The day that bare root trees arrive in the mail is always an exciting day. It’s a day for dreaming, even for those of us who are usually so well grounded in reality. These finger-thick twigs with a few roots at their bottom will explode into a 12 foot tall solar-powered fruit factory in 5 years or less, and then continue bearing fruit loyally and faithfully for decades upon decades as long as you remember to uphold your part of the contract.
Upon arrival, you must remember that these trees are in the most vulnerable part of their existence. They are young, fragile, and their roots are not in the life-giving soil where they belong. Can you imagine what that must be like? Of course you can, you were a young adult once – drifting through the world, trying to find your way, insecurity weighing heavily on your mind while you furtively try to force yourself into one fruitless pursuit after another. Do you remember what it felt like when you got soil around your roots? A sense of belonging develops, you find out who you are and what you were searching for all that time.
Ensure you get the roots wet while planting. I like to have a basin full of opaquely muddy water to dip each tree into as I go. The mud sticks to the roots and helps the transition from postage box to brand new home. One of the better tips I have found over the years is to always dig each and every hole at least a few inches deeper than you know you will need it to be. This way you will not have to dig further while you have a tree exposed to air, you will only need to use your hand to throw some soil into the middle of the hole to prop up the center of the tree until your graft union is a couple inches above ground level. Having the tree resting on a cone of soil in the middle of the hole also has the added effect of allowing the roots to automatically settle into a circular shape without much extra effort.
As you begin to cover the roots with soil, it’s best to pause every few inches to gently raise and lower the tree less than an inch up and down to massage the soil into the spaces between the roots. When the hole is half full I like to pour a few cups of water into the center of the hole to get a nice saturated soil for the roots to start out in. Once the hole is full, the traditional foot stomping ensues, with an eye toward straightening the trunk to be as plumb as possible.
It is at this point that you can step back and look at the tree and imagine what pruning might need to take place to get it off to its best start. Remember that plants in general have as much underground mass as they do above-ground mass. Visualize if you can what the tree will look like this year with all its leaves out and then recall what size and condition its roots were in before you planted. Although it was taken out of the ground and shipped to you with the best of care it is inevitable that a significant portion of its roots were damaged in this whole process. It is due to this fact that I like to prune every tree back to a 36″ single stem after planting. You will not harm it by doing this, and you will give its root system a chance to get ahead of the top growth rather than the other way around. If you are a curious person you could leave one tree unpruned and prune another in this way – you will see that in 2 years time you probably won’t remember which was which, even though at planting time it seemed like such a large chunk of tree that you had cut off.
Finally, a ring of mulch making sure to leave a small circle of bare soil around the trunk, and a tree is planted. I use straw mulch infused with rabbit manure because that is what we have freely available on our property, you can use any kind of mulch that’s convenient for you. The care that you give each tree at planting time is rewarded year after year. This is not a process to rush through. Once done, you get to stand back and begin dreaming of how these apples will crunch when bitten, spraying slightly tart juice onto your taste buds, or how the peaches will leave your chin sticky after devouring them without pausing for breath.
The daydreams are the reward that you get to reap long before the harvest. Don’t forget to stop and express your gratitude for the gift of imagination that these few twigs have provided already.