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How to Plant A Bare Root Fruit Tree

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Learning to plant a bare-root fruit tree can set you up for years upon years of harvests for very little effort. But in order to get this harvest, you have to increase your chances by giving the bare-root tree the best start in life. In this blog post, I will show you exactly what you need to know. So, you, too, can benefit from fresh fruit all year long.

Imagine being able to make all those homemade apple pies. Those that fill the kitchen with that home-cooked baking aromas. You are not far away from that. Most people’s fear about planting trees are the costs associated. By far, the cheapest way to plant a tree is with bare-root trees.

Table of Contents

When to Buy Bare Root Fruit Trees?

Timing is everything when it comes to buying your fruit tree. They can be planted between November and March, so it is a perfect project to do while the garden is usually at its slowest productivity. In early November, you will start to see the big box store or dollar stores selling varieties of bare-root apples, pears, plums, and cherries to name a few.

Image of apple fruits

You may also find some very good online tree suppliers making bare-root trees available for sale around this time. Be mindful that some of these companies will take payment for trees but may not deliver until March.

I had something like this happen to me a few years ago. The trees did not arrive until early May. This was way too late to plant as bare root at this time. I needed to return them, so ensure you know when delivery will be first

What you will need to plant your bare-root fruit tree

  • Bare Root Fruit Tree
  • Spade
  • Tree Stake
  • Hammer
  • Saw
  • Tree Ties
  • Mulch
  • Watering can or hose

Below I break down the basic steps for planting a fruit tree. These are the steps I follow each time. I have planted over 40 of my own fruit trees in my garden, and it works every time.

How to Grow Cordon Fruit Trees (Complete Guide)
Inside image of a garden shed with gardening tools in it

Steps for planting bare root fruit trees

  • Pick a site you would like for your tree or orchard
  • Ensure there are no underground utilities.
  • Unpack delivered bare root fruit tree
  • Store fruit trees before planting
  • Soak the bare roots in a bucket of water to hydrate
  • Dig a planting hole
  • Look for the graft, this is a swollen area on the trunk.
  • Place the tree into the hole at the proper height.
  • Ensure that the tree is set at the correct angle
  • Fertilize the hole and backfill
  • Stake the tree.
  • Mulch the base of the tree.
  • Continue to water for the next year

How to Grow Cordon Fruit Trees (Complete Guide)

In this episode of Simplify Gardening, Tony O’Neill takes you through planting and pruning cordon fruit trees. He gives you all the tips and tricks to ensure you set yourself up for great crops in the coming years.

Picking a site for your tree or orchard

Fruit trees are long-standing plants, and getting their location right the first time is of paramount importance. The last thing you want to do is have to dig the tree up once it’s been established in the ground.  In order to select the right location, we first need to understand what size of tree we want to grow, and how we intend to grow them.

Most trees will require a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight a day, check your garden to see where the sun falls, and avoid shaded areas. Be aware that the sun moves, and what is in direct sunlight now may be in total shade in an hour. Check the area for a minimum of 6 hours to ensure it stays in the sun for at least this period.

Whether your garden is sloped or flat will also play a part in selecting your location. It is important to realize that drainage may be an issue if planting your trees at the bottom of a slope. Knowing your garden, you should be aware of puddles from where you wish to plant. If this is the case, try to avoid these areas.

Other things to consider would be overhead power and telephone lines, and nearby structures that the trees may interfere with when they mature. Are you planning any home improvements in the future that the tree may cause an issue with? If so, consider this when choosing your location to avoid these areas.

Ensure there are no underground utilities

It is amazing how many services can run under your property, power, phone lines and sewer works can all run through your garden without you even knowing about them. It would be a good idea to ensure that you check for these with the deeds of your home or the local authority before digging any holes for trees.

Unpacking Your Bare Root Fruit Tree

Your trees will come packaged, usually wrapped in plastic and then placed into a cardboard box for shipping. It is important to unpack these as soon as you receive your delivery. Be careful when removing the plastic from the trees to ensure you don’t snap the branches or roots.

How to store bare-root trees before planting?

When you receive your order, it is important to properly store your bare root trees. You may not be ready to plant right away. Adverse weather conditions or work commitments may prevent you from doing so. If this is the case, you have a couple of options for storing them.

For short-term storage for a few days, you can place the trees in a cool, frost-free garage. The trees are dormant, and they will be fine for a few days like this. However, if you cannot plant for weeks, you should heal in the trees. This means digging a shallow trench at a depth of the roots. place the trees into that trench and backfill the trench.

This does not have to be a permanent home, rather it’s just a holding spot and will suffice until you have the proper time available in which to plant the tree in its desired location properly. Ensure you also water in the trees if rain is not forecasted.

