from the local nursery that grows them just as they’re dug in the fall. This avoids any damage or set-back the tree may suffer during winter storage. You take it straight from the nursery to the spot where it will be planted.
Nurseries and other sellers may still have bare-root stock left from the previous spring, often toed into the ground waiting for the next season. Some nurseries have been known to offer these trees at a bargain. Inspect them carefully for root damage and avoid any that have extensive dead or dry roots. With care, these trees will come on strong in the spring.
Bare root trees planted in the fall and protected from hard freezes by mulch will continue to root over the winter and tend to be better established than spring-planted trees when budding season rolls around.
Planting bare root fruit trees, spring or fall, is pretty much the same. Once you’ve got them home, separate the trees carefully if you’ve bought more than one, and carefully untangle the roots of each tree. Roots should be firm, not dry and brittle. Soak the roots in a bucket of water with two capfuls of Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed for several hours — even overnight — before planting.
Choose a sun-filled spot with good draining soil, not hard-pack or clay. Young trees can be temporarily planted in good quality garden soil (don’t fertilize trees when planting) for a couple years of solid growth before transplanting them to their permanent location. This also give you time to work the soil in the permanent spot.
To plant your fruit tree in its new home, dig a hole that’s a couple inches deeper than the root length and at least a foot wider than appears necessary. This allows the roots room to grow and spread. When planting multiple trees, follow your nursery person’s instructions for spacing the trees. Usually fill the bottom of the hole with water, especially in well-drained or dry soil.
Don’t plant your tree too deeply. Make sure the point on the trunk where the roots begin to flare are above the soil line. Use only regular, “native” soil from your yard and garden. Don’t use potting soil or amend the native soil with compost, peat moss or (especially) fertilizer. Add soil gradually and tamp gently as you do. Leave a bowl around the base of the tree to collect water.
Mulch around your trees to a depth of two or three inches — more if you experience particularly cold winters — but keep the mulch from touching the trunk. Mulch or soil against the tree’s trunk will invite rots and other disease.
Most trees shouldn’t need staking if planted properly. If your tree has a particularly small root ball and/or is in a particularly windy location it may need to be staked, if only temporarily. Learn how to stake a newly planted tree here. If you have deer or rodents in and around your orchard, it’s wise to erect fencing around your newly fall-planted tree. Deer especially like to strip the bark from young trees in the winter when grass and other browse aren’t available.
In springtime, enjoy the blossoms of your fall-planted fruit tree but remove any fruit that may set. This gives the tree an even more vigorous start.
Want more details? Here’s a comprehensive guide to plaiting bare root trees (PDF) from Washington State University – Spokane Extension’s master gardener program.