How to Plant Bare Root Apple Trees

A General Tree Planting Guide

Author: Greg Baka

You need a $10 hole for a $1 tree...

The following 7 steps explain how to dig a $10 hole. We have used an apple tree as our example, but the steps tell how to plant any bare-root tree.

Step 1: Strip the sod

man removing sod with a garden spade

So, you have decided to plant a couple of apple trees (many varieties need two trees for pollination). And you have two great locations picked out, but the trees will not arrive for another month when the weather is right for planting. Perfect. Go out today with a bucket and digging tool, (we recommend a grub hoe and a garden spade). Gloves are optional, as science indicates that getting our hands in real dirt is good for us. A wheelbarrow, garden cart or a few buckets will also come in handy.   Image Credit

With a garden spade, cut a 4-foot circle or square to outline where to remove the sod. I prefer squares because they are easier to mow and edge around later. Use your tool of choice to dig down just deep enough that you can pick up the sod, generally about 5 inches. Under the right conditions, the sod can be rolled like a carpet. Remember the bucket I told you to bring along? Shake and scrape the sod chunks to save all the good topsoil in the bucket. Save as many earthworms as possible, too. Put the grass, weeds and roots into the garden cart or another bucket to transport to the compost pile. Well done. You finished Step 1.

Step 2: Fertilize

This step depends upon two things: what type of fertilizer you are using and when you intend to plant the tree. Read and follow the directions on your fertilizer. Many will advise fertilizing 2 weeks before planting or to stay a recommended distance from the plant itself. If you are using compost, stir it into the top 5-7 inches. This is very easy if you have a broadfork. If not, any fork hoe, grub hoe or shovel will work. Then, cover the bare dirt with black plastic to keep weeds from starting or simply cover the spot with straw, wood chips or mulch. (See our compost article to learn how to check it before mixing it in.) Don't forget about the good topsoil you saved in the bucket. It would also love some compost and fertilizer added to it.

Now you can reward yourself with a cup of apple juice and dream of when your tree will bear fruit. If you are planting your tree today, go directly to Step 3 and skip the apple juice.

Step 3: Finally, we get to dig the hole!

And, boy, this is where that $10 hole comes in. You need a hole that is 2 feet around and at least 2 feet deep. A long-handled spade or round-pointed shovel is our recommended tool for this job. As you dig, put any good topsoil into your bucket with the soil saved from Step 2. Pile up the dirt or put it into your garden cart, another bucket or wheelbarrow; it will be used again in a few steps. If you skipped the apple juice in Step 2, you definitely deserve it now.

Step 4: Aerating around the inside of the hole

Many people miss this important step. Aerating is easy if you have a fork hoe, although any small pointy object at least 4 inches long will work. Without a fork hoe, you will get dirty doing this step. But that is ok because, as we stated in Step 1, dirt is good for us. The goal is to perforate the inside of the hole to help water and nutrients travel down to reach the new roots. You do not want so many holes that you harm the hole’s integrity and it all caves in. But you want enough so that water has a few easy passages to reach the tree roots.

Step 5: You are so close to being ready to plant your tree!

Test fit your tree. How long are your roots? If they are really long, you probably can just dump half the bucket of topsoil right into the bottom of the hole. If the roots are short, you may want to put a couple inches of the not-as-great soil back in first. The goal is to get the most nutrient-rich soil right at the bottom/below the new trees roots. We want the roots to go down and out in search of all those good nutrients to feed the baby tree.

Step 6: Planting time

positioning bare root tree in hole

Gently spread out the roots so you can put more topsoil around the tree. This might be where you "call a friend" to hold the tree straight and at the correct depth. Add the topsoil around the roots. Gently compress the soil so that it is a firm foundation without air pockets around the new roots. You want every root to have solid contact with the soil. When you run out of topsoil, fill the remainder of the hole with your other dirt. Next is a fun job for a kid or young at heart: stomp or dance around the top of the new soil to ensure you have removed as many air pockets as possible. (Note: Do not cover more of the bark on your tree than is recommended in the planting instructions.) Yea! Your tree is planted.   Image Credit

Step 7: Build a moat

You thought you were done, didn't you? Remember the moat you used to build around sandcastles when you were young? Great. It is time to build one again. You should have some dirt left over that wouldn't fit in the hole. You’ll use it to build a 3-inch to 4-inch moat around the outside of the 2-foot area around your tree. If you don't have enough dirt to make it all the way around, use a tool like a grape hoe to move soil from your cleared soil onto the top of your moat. Basically, the moat should be able to hold one 5-gallon bucket of water so it seeps down to the roots and doesn't run off.

Step 8: Mulch

Apply a thick layer of mulch or compost outside the moat and fill the area where you removed the soil earlier. Keep this area mulched for at least a year so that all the water and nutrients go directly to the tree instead of grass or weeds. If after a year you want grass again, it would be ok to plant it in this area.

Congratulations! his time you really are finished planting your new tree. Before long, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.