Soak the bare roots in a bucket of water to hydrate

When you are ready to plant your trees, it is a good idea to rehydrate the root system by soaking the tree in a bucket of water for half an hour before planting, this ensures that the roots do not dry out during the planting process.

Dig a planting hole.

Knowing exactly where you are planting your tree, as discussed earlier, will dictate exactly where the hole will need to be dug. For instance, if you’re planting a whole orchard in a diamond pattern, you may need to measure this out first. But if it is a single tree, you can dig the hole.

When digging your hole, you need to dig it as deep as the root system, ensuring it is not too deep so that the graft stays above the soil surface. You do not want to bury the graft. Dig the hole twice the width of the roots so that the roots can be spread out to give them a great start to grow in all directions.

Person measuring depth of a dug hole
Ensure your hole is deep, level and three times the size of the roots

Mix in some compost to the bottom of the hole, and the soil is removed from the hole to help enrich the medium. You can add a slow-release feed to this soil, also. Adding lots of manure to the hole is not a good idea. The idea is to get the roots to grow out, looking for food rather than staying in the planting hole. Overfeeding at this point can hurt the tree.

Place the tree into the hole and ensure the graft is above the soil level. Backfill the hole, ensuring no air pockets around the roots. A small stick or chopstick can help coax soil around the roots as you backfill.

Look for the graft

A graft is an area of the trunk a few inches from the roots, this is a way of propagating new trees. Scion wood from a known fruiting tree is selected for the fruit and is grafted to a rootstock. As the tree grows the graft swells, and a small bulge can be seen. It is important to ensure you keep this graft above the soil level

This is because you don’t want the scion wood from rooting as you want to use the rootstock that you chose for the characteristics of the tree. But more on this later.

Staking the Trees.

Young trees are prone to wind rock while establishing their root systems. This can not only uproot trees but can snap off roots under the soil level. As we are planting them from November to March, this is prime time for storms. To protect the trees, we need to stake them.

Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees do not grow very well without being staked. Choose a stake around 6ft in length and made of treated softwood. The reason for its length is that as the tree grows, its leader needs to be tied to the stake to prevent it from whipping back and forth in the winds. This can snap, and the tree becomes more of a bonsai. We need treated timber to prevent the wood from rotting in the wet ground.

Why mulch your tree?

Mulching around your tree has many benefits. It will retain moisture in the soil. It makes it look more attractive if planted with a lawn. It will even help to cut down on weeds. Using mulch can sometimes cause some issues, so it’s important to do it correctly.

When considering a mulch, purchase a medium mulch, as fine mulches get compacted and starve your tree’s roots of oxygen. Don’t pile the mulch up against the tree’s trunk, as this will allow the fungus to grow and attack the tree’s trunk system.

Leave a diameter of 2 inches around the tree’s trunk and place a layer of mulch around 4 feet in diameter around the tree. Don’t pile your mulch in a mound it is far better to be level and aim for 4 inches in depth. If weeds grow through the mulch, remove them when seen as this is a barrier from weeds. You do not want to allow them to establish.

Now and again, take a rake and rake over your mulch, this helps to prevent compaction and allows air and water movement to the root system of your tree. Keeping your tree’s roots healthy is of paramount importance.

How to water your tree

Don’t assume the rain will be enough to water your trees. Especially when they are mature. It is important to ensure your trees get adequate moisture when they are growing fast.  The tree’s roots will be contained in the planting hole in the first few months.

You should ensure this is kept moist at all times. Do not water up to the trunk, as this can cause rotting off as the tree gets established. As time goes on, the tree will push roots out further and further. Think of a tree’s root system as large as its canopy.

Water the ground deeply each time aiming to get at least 10 inches of soil wet and water out as far as the canopy’s edge as the tree matures. You may need to do this for at least two growing seasons.

Knowing when your tree requires water is a simple job too. Simply take a steel rod around 8 or 10 inches long and push this into the soil. The soil is damp enough if it’s easy to push in. If it’s too dry, you will find it difficult to push the rod into the soil. This tells you it’s time to water again.

Different ways to form bare-root fruit trees.

There are many different ways to plant bare-root fruit trees. This will depend on the rootstock you choose as your tree. But below is a list of different growing options.

  • Standard
  • Cordon
  • Espalier
  • Fan
  • Step over
Image of an espalier apple
Espalier Apple

Standard Fruit Trees

The standard tree is what most people will see in nature, this is an upright tree that is free to grow to its desired height and pruned for shape. They can have a trunk over a meter in diameter, and these trees can get up to 8 meters in height. Due to their size, they can be difficult to maintain

Cordon Fruit Trees

This single-stem tree is planted at a 45-degree angle and pruned to have no branches. This can only be done with spur-fruiting trees. They are pruned to create fruiting spurs around 2 inches in length and can be grown against walls or wire trellis. They are ideal for small spaces and can be very decorative in the garden. Providing you with fruit for very little room

Espalier Fruit Trees

These trees, like cordons, can be grown against walls or trellis. They take up more space than a cordon as they have branches that protrude from the trunk. Usually in pairs and run horizontally. Allow these to grow until the desired height is reached.  Like cordons, espaliers need constant pruning to keep in shape. They can section off the garden, making a great living wall.

Fan Fruit Trees

Fans have shortened trunks, and from this trunk are several branches that are grown and trained to create the fan shape, they are tied to a wire trellis or wall to start their life until the wood lignifies. Once it’s of a certain age, the tree will hold this shape. Again, spur fruiting varieties are much better to be used here.

Fruit Tree Rootstocks

We have decided where and how we wish to grow our trees. Now we need to choose a rootstock to give us our required outcome. Rootstock is what controls the vigor of the tree. It dictates how fast and large your tree will grow. Below is a list of fruit tree rootstock


Varieties of bare-root fruit trees

There are many fruit trees the home gardener can grow. They will all do well grown in one of the forms listed above. The following list will allow you to choose what you want to grow, and you can pair that with the rootstocks above. You will then know exactly what to look for when buying your bare-root fruit tree.

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Apricot
  • Peach
  • Cherry
  • Plum
  • Quince
  • Medlar

How long before bare-root trees get leaves

This will depend on when you plant your trees. They will be dormant through most of the winter but usually take around six weeks after planting. But if you planting in early spring, expects to see your first leaves in early summer.

How long before bare-root trees produce fruit

Depending on which rootstock your tree is grafted onto will determine the length of time, ranging between 2 and 7 years after planting. Some bare-root fruit trees will fruit much earlier, while some apples can take longer.

When to prune fruit trees

This, of course, will depend on which rootstock and way of growing you have decided, but as a rule of thumb, there are two times to prune your trees. Late summer pruning will produce fruit the following year, while winter will produce growth the following year.

How to Prune Fruit trees

It will depend on how you grow your trees, but I can break this down into a basic form for each method. Over time as I write future blogs, I will link those which will be in much more detail.

Pruning Standard Fruit Trees

Ideally, we want to achieve an open goblet shape in your tree, this promotes good airflow and prevents disease and fungus from being able to take over.

  1. As the tree reaches its desired height, Prune out the leader. This will stop the tree from getting taller.
  2. Look for diseased wood and remove it back to the trunk or nearest branch that is disease-free
  3. Remove any crossing branches and those that are affecting the goblet shape
  4. Finally, prune the tips of the branches to an Outwood-facing bud. This will stop further branches from growing into the middle of the goblet.
Photograph of an apple tree
Dwarf Standard Apple

Pruning Cordon Fruit Trees

Cordons are spur-fruiting trunks, they need to be pruned in the Fall to get the growth going and again in summer to cause the spurs to be created to fruit.

  1. Any side shoots around 8 or 9 inches long can be pruned back to 3 leaves above the normal leaf cluster.
  2. Do not prune anything shorter than 8 inches until later in the year, at which point it can then be pruned back to 1 leaf above the cluster.
  3. Prune back any growth if it grows after the summer prune
  4. As your leader grows, keep it tied in until it’s at its desired length, you can then treat this as any other shoot on the tree and prune it as above.
  5. The only time you need to prune after October is when there has been a lot of growth after the summer prune.

Pruning Fan Fruit Trees

Fans have a short main trunk, so the leader is not allowed to get too big, pruning a fan can take some time to get established. They only require summer pruning to ensure plenty of fruiting spurs are produced for the following year.

  1. As cordons, prune side shoots that are around 9 inches in length
  2. Prune anything that grows from the branches to around three leaves, this will create a fruiting spur.
  3. Anything from lateral spurs prunes back to 1 leaf above the basal cluster.
  4. As fans mature, you may need to thin out fruiting spurs to provide room for the fruit and to allow airflow.

Pruning Espalier Trees

Pruning espaliers are very similar to both cordons and Fans. The main issue is to ensure you have a good structure on 3 or 4 layers to tie the branches too

  1. Cut back side shoots to 3 leaves above the basal plate. Anything previously pruned should be taken back to 1 leaf above the plate.
  2. As with cordons and Fans, if secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, then remove this by October
  3. If there is a large amount of immature growth in August, do not prune until they have established by September.
An espalier apple growing beside a brick wall
Espalier Apple Against Wall. Great for small spaces


This blog post aims to provide you with a basic knowledge of bare-root fruit trees and how to look after them. You should be able to choose your tree; know exactly what stock you require and how to plant and look after it.

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Thanks, and happy growing