How to Plant Bare-Root Fruit Trees

If you hope to enjoy homegrown peaches, pears, or apples, planting a tree is the first step! Join Briana Yablonski as she shares the steps for planting a bare-root fruit tree.

Planting bare-root fruit tree in the garden. Close-up of a gardener's hand planting a fruit tree seedling into a hole in the garden. Bare root fruit tree features a sturdy central trunk with bare branches extending outward, displaying their branching structure. The root system is exposed and pruned to facilitate planting. A shovel is stuck into the soil nearby.


When you move to a new state or purchase a new home across town, adding a fruit tree is one of the best ways to set down literal and figurative roots. It says you’re committed to remaining in the place and caring for the world around you. However, actually planting the tree is the first step!

While many gardeners imagine removing a lush apple or peach tree from a container and placing it in the ground, planting a bare-root fruit tree is another option. Although these seemingly lifeless plants aren’t much to look at, they’ll flourish with the proper planting and care.

Join me to learn how to plant a bare-root fruit tree.

YouTube video

What Is a Bare Root Fruit Tree?

Close-up of many saplings of fruit trees in a nursery. Saplings of bare root fruit trees are small, slender, and lightweight, with a straight central stem and few to no branches. They are without soil around their roots.
Bare-root fruit trees offer advantages over potted ones in transport and growth.

During winter, delicious fruit trees like cherries, apples, and peaches enter a dormant state. Dormant trees are highly resistant to stress, which allows nurseries to ship and sell the plants without soil around their roots. This allows growers to pack the trees tightly together and lower shipping costs.

Not only are these plants easier to transport, but they offer numerous advantages over potted trees. Since the trees don’t have to acclimate from the potted soil to the native soil, bare-root trees often start growing before their potted cousins. And because you plant them during cool months, the roots can put on new growth before the trees begin producing leaves.

How to Plant a Bare-Root Fruit Tree

Although planting a bare-root fruit tree is similar to planting a potted tree, there are some differences between the two processes. Follow these steps to add a bare-root fruit tree to your garden or homestead.

Choose a Suitable Location

Close-up shot of a planted young apple tree seedling in a sunny garden against a blurred background. The sapling has a thin upright trunk with smooth light brown bark and several bare, thin branches. Next to the seedling there is a shovel and a metal bucket stuck into the soil.
Choose a suitable location with sun, drainage, and clearance for planting fruit trees.

Before you plant or purchase a fruit tree, make sure you have a suitable location to plant it. While adding an apple or plum tree to your home is exciting, watching it slowly wither without producing fruit is a surefire way to suck out your enthusiasm. Look for an area with well-draining soil and six to ten hours of daily direct sun.

Along with checking the sun exposure and drainage, look for overhead obstacles like power lines and larger trees. Another thing to check are items like sidewalks and sewer lines that the tree’s roots may harm.

YouTube video

Conduct a Soil Test

soil testing with a test tube in the soil. Close-up of a red plastic tray filled with soil. A test tube full of soil is stuck into the soil for analysis.
Conduct a soil test to ensure suitable conditions for fruit trees.

While you can hope for the best and stick your tree in the ground, I always recommend conducting at least a basic soil test. Collect a few different soil samples from your intended planting area; each sample should contain the top six inches of soil. Submit your sample to your local agricultural extension office or a private soil lab.

You can easily correct most soil nutrient deficiencies by adding fertilizer, so don’t worry if your soil lacks phosphorus, calcium, or another essential nutrient. However, take a look at the soil pH since it can take years to lower the pH with sulfur. Most fruit trees prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH ranging between 5.5 and 7.0. You also want to avoid planting fruit trees in soil with dangerous amounts of heavy metals like lead and cadmium.

Wait Until the Right Time of the Year

Close-up of a gardener planting an apple tree sapling in the garden. The gardener is wearing a blue checkered shirt and a yellow jacket. On his wrist there is a large, silver watch. The seedling has a vertical gray trunk with smooth bark.
Plant bare-root fruit trees in cool months to minimize transplant shock.

