Bare-root fruit trees and vines can be planted at any time during their dormant season between leaf-fall and bud-burst–late fall to early spring–as long as the soil conditions are right and the ground is not too wet or frozen.
Frosty weather and freezes need not stop fruit planting as long as the soil surface is workable and fruit trees or bushes are planted into reasonably dry and unfrozen soil beneath.
In very cold regions, where temperatures drop below 0°F and where the ground freezes, plant fruit trees and vines in the spring so that roots are established before the next winter. In warm-winter regions where freezing weather is rare, plant in the fall or early winter.
Allow as much time as possible between planting bare-root fruits and vines and the hottest time of the year when plants can be most stressed. Time allows roots to become established and withstand extremes of temperature.
Bare-root fruit trees, bushes, and vines that can not be planted immediately should be kept in a frost-free shed or cellar. Be sure to cover the roots of bare-root plants with moist burlap or sacks to stop drying out or frost damage. Or, heel bare-root fruits into a temporary trench in a garden bed with their tops leaning over at an angle southward (to prevent sunburn) and the roots covered with well packed moist soil for protection from drying cold. An 8 to 12 inch trench in a shady location is best.
Selecting bare-root plants
Choose bare-root trees and vines with well-developed root systems. These plants are usually two to three years old. Look for plants that have sturdy trunks or stems and well-spaced branches. Avoid plants with broken or dried-out roots or branches. Ensure success by purchasing healthy and sturdy plants that are clearly labeled and come from a well-regarded nursery or grower.
Preparing to plant bare roots
Planting holes are best prepared just before planting, so that water cannot fill them. Keep topsoil and lighter-colored subsoil separate. The planting hole should be large enough that the roots can be spread out and fully extended. Dig a hole that allows the plant to sit at the same depth or just slightly deeper than it grew in the container or nursery. A hole 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep should be plenty large enough for planting bare-root fruit trees. For balled-and-burlapped trees or trees with root balls, dig a hole at least 6 inches wider in all directions.
If roots dry before planting, soak them in a tub of water or slurry of aged steer manure for a few hours before planting. This will plump up roots and prepare them for their new home. Be sure to trim away any broken root tips before planting. Large, older roots anchor plants. New fine roots absorb water and food. Root tips trimmed back by about ½ inch will grow new fine roots.
If you know well in advance where you intend to plant, prepare the site by tilling in plenty of well-aged manure and compost. A cover crop of green manure–annual rye, oats, clover or other legumes–can be planted the season before. Test the soil before planting. Add lime if the soil is too acidic.
If the planting hole can be dug well in advance of setting out fruit trees and vines, fill the hole with aged compost and manure weeks or even months before planting. This will keep rain water from sitting in the hole before planting and allow the compost and manure to decompose and enrich the soil.
Stake bare roots before planting
Just before planting fruit trees, drive vertical stakes into the ground, so that the root system is not damaged. Stakes will hold tree tops steady, while roots become established. A stake 1½- or 2-inches square and 6 feet long should be sufficient for supporting fruit trees. Smaller stakes can be used for fruit bushes or vines. Allow for more movement by double-staking trees; trees that are allowed to move with breezes will develop stronger trunks.
Many small and dwarf fruit trees have small root systems and may require staking throughout their life. Trained trees and bushes–espaliers and cordons–also need life-long support.
Planting bare roots
Mound the soil at the bottom of the planting hole to form a cone then spread the roots out over the coned mound. Re-fill the hole with a combination of topsoil and compost layer-by-layer. Add the subsoil back into the hole last; the richer topsoil goes back into the hole first. After each layer of soil covers more roots, give the plant a gentle shake to settle the soil round the roots. Firm the soil in as you go. Repeat the process until the level of the surrounding soil has been reached.
If the soil is wet and sticky–a sign of clay soil–be careful not to firm the soil in too hard. Wet, clay soil is easily compacted and the soil structure can be harmed. Where the soil is clay, add more aged compost into the planting hole to improve the soil structure. Where the sub-soil stays wet, it may be beneficial to raise the planting area by 2 feet or more by mounding topsoil before digging the planting hole.
