How to Plant Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

Published on October 27th 2019
rows of young trees in tree shelters planted on a grassy hillside.
To me, nothing is more beautiful than having one sizable architectural specimen in a garden to act as a focal point. It can be a large shrub or small tree positioned to give shelter, provide screening or be perfectly framed by the living room window.
Now is the perfect time to add these to our spaces, and nurseries will soon be stocking or supplying ideal varieties with bare roots. These freshly dug up plants have had the soil removed from the root ball, making them cheaper to ship and more affordable for us to buy. Dormant plants also experience less transplant shock and are less likely to sulk in their new home.
Am Acer palmatum showing it's beautiful Autumn colour leaves.
Japanese Maples make perfect small specimen trees, often providing colour over several seasons.
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  • When you get your plant home (or delivered) unpackage it straight away and place in a bucket of water for a couple of hours to re-hydrate.
If you can't plant them on the same day, you can 'heel' them in. Dig a small trench and loosely cover the roots with soil to stop them drying out.
  • Choose your planting spot with care. Consider the plant's final height and the size of any plants nearby that might grow faster and crowd it out.
Once you've decided on a spot, you can prepare the wider site. Do this by digging in lots of well-rotted garden compost or manure then level with a garden rake. If you know your soil is poor, add a generous dressing of bonemeal fertiliser to help the plant once its roots have established.
A line of bare root trees resting against a fence that have had their roots heeled in.
These bare root trees have had their roots covered while waiting to be planted.


  • Digging the planting hole. The planting hole needs to be wider than the roots of the plant and slightly deeper. Once you have a hole the correct size, use a garden fork to break up the base and mix in a small amount of well-rotted leaf mould.
Tip Leaf mould contains naturally occurring mycorrhizal fungi which will help new roots to establish quickly.
  • Check the depth of the hole. Most of the time, plants need to be planted at the same depth they were previously growing. You should be able to see a ring or a colour change around the stem at the point where the rootball meets the stem/trunk of the plant.
There is one particular exception to this. You should plant grafted roses with the graft union – a distinct bulge on the stem just above the root ball – 2in (5cm) below soil level.
A group of people planting a tree into a community woodland.
With larger trees, you may want help holding the plant while the hole is being re-filled.
  • Planting Holding your plant at the right level, with its roots in the hole, carefully backfill the hole with soil. Occasionally shaking the roots will help the soil reach between them, ensuring you do not leave significant air gaps.
Once you've returned all the soil to the planting hole, you can firm it carefully using your heel. Pressing down hard will also help to remove air pockets and give the plant stability.
A close up of the packaging label of Mycorrhizal fungi product.
I recommend sprinkling mycorrhizal fungi powder over the root ball before you plant, as I've found it does improve a plants growth.
  • Staking If you are planting a tree or tall shrub, you will need to add a support stake. Work out the direction the wind usually comes from and place the stake on the side of the plant facing downwind. It will need to be driven into the soil diagonally. The ideal position for the stake is to be almost touching the stem about a third of the way up.
Tip Use a rubber tree tie to secure the stem to the stake to ensure less rubbing against the bark.
A group of people wrapped up warm, planting tree whips in a field.
Photo taken at a local community tree planting session. Tree whips (1 or 2 yr old stems) are being planted and protected with biodegradable tree shelter guards.
  • Tree guards If like me, you have overactive children, pets or local wildlife that like nibbling, then I recommend securing a tree guard around the stem. For large plants, welded metal mesh tree guards provide the best protection from grazing animals or stray footballs. A quick search online will list many different suppliers and some lovely decorative designs.
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Once the plant is in and staked, water the area thoroughly to help settle the ground and establish contact between the roots and the new soil.
Using well-rotted organic matter (leaf mould, compost or bark), mulch around the planting hole, making sure you keep it away from the trunk or stem of the plant. Mulching will help to retain moisture and prevent competing perennial weeds from germinating.
A tree trunk that has been surrounded with mulch in what is described as "Volcano mulching"
Mulch with care. Volcano mulching (piling the matter up the trunk) can cause decay to the covered bark and encourages roots to grow upwards as they look for air. This can de-stabilise the plant
In dry seasons, remember that newly planted trees will require additional watering. Barcham Trees have put together a handy guide.
It's not just specimen trees that can be planted at this time of year. You can add new fruit trees, bushes and hedgerows.
There is something very satisfying about planting during October. When most things are shutting down for winter, here we are full of hope for the coming years.
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