One of the main goals to remember when planting bare-root fruit trees is to create as little transplant shock as possible. Planting during the cool months of fall or early spring allows the dormant plants to settle into the ground without experiencing hotter or colder temperatures than they’re used to.

If you choose to plant in the spring, do so before trees start leafing out. Remember, your goal is to get the tree in the ground before it would naturally break dormancy! Planting the tree too late in the spring can cause unnecessary stress and lead to future health problems.

Fall planting should occur after the summer heat has faded but before the ground has frozen solid. In most regions, October and November plantings work well. Planting your trees in the fall allows them to settle into their new home over the course of a few months rather than a few weeks. However, fall planting works better in warm growing zones than in cold zones.

Prepare Your Tree for Planting

Tree seedlings are soaking in a bucket of water. Close-up of two bowls of water and soaked tree roots. The trees have vertical trunks with gray-brown bark. The tops of the sections are painted blue.
Keep roots moist and avoid warm temperatures to prevent dormancy.

If you purchased your tree online, it will most likely arrive in a box. Unpack your tree as soon as it arrives, and check that you received the correct variety. While it’s best to plant your tree shortly after it arrives, you can store it in a cool area for a few days or weeks. Just make sure to cover the roots with damp newspaper or coco coir to prevent them from drying out.

Whatever you do, don’t bring your bare-root tree inside! Warm temperatures can cause plants to break dormancy. If you move the actively growing plants back outside, they’ll face serious stress when exposed to cold temperatures.

When you’re ready to plant, place the tree’s roots in a bucket full of water. Let the roots soak for at least one or up to 24 hours. This process helps the trees rehydrate and prevents them from drying out in the weeks following planting.

Dig a Hole

Close-up of a gardener in black boots digging a hole in the soil in the garden. The soil is black, wet, lumpy. The shovel is large with a square blade.
Dig a hole with adequate depth and width for tree planting.

Now comes the fun part: digging the hole! The ideal hole size depends on the size of the tree. It should be deep enough so the taproot has room to fully straighten but shallow enough that the grafting union remains a few inches above the soil surface. 

I like to dig the hole a few inches deeper than necessary and then fill the bottom few inches of the hole with loose soil. This makes it easier for the roots to expand once they resume growing.

As far as width goes, ensure the tree’s horizontal roots have room to expand fully. There’s no harm in digging a hole wider than necessary, and a few inches of loose soil will help the tree get off to a good start.

Set the soil nearby so it’s easy to place back in the hole. If your soil is heavy in clay and/or low in organic matter, mix in coco coir or peat moss to improve the soil structure. Aim for a ratio of one part organic matter to five parts native soil. You can also mix in finished compost, but avoid applying any compost that’s high in nitrogen since this can burn the tree’s tender roots.

Set the Fruit Tree in the Hole

Close-up of a young bare root tree in a hole in a sunny garden. It features a central trunk with bare branches extending outward, showing its branching structure.
Plant trees with the graft union sitting above the soil.

Once you’ve dug a large enough hole, set the tree’s roots in their new home. Aim to plant your tree so the graft union is two to three inches above the soil surface. 

It’s vital to never bury the graft union—the spot where the lower rootstock connects to the scion. If the scion ends up under the soil surface, it can form roots. And since the whole part of grafting a tree is to take advantage of the rootstock’s characteristics, this is not what you want!

Hold the tree so the graft union is at the proper height and the trunk is vertical, then begin to push soil around the roots. Spread the roots out across the width of the hole and continue to fill in with soil, ensuring the trunk remains straight. If you’re planting a tree on any kind of slope, form a slight berm on the downhill-facing side of the tree. The berm will trap water and ensure the tree receives adequate moisture.

The graft union should remain two or three inches above the soil line when finished.  Gently tamp the top of the soil to remove any air pockets that will later settle. Water until the soil is moist.

Apply Mulch

Close-up of a fruit tree seedling planted in soil in a garden. There is a layer of mulch at the base of the tree. The fruit tree has a vertical thin trunk with smooth pinkish-brown bark.
Apply mulch to conserve moisture and inhibit weeds, but pull it away a few inches from the base.