Conversely, if the soil is very loose and sandy or if you suspect the soil is not making firm contact with the roots, water in your soil mix to help settle the soil round the roots. Where soil is loose, place sloping stakes close to the tree and head the top of the tree towards the prevailing winds. Tie stakes firmly to the tree with plastic or rubber ties.
It is best to not add fertilizers to the planting hole–even organic fertilizers or amendments; they can cause root burn. If you do add fertilizers or amendments to the hole, place a buffer layer of soil over them before putting the plant roots in place. Fertilizer rich planting soil can result in excess green or vegetative growth and delay fruiting.
Bare root planting depth
All fruits can re-planted at the same depth as they were in the nursery or nursery container–the nursery planting level will be distinguishable by a difference in the color of the bark or stem.
Plant dwarf fruit trees on grafted rootstocks so that the graft union– distinguishable as a swelling on the stem, usually just above where the roots grow out–is above the soil. This will ensure that the scion variety does not form its own roots and counteract the effect of the rootstock.
The graft union of standard-sized fruit trees can be planted 2 inches or so below the soil level. This will protect the union from extreme weather and ensure that the tree is well anchored.
When planting situate the tree so that the bulk of the tree's roots, the graft union, and the lowest scaffold braches point toward the prevailing wind. This will reduce the possibility of tree damage in high winds.
Where there is a prevailing wind, plant trees so that the strongest shoots grow into the wind. This will ensure the formation of a more balanced tree.
Water and mulching bare roots
Water in the roots at planting time to make sure the soil makes good contact with the roots. Give new plantings a deep soaking once a week. Allow the water to soak deeply into the soil. Roots will follow deep watering downward to help firmly anchor the tree. Avoid light and shallow watering which will result in shallow rooting.
Add a mulch of compost or leaf mold around fruit trees and vines to keep the soil from drying out. Add 2 to 4 inches of organic mulch–compost, dried leaves, or straw–around the base of each plant. Pull the mulch just away from the trunk or stem of the plant in spring to avoid bark rot. Place hardware cloth mouse guard around the tree to keep rodents from hiding or feeding under the mulch.
Prune bare roots after planting
Prune fruit trees after planting. Usually about half of a tree's roots are left behind when lifted for transplanting. To compensate for root loss, an equal or near equal part of the tree top should be pruned back. This will slow evaporation from leaves and keep the plant from drying out while new roots grow.
If the tree is a whip with no branches (a tree that is about a year old), cut back the top third. If the tree is branched, first remove any branches growing from the trunk or main stem (called the leader) at an angle of less than 45 degrees. (Vertical branches growing at 45 degrees or less will form weak crotches that can split or break at the time of heavy fruiting.) Three to five strong, horizontally growing branches should be retained along with the leader. These are called the scaffold branches. Scaffold branches should be radially distributed evenly around the tree.
Head back the leader to a length of about 3 feet for fruit trees like peaches, nectarines and apricots and plums which do best with an open center.
Make pruning cuts just above buds facing to the outside of branches; this will ensure new growth is outward and not inward to the center of the tree. Be sure to prune out all broken and dead branches and twigs first. Apples and pears planted in late spring should not be pruned until the autumn.
For fruit bushes and vines, cut back the plant's top growth by half at planting time to balance the upper growth and roots. Dormant shoots can be cut away at any time between leaf-fall and bud-burst in spring, except during periods of hard frost.
Protecting newly planted bare-root trees
Keep weeds and grass back from newly planted trees and vines. This will eliminate competition for water and nutrients. Mulch outward from the stem or trunk to the drip line. Where winters are harsh a 4- to 6-inch layer of compost, straw or well-rotted manure will help protect plants from cold temperatures. Be sure to pull mulches back from stems and trunks in spring.
Treewrap–stretchable, weatherproof paper–or burlap can be wrapped around tree trunks in winter to insulate plants. A burlap windbreak constructed of four stakes with burlap run between them or a cylinder of chicken wire loosely filled with straw or dried leaves will protect new plantings in winter.
A hardware cloth tree guard will keep mice and rodents from over-wintering near planting or eating bark.
When spring comes, newly planted trees–particularly young whips–can be protected from sunburn and insects with a water-based whitewash or white interior latex paint coating. The trunks or stems of young trees should be painted in early spring before buds begin to swell. The whitewash will gradually fade away as the tree grows.