Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees — January is the Time!

Sonoma County Master Gardeners Bare Root Tree.

Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees — January is the Time!

Fruit trees can be planted in fall, winter, or spring, but only in winter are bare root trees available.

Back in the day, bare root fruit trees were the only way to purchase and plant fruit trees, according to Jeff Bridge, former manager of Ploughshares Nursery on Alameda Point. Transportation was much more expensive, and the soil and cans used for potted trees were heavy, making shipping potted trees very expensive. So, growers and nurseries began using bare root trees, shipped in winter when the trees were dormant.

Bare root trees can be as little as half the price of potted trees, a compelling reason to consider them. Another advantage is that the tree roots don’t have to transition from pot soil to native soil — they get planted right into the soil at the site. But Jeff cautions that they are a bit riskier. Because our winters can be unexpectedly warm, trees may also unexpectedly break dormancy before planting. If the tree puts out new roots prior to being planted, those fragile new roots may be broken or damaged during planting, which can slow or diminish the tree’s development. Bare root trees will be available in these local nurseries starting late this month or early February: Encinal and Ploughshares in Alameda, East Bay and Berkeley Horticulture in Berkeley, and Evergreen Nursery in San Leandro.

What to Look For
• A balanced (not one-sided) and undamaged root system to provide a stable base after planting
• An intact tap root with no cracks
• Roots that appear to have been kept damp - the roots must not be allowed to dry out
• Trunk diameter of 1/2” to 5/8”, with wood that looks alive and healthy

Planting
Bare root trees should be planted as soon as possible. Until then, keep the roots wrapped in damp burlap or newspapers in a shady unheated area. If planting isn’t possible for more than two days, the trees should be “heeled in” by temporarily planting in moist compost, wood shavings, or leaves and kept moist.

The planting hole should be as wide as the root mass when the roots are spread out. The hole should be deep enough to create a firm flat-top cone of soil on which to put the tree, leaving the graft union 2 to 4 inches above the soil. (The graft union is the bump where the rootstock was grafted onto the trunk of the fruit-producing wood.)

The soil mound should have sloping sides. The sides of the hole should be rough. Disentangle the roots gently, trim any broken, twisted or circling roots, and spread the roots over the sides of the cone.

Gradually fill the hole back in with the soil that was dug out, tamping gently to eliminate air pockets. Don’t let the tree sink down into the hole — build up the mound more if needed to prevent this. The goal is to have the original soil line 1 to 2 inches above the ground and the graft union 2 to 4 inches above the ground.

Don’t put chemical or conventional fertilizer into the planting hole as it’s important to encourage the tree roots to grow out of the planting hole. If the tree is planted in loose sandy soil, sprinkling a small amount of worm castings or compost into the hole may be appropriate. Mulches, compost and other organic matter will also serve the tree well when applied to the soil surface around the tree after planting, taking care to leave a few inches of bare soil right at the base of the trunk.

Always water a new fruit tree after planting and make sure it stays moist through the first summer. After planting, prune down the main trunk of the tree so that the trunk is only 2 or 3 feet high. This seems drastic, but will encourage low branch growth, easier fruit access, and earlier maturity. Enjoy the fruit as the new tree grows up!

Fruit Tree Selection and Care Basics
Many, but not all, fruit trees grow well in Alameda. ABG provides a guide to varieties that grow well here. A key factor is the minimum number of “chill hours” the variety requires in the winter for good bloom and fruit set the next spring. Simplifying a bit, chill hours are the number of hours in the winter when the temperature is between 32ºF and 45ºF.

The number of chill hours recorded by the most-suitable UC climate station in the last 5 winters was between 200 and 500 with a steady warming trend.

Through Dec. 31, the winter of 2021-22 has been “chillier” than 4 of the last 5. The chill hours needed should be found on the tree’s trunk tag or can be looked up online.

Fruit tree planting sites should receive at least 6 hours a day of full sun in the growing season, and be out of the wind. Fruit trees need regular watering, so access to water for irrigation is also important.

UC’s California Backyard Orchard provides comprehensive online information on fruit tree selection, planting, and care.

Alameda Backyard Growers (ABG) is dedicated to teaching our neighbors how to grow food. During this difficult time, our education program has moved online. Visit ABG at www.alamedabackyardgrowers.org to join our mailing list to receive our educational newsletters and information on classes and events, locate the Free Seed Library nearest you, or join Project Pick as a fruit picker or fruit donor. Contact ABG at info@alamedabackyardgrowers.org.