Trees and shrubs bought by mail order are often shipped with bare roots and arrive in late winter while still dormant. Deciduous plants have bare branches, their leaves having dropped the previous autumn. Evergreens have their foliage, but they're also in their rest period. All the soil is washed off their roots, typically wrapped in moist, shredded paper, moss, or sawdust for shipment. This way, they're easy and relatively inexpensive to ship. Bare-root plants tend to be very young and therefore smaller than those sold in containers or balled and burlapped. They're less expensive, and many more varieties are available through specialty mail-order sources.
Keep plant roots moist if you'll be delaying planting. Keep them wrapped and stored in a cool, dark place. Several hours before planting, unwrap the roots and set the plant in a container of tepid water so that its roots are immersed. Be careful not to damage the roots. The tiny root hairs are important because they will spearhead the growth in the soil. Once planted and watered, bare-root plants need less water than others until they leaf out. Delay fertilizing until they produce stems and foliage growth.
Planting depth is critically important when you plant trees and shrubs. Regardless of whether they're bare-root, containerized, or balled-and-burlapped, don't plant them too deeply. Check often while positioning them in the hole to assure that the root flare -- where the roots begin at the base of the stems or trunk -- is visible at or above ground level.
Sometimes it's impossible to plant bare-root nursery stock promptly. Heeling it in -- a sort of temporary planting -- assures that the roots stay moist and protected during the delay. Dig a trench or slot in the soil or in a pile of leaves, mulch, or compost. Then set the tree or shrub so its roots lay in it. Cover the roots with soil or compost in a loose heap and wet it down thoroughly. You can keep plants heeled in for up to three months.
1. Dig a hole that accommodates the roots when you spread them out. Make it deep enough so the soil mark -- it's probably still visible on the stem -- ends up level with the soil surface.
2. Unwrap the roots carefully and gently rinse off any sawdust, moss, or debris so they're bare. Cleanly clip off any dead rootlets, and cut broken ones back to healthy tissue.
3. Soak the roots in a bucket of tepid water for several hours so they can take up water. The more hydrated the plant's tissues are, the better it can handle the planting process.
4. Press loose soil at the bottom of the hole into a cone to support the root system. Make it high enough so the roots drape freely and the plant crown is level with the soil surface.
5. Cut away any broken or dead stems. Unless the shipping and planting instructions specifically tell you to cut away a portion of healthy top growth, don't prune anything more.
6. Set the plant crown -- where the roots join the stem -- over the soil cone and drape the roots evenly over its sides. Make sure the soil mark on the stem or trunk is at or above ground level.
7. Fill the hole with the soil removed from digging. Pour water into the half-filled hole to help reduce air bubbles, settle the roots in position, and indicate if you need to adjust the depth.
8. Add the remainder of the soil up to ground level. Firm it gently over the root zone to support the plant. Press soil into a ridge to create a shallow reservoir to hold water.
9. Water again to settle the soil, but don't fertilize. Mulch with a 2- to 3-inch layer of chopped leaves or aged wood chips over the root zone. This will discourage weeds and keep the soil moist.