I got a look of disbelief when I told a friend I had planted a tree that had been shipped from a nursery 2,000 miles away.
As I went on to explain that the tree had been sent "bare-root," I could see him shudder.
But then I showed off my robust young plant in its second year of growth.
Bare-root trees are so named because the plants are dug from the ground when dormant (leafless), and then their roots are shaken free of soil. Kept cool, with their roots packed in some moist material, bare-root plants are easy to store or ship in good condition. They're usually less expensive and are available in greater variety than potted or balled-and-burlapped trees.
CARE FOR YOUR PLANT AS SOON AS IT ARRIVES
Of course, it's not only the plant's quality that was responsible for the good growth of my bare-root tree. Proper siting, care on arrival and planting were equally important.
Two threats to a bare-root tree before it is planted are that it is kept too warm and that its roots dry out. Immediately after I receive a bare-root tree, whether it has been shipped or brought home from a nursery, I soak the roots in a bucket of water for eight hours.
If planting must be delayed, I keep the tree cool and its roots moist by storing it on the cool, north side of my house with its roots covered with moist soil or mulch. Or I put it in the refrigerator with its roots wrapped in moist peat and then plastic. Keeping the tree cool delays growth of buds along the stems.
Just before planting, I inspect the roots, cutting off any that are dead, diseased or broken. I shorten any that are too long to be splayed out into a reasonably sized planting hole.
PLANT IT CORRECTLY
The soil needs to be crumbly — not sodden and not rock-hard — before it's ready to be dug for planting the tree. When I do dig, I make that hole just deep enough to get the tree in, twice as wide as the spread of the roots, and tapered down from its edges to full depth.
After shovelling enough loose soil back into the planting hole to create a mound on which to set the tree, I start backfilling, tamping the soil in among the spread roots. No need to mix any other materials, such as peat or compost, into the planting hole.
After I finish backfilling, I build up a slight ridge of soil around the outer edge of the planting hole to help contain water. If rodents are a threat, a cylinder of 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth will keep them at bay.
Now is when compost can be put to best use; spread it on top of the ground an inch or 2 deep. A further topping of straw or wood chips no closer than 6 inches from the trunk will keep the roots cool, moist and happy in the months ahead.
DON'T FORGET THE TREE AFTER PLANTING IT
Large trees or trees in very windy sites need to be staked for a year, until their roots take hold in the soil. Tie the trunk to one or two stakes set alongside the tree, using some soft material or wire padded where it touches the trunk. Allow for some movement of the trunk or else it will be too slow in thickening.
The final step in tree planting — watering — is critical. I slowly and thoroughly soak the ground beneath my new plant.
It's important not to turn your back on any sapling after that last step in planting. Throughout its first growing season, longer for large trees, a weekly watering schedule must be diligently maintained. Figure on about 1 gallon per week per square foot spread of the roots.
And that mulched circle is maintained for at least a few years. After that, the mulching can be continued or the ground could be planted with some groundcover, either of which keeps lawnmowers and weed whackers — hazards to trees young and old — at bay.