There’s no rule saying you must apply mulch after planting, but I think it’s worth spending a few minutes spreading wood chips, straw, shredded leaves, or another type of mulch. These materials will help conserve soil moisture and prevent the newly planted tree from drying out. The mulch also inhibits weed germination and growth so all water and nutrients can reach the fruit tree.

Keep the mulch four to six inches away from the tree’s trunk to avoid excessive moisture near the crown. A wet crown can eventually rot, which is a serious problem.

Stake if Necessary

Close-up of a young fruit tree seedling with mulched soil and stake in the garden. The trunk is thin, dark purple, tied to a wooden stake with pink ropes.
Staking helps until roots anchor the tree.

If you planted your tree in a location with high winds or loose soil, use tree stakes to encourage the trunk to grow in a straight, vertical line. Staking is an especially good idea for trees growing on dwarf rootstocks. The stakes will hold the trunk in the proper vertical position until the tree grows roots that hold it in place.

Keep the Soil Moist

Close-up of a gardener watering a young fruit tree seedling in a sunny garden. The gardener is wearing gray sweatpants, brown rubber boots and is watering a seedling with a metal watering can.
Fall and early spring planting benefits from naturally moist soil.

One of the great things about planting in the fall and early spring is the soil is typically moist. Low temperatures and regular rainfall prevent the soil from drying out, which helps limit stress on the plant roots.

However, if you plant in spring, warm temperatures may arrive a few months after planting. If you go over a week without rainfall, check the soil around the tree and irrigate if it is dry.

When you water in your newly planted tree, you want to provide a trickle from a hose for a long period of time. One to two hours of this will adequately water your newly planted fruit tree. This is a good practice regardless of the season.

Final Thoughts

While bare-root fruit trees may look fragile and intimidating, they’re a great option if you want to add a tree to your home. Remember to plant the trees during a cool time of year and dig a hole that provides them room to grow.

Close-up of a man's hand touching a young pine seedling in the garden. On the mulched ground, next to the seedling, there is a pine cone. A pine seedling features a slender stem with greenish-brown bark and soft, needle-like leaves arranged in bundle. The cone is a cone-shaped structure featuring overlapping scales arranged in a spiral pattern around a central axis. The cone is dark brown in color with open scales.

Gardening Tips

Can you Grow a Tree From a Pine Cone?

You may have seen images of a baby tree growing from a pine cone, but this can be misleading. Horticulturist and garden expert Logan Hailey explains why you can’t necessarily plant a pine cone, but you can collect seeds from the cone to germinate your own trees.

Close up of white dogwood tree in full bloom.


21 Dogwood Tree Varieties for Your Garden

If you are considering adding a dogwood to your garden, it can be difficult to decide upon just one variety of these stunning trees. Here, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares 21 beautiful varieties to choose from.

Close-up of Eucalyptus branches in a sunny garden. The leaves are rounded, heart-shaped, and densely packed along the stems. The leaves have a silvery-blue tint. The unique coloration comes from a powdery substance that covers the leaves, giving them a soft, almost frosted appearance.


How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Eucalyptus

The silvery-leafed eucalyptus is one of the most-loved foliage choices for florist arrangements. Bouquets often skip the blooms and just go for eucalyptus as a bold, wonderful-smelling statement. While most of us don’t have the space for full-sized eucalyptus trees, you can still grow this beautiful plant. Let's explore the mighty world of eucalyptus and how to get one in your home or landscape.

Close-up of a flowering shrub, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena,' one of the popular witch hazel varieties. Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena,' commonly known as Jelena Witch Hazel, is a deciduous shrub celebrated for its vibrant and eye-catching features. 'Jelena' produces clusters of fragrant, spidery flowers with narrow, ribbon-like petals. The blossoms range in color from coppery orange to rich amber, creating a warm and captivating display.


11 Witch Hazel Varieties for Your Landscape

Are you wondering which witch hazel variety would work best in your landscape? There are an amazing variety of witch hazels to choose from. These beautiful winter-flowering shrubs will brighten your landscape before most other plants begin to show signs of life. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen introduces 11 beautiful witch hazel shrubs that you can grow in your garden.