Bare Root Fruit Trees: A Simple Guide
It’s the beginning of the year and this means nurseries across the country are starting to stock bare root fruit trees for their customers.
In fact, bare root fruit trees are top sellers at most nurseries this season. Customers go out of their way even to order them ahead of time.
But what exactly are bare root fruit trees and why are they in such high demand? Let’s get into it!
What Are Bare Root Fruit Trees?
Bare root fruit trees are dormant fruit trees that were dug up and taken out of the ground with their bare roots exposed.
The trees are usually still young, 1-2 years old, sometimes 3 years old, so the excavation process is not too difficult.
Dormancy is a key factor and the reason why it’s possible for the trees to survive in this situation.
Once they are out of the ground, there is no soil for the trees to draw nutrients from, so it’s important for this to happen only when the energy needs of the trees are low, as in periods of dormancy.
Even then, it’s still necessary to keep the roots of the tree immersed in a moist environment. Suppliers of bare root trees can do this with lightweight, compact mediums such as saw dust for example.
Only deciduous fruit trees are sold as bare root fruit trees. Deciduous trees are those that drop all their leaves and go into a state of dormancy in early winter.
Many types of deciduous fruit trees can be sold this way, for example apples, pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, and cherries.
Most subtropical and tropical fruit trees (for example, citrus or avocado trees), on the other hand, are usually not deciduous and cannot be sold as bare root fruit trees for that reason.
Are Bare Root Fruit Trees Better?
There’s no question that bare fruit trees are better than potted trees. They are superior in terms of selection, cost, size and weight, planting and health.
As alluded to earlier, bare root fruit trees are a big moneymaker for local nurseries.
The high demand for them and the small amount of space they take up translates into an abundant supply and variety of fruit trees for you, much more so than at any other time of the year.
Moreover, if you play your cards right and agree to order to reserve in advance, you may be able to convince your local nursery to order the types of trees you are interested in specifically.
These days you can get many bare root fruit trees for as little as $40 at your local nursery and these can be about 4 to 5 ft tall when planted. The same size tree in a container would easily cost double that amount.
You may be wondering why these trees cost so much less in the first place. It comes down to the fact that the suppliers of bare root trees are passing on their cost savings to you.
There are immediate savings because you do not have to pay for soil and a container. In addition, it also costs the suppliers much less to transport these lightweight bare root fruit trees. The ease of transport and logistical savings were likely why the trade in bare root fruit trees took off initially.
Size and Weight
We already touched on the fact that you can get a much bigger tree for less.
What’s true for suppliers is also true for you.
Bare root fruit trees are incredibly lightweight and they can often be stacked right on top of each other, so they don’t take up a lot of space either.
It would never occur to any reasonable person to try to transport dozens of potted trees in their car but with bare root fruit trees that feat is quite achievable.
This means if you want to establish a big orchard in your backyard, bare root tree season is the time to act.
With bare root trees, it’s also easier to get them planted in the ground.
For one, because they weigh rather little, it’s much easier to move them to the spot where you want to plant them. You may not think this is a big deal but imagine you want to plant dozens of trees or what if you are working on a sloped hillside.
There’s more. Without the extra soil to put in the ground, you just need space to spread out the roots. The hole you will need to dig can thus be much smaller, once again saving you time and effort.
Fruit trees in containers can often suffer from the constrained environment they are in.
To keep the trees in place, the nursery may have pruned them heavily. It’s also possible for them to get root-bound.
With no other place to go, their roots will start to circle around the container, a condition that will weaken them later on when you plant them in the ground.
There’s no need to worry about these drawbacks with bare root trees. On the contrary, they typically come with minimal pruning and an extensive root system.
The larger root system gives the tree a greater chance to establish itself quickly and withstand stressors.
When Should You Buy Bare Root Fruit Trees?
You should buy bare root fruit trees while they are still dormant. Once they break dormancy, their nutritional needs will be greater and if there’s no soil, it will naturally put greater stress on them.
In most places, bare root tree season is usually in January and February. It’s best to get them as soon as they become available. There may still be some stock left later in the season but the bare root trees that have been out for a long time are more likely to be of lesser quality.
Talk to your local nursery and make an effort to get your bare root fruit trees soon after they take delivery from their suppliers.
Where Can You Buy Bare Root Fruit Trees?
As with any fruit trees, there are multiple places you can choose from to buy your bare root fruit trees.
Aside from local nurseries, there are also home improvement stores and companies doing business online.
The home improvement stores may sell bare root fruit trees with their bottoms packaged up. It makes them even easier to sell but was perhaps done because their employees might not be able to care for the trees otherwise. This also means you need to be more attentive to the quality of the trees you buy there.
Another way in which the home improvement stores differ seems to be their greater emphasis on dwarf, semi-dwarf and even so-called ultra-dwarf trees. Anecdotally, they seem to have more of these available. This can be good and bad.
Presumably, the nurseries favor standard size trees because their customers are knowledgeable and understand they can still keep their fruit trees small with proper pruning. For the home improvement stores, on the other hand, they may have found their customers to have more of a hands off approach and a more pronounced preference for dwarf trees without the need for extra maintenance.
Online stores are in a different situation. The number one advantage with these stores is the selection. In short, if you cannot get the tree anywhere else locally, it’s a good idea to get them online and shipping bare root trees is as safe as it can get. At the same time, you are giving up the convenience of being able to view the tree in person and picking it up the same day.
This means you cannot be sure about the quality either. That said, online stores may be your only choice if you are looking for bare root trees late in the season when the local nurseries have already run out of them.
Should You Order Bare Root Fruit Trees In Advance?
If you know what you want, it’s definitely a good idea to order in advance. There are a number of reasons for this.
Keep in mind your local nursery will similarly have to order bare root fruit trees from their supplier and they typically only get a limited allocation sending on the cultivar.
Advance orders make it easier for your nursery and ensure that the tree you want will be there for you. And not only that, the nursery may ultimately return the favor and allow you to choose one of the better trees.
The bare root trees arriving at the nursery are not all the same, even if they are of the same type. They can be different sizes and shapes.
For instance, there can be 20 Fuji apple trees but a few of them might be significantly larger and have wider diameters, called calipers in professional terms.
Obviously, as a buyer you’d be right to prefer the bigger bare root trees for the same cultivar and all else the same.
In other words, ordering early may not get you a better price but it could get you a better tree.
By the same token, if for whatever reason it’s not possible to order early and get priority at your local nursery, try to find out when they get their bare root trees delivered and show up to pick the best trees while they remain available.
What Do the Labels Mean on Bare Root Fruit Trees?
Typically, bare root fruit trees have multiple labels attached to them, sometimes in various colors.
The labels don’t just tell you the name of the tree but a host of additional details as well.
The majority of bare root fruit trees are grafted, which means they are a combination of two parts. There is a rootstock, essentially the bottom of the tree with all the roots, plus a scion cultivar on top of it.
The scion specifies what kind of fruit you will get (e.g. Babcock Peach) but don’t underestimate the importance of the rootstock. Different rootstocks are adapted to different soil environments. Rootstocks can also influence how fast and how big your tree grows. Just like fruit tree cultivars, root stocks can also have their own names (e.g. Citation or Nemaguard).
The same type of rootstock can often be used for various cultivars of related trees. This is why it is also possible to have multiple cultivars attached to the same rootstock, for example a 4-in-1 fruit tree.
Another common use of rootstock is for dwarfing fruit trees. These less vigorous rootstocks help you keep your tree relatively small without having to prune, though of course they may have other drawbacks relative to standard rootstocks.
Because buyers of bare root fruit tend to be more experienced, the nurseries and their suppliers make sure to have separate labels for rootstocks and scion cultivars. This way you will know exactly what you are getting.
Another piece of information you may see labeled on bare root fruit tree is the caliper of the tree. This gives you the diameter of the stem at a standard height. All else the same, you will want the caliper to be greater because this gives you an indication that tree is more mature.
There are also internal color coding schemes, which help you quickly sort through the types of trees you are interested in. For example, a blue label may denote a dwarf tree.
How Do You Plant Bare Root Fruit Trees?
If your bare root fruit tree came in a package, it should include a planting guide. If you bought your trees from a nursery, be sure to ask their staff for guidance.
That being said, there are general recommendations that apply to pretty much all bare root fruit trees.
Although bare root trees are dormant, they cannot be left to dry out completely. In particular, the roots must be kept in a moist medium.
If you got them out of the package or picked them up from your nursery, it’s important to get them in the ground as soon as possible.
There are also some additional precautions.
Before you plant in the ground, it’s usually recommended to soak the bottom of the bare root fruit tree in water for 2 – 12 hours. You can use a bucket of water for this. This way the roots will be able to absorb sufficient moisture to get the tree off to a good start.
The actual planting process is very straightforward. Simply dig a hole big enough for you to put in the tree and spread the roots. It can be just 24 inches wide and 24 inches deep. Then you just need to backfill with native soil.
Some guides advise mixing 50% garden soil (purchased from the nursery or garden center) and 50% native soil, especially if your native soil is poor in nutrients. Keep in mind, though, this is not universally accepted because it may also constrain your tree in the long term. The concern is that the tree won’t spread its roots further than the good soil.
Whatever you do, do not plant your bare root tree in 100% garden soil, only compost or in soil that has a heavy mix of fertilizer as it can burn the roots.
Another thing to take note of for grafted fruit trees (which most bare root fruit trees are) is that the bud union should remain at least 2 inches above ground. Otherwise if the the stem of the scion is immersed in soil, it may eventually develop its own root system and you lose the benefit of the rootstock it came with.
How Do You Water A Bare Root Fruit Tree After Planting It?
You should establish a basin around the fruit tree and plan on watering the tree deeply every 2 weeks until it leafs out.
Make sure not to overwater. During the dormancy period, the tree does not need as much supplemental irrigation. With the colder weather, the tree is also better able to retain moisture.
Once it leafs out, however, you will need to water more regularly, like once a week, depending on the needs of the tree and your local climate.
How Long Do Bare Root Trees Take to Produce Fruit?
This can vary from tree to tree but generally fruit trees need sufficient time to get established in the new environment.
For many fruit trees, this means it can still take 2 to 3 years before they become productive. This is not very different from container plants.
That being said, some specimens could produce smaller yields earlier and even the same year. This is especially true of dwarf varieties.
Whats Happens to Leftover Bare Root Trees That Didn’t Sell During the Dormant Season?
When you visit your local nursery or garden center early in the year during the bare root tree season, you will no doubt be left amazed at the abundant supply. But what happens to the trees that they fail to sell?
To be clear, the bare root fruit trees won’t remain dormant forever, so there is only a limited amount of time they can be kept that way. Ideally, they should be put in the ground before the they start to flower in the spring.
So what are the nurseries left to do when the clock starts ticking? As you might have guessed, they usually set out to save the bare root fruit trees by converting them to potted trees. That’s right, they take them out and put them in containers with soil, then prune them so they don’t outgrow their space.
This way it’s also a good business decision for them because the potted trees can be sold at higher prices.