Balled-and-Burlapped Plants

As Opposed to "Bare-Root," "Container-Grown"

Image of a balled-and-burlapped tree.
Having been balled and burlapped, a tree can be transported with some soil around its roots. David Beaulieu

By definition, balled-and-burlapped plants are transplants sold to the consumer after having been planted, dug up, and wrapped. "Balled" refers to the root ball (that is, soil plus roots), which has been dug up, while "burlapped" refers to the wrapping material traditionally used for transporting tree and shrub deliveries.

By wrapping a tree or shrub in this way, a grower can pass it along to the consumer with the original soil still clinging to the plant's roots. This can also be achieved by growing the plant in a container (see below), but such pots would add to the grower's expense -- an expense that must be passed on to the consumer.

Beware Rot-Resistant Burlap, Product Damage

The burlap is secured with string, wire or twine. When purchasing balled-and-burlapped plants, ask if the burlap has been treated to be rot-resistant; you will need to know this information at planting time (see below). Anything not biodegradable needs to be removed when planting (for example, wire and rot-resistant burlap), otherwise, it will impede plant growth in the future.

Also check to make sure that the burlap has not been ripped. You are paying for a tree or shrub that has a healthy root ball (that is, undamaged roots housed in fertile soil), which has been maintained by a covering (namely, the burlap). If roots are sticking out and/or the root ball has been compromised, you are not getting your money's worth.

Other Ways Trees and Shrubs Are Sold: Pros and Cons

Plants can also be delivered in:

  1. "Bare-root" form
  2. As container-grown plants

Bare-root plants are just what their name implies: They come without any dirt clinging to their roots. If that sounds precarious, you're right. In fact, it is advisable to ship only certain kinds of trees or shrubs in this manner. The rose bush is one type of plant commonly transported bare-root from seller to buyer. You are strongly encouraged to plant bare-root specimens immediately (or soon thereafter) upon delivery. At the very least, keep the roots submerged in a container filled with water until you can get around to planting. Here's how bare-root plants compare to balled-and-burlapped plants:

  1. Pro: Because it is, if you will, a "bare bones" method of delivering plants, the grower saves money, and that savings can be passed on to you. Moreover, the bare-root trade tends to deal in plants that are relatively small; such plants will be easy for you, the consumer, to handle. They are usually much lighter than balled-and-burlapped plants.
  2. Con: But this small size is a double-edged sword. Bare-root plants take longer to mature than balled-and-burlapped plants. Furthermore, the gardener may imagine that bare-root plants are dug up, upon being ordered, and immediately shipped thereafter. The reality is that bare-root plants are often stored away for a long time before being sold. In the meantime, the roots are at risk for drying out and/or suffering damage. They are not protected (by soil and by a covering) the way that balled-and-burlapped plants are.

Some trees and shrubs are also sold as container-grown plants. That is, they are sold in a pot (usually a plastic pot). Pot sizes are measured in gallons. Here's how container-grown plants compare to balled-and-burlapped plants:

  1. Pro: The root ball is protected during shipping and handling by the hard plastic of the pot. Although it is possible for a pot to crack, the odds favor a container-grown plant over a balled-and-burlapped plant when it comes to arriving at the consumer's home with all its soil and undamaged roots.
  2. Con: Container-grown trees and shrubs tend to be more expensive.

How to Plant Balled-and-Burlapped Trees and Shrubs

In a separate article, read detailed instructions for planting trees and shrubs. The present article simply offers a tip that is specific to transplanting a balled-and-burlapped plant.

Leave the burlap on until you have dug your hole and moved the plant into this hole (you might as well make use of the protection afforded by the burlap for as long as possible). After you have the plant in its hole, remove the string, wire or twine that secures the burlap covering. Strip the burlap down the sides of the root ball.

Here is where you put your knowledge to use regarding the composition of the covering. The virtue of the traditional burlap is that you can leave it right at the bottom of the hole, because it will eventually break down.

But if you have one of the newer types of burlap covering that does not break down, be sure to remove it. Ideally, you will have a helper for such a job. One of you can gently grasp the plant by its now exposed root ball and lift it up slightly out of the hole, while the other pulls the burlap out from underneath. Then ease the plant back down into the planting hole. The one doing the lifting may want to wear a back brace and garden gloves, to be safe.

Now that you know how to plant, you may need some help with plant selection. Please consult: