Planting Bare-Root Tree Seedlings

person planting a tree seedling

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Whether you started the tree from seed yourself, picked one up at an event like Arbor Day, or ordered it from a catalog, it's important to make sure you give your bare root tree seedling the right start in life. If at all possible, plant the seedling as soon as you get it. Don't let the tree roots dry out.

Plant at the Right Time

One of the most critical steps in planting your bare-root tree seedling is to make sure you are doing it at the right time of year. The best time to plant is while the seedling is dormant.

  • In warmer zones, you can plant almost all year, except summer—heat will stress and dry out the seedlings.
  • In cooler zones, seedlings should be planted in late winter or early spring, once the ground has thawed.

The best day for planting is one that is cool and cloudy.

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Plant at the Correct Depth

Planting depth can make the difference between a tree that thrives and one that constantly struggles and ultimately fails. At the proper depth, the uppermost roots are at the surface, just covered with soil. 

If you plant it too deep, the roots may not get enough oxygen and the tree will be more exposed to potential diseases from the soil.

If you plant it too shallow, the roots may dry out. The tree will also be less stable and have a greater chance of falling over.

Plant With a Bar

The best way to plant seedlings is with a planting bar, also called a dibble bar. Make sure the depth of the hole for the seedling is equal to the length of the seedling's root system. If the hole is too shallow, the bottom end of the main root may bend to the side, a harmful condition known as J-root. Plant the seedling in the hole, then close the hole using the bar, working from the bottom to the top to prevent air pockets in the hole. 

This illustration lists 6 steps you should take to plant your bare root tree seedlings correctly
US Forest Service

Water Enough but Not Too Much

You don't need to water as much as you may believe necessary. When you water too often, the roots grow shallowly and the tree won't do as well in times of drought. The tree will also not be as sturdy and able to resist strong winds.

It's best to water deeply every 7 to 10 days and let the ground dry out before the next watering. The roots will grow farther down and will later have an easier time finding water if needed.

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Protect Your Tree From Animals

Animals such as deer and rabbits may think your new seedling is a tasty snack. You may want to put a mesh tube around the tree or use repellents. Hardware cloth made of the galvanized metal wire keeps out both large and small animals. 

Metal guard mesh protectin damageded tree bark
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Watch for Pests, Diseases, and Poor Nutrition

The first few years are especially critical for establishing a healthy tree. Watch for signs of poor health such as:

  • Yellow leaves
  • Wilting foliage
  • Holes in bark, branches, or leaves
  • Oozing sap

If you see these or any other indications of poor health, take steps to remedy the problem as soon as possible. You can contact your local extension office if you need help in diagnosing what is wrong.