Bare, naked tree planting tips

planting a tree

Winter is a great time to plant your future fruiting trees, but do you know how to do it so you give a tree the optimal start?

Words: Nadene Hall

Ideally you will be planting your orchard in a sunny site with shelter from strong winds. Kay Baxter of Koanga Garden recommends getting a prospective orchard “ripped” to make sure drainage is good. You may also want to get a soil test or tests done, so that you can match up trees and rootstocks with soil conditions. For example, pears, plum trees and other fruiting trees on plum rootstock can tolerate heavier soils.

Soak the rootball of your trees for about half an hour before you are ready to plant.


How complicated is it to dig a hole? This is actually where a lot of people fall down, by being in too much of a hurry to take good care of their future crop, but a little bit of care at this stage will make things easier in the long run.

1. Clear all weeds and grass off the top of the soil so that the tree has a clear soil area of at least 30cm all the way around it.

2. As you dig the hole, try to pile the dirt up so that is goes back into the hole in the same order as it came out. Soil microbes that live near the surface of the soil are very different to those that live at greater depths, and if you reverse the layers, you can kill off both.

3. If you are planting masses of trees and using a posthole borer to dig the holes, make sure you rough up the walls of the hole, otherwise the roots will find it difficult to penetrate.

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4. Dig the hole no deeper than the top of the root ball (where the roots meet the base of the tree). However, you can loosen up the soil beneath, or dig the hole deeper than you need but backfill to the correct depth using a handful of a fertiliser like blood and bone and soil (don’t let the fertiliser come into contact with the soil). If you dig too deep, you can encourage rot in the base of the trunk.

5. Width is a different matter; some people do the minimum, others dig out up to two times the width of the root ball. If your tree has lots of trailing roots, mound a small cone in the centre of the hold so the roots can fan out.

6. At this point you can mix well rotted compost with the soil you place in the hole.

7. As you put the soil back around the tree, raise it up about 5-10cm as you do so. This means the roots will be pointing down. This may mean the tree’s base is slightly higher than the soil, but you will need to allow for some settling of the soil anyway.

8. Gently but firmly pack the soil in; don’t stomp on it, but bear in mind you are trying to remove big air pockets. By watering well at this point, you also help the soil to settle, as well as giving the tree and surrounding soil a good drink. In drier areas with free-draining soil you can make a small trough near the base of the tree (but not right at the base), so that water can sit in it and slowly soak in. If you have clay soil, don’t do this; keep the soil smooth and tapering away from the tree so it doesn’t sit there.

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• As you plant, map your orchard so you can identify each tree. You will forget, especially if you plant several different varieties of the same species. Tree tags look good but will fade or get lost. Make a note of the date planted, the cultivar, rootstock and any other special instructions.

• Some people stake their trees, some people don’t. It will depend on your particular climate. If you do choose to stake, it’s best to use two stakes driven into the ground (but not through the rootball) about 15-30cm from the trunk, low down on the trunk. Don’t tie up too tightly; some movement is required to help the roots gain strength. Check the ties regularly to make sure they are not cutting into the trees. By the end of year 2, you should find your trees don’t require the extra support anymore.

• If you are using smaller trees, you may need to protect them from roving rabbits, possums and hares. You can use netting to protect them, but also consider a repellant (whisk together four eggs and 100ml of water-based paint, then add 900ml of water. Strain and then apply using a sprayer. Will need reapplication after rain or every 3 weeks).

• A good thick layer of mulch will keep weeds down, especially important in the first years of a tree’s growth. Use a pea straw or just straw but try to avoid using bark; it robs too much nitrogen out of the soil. Make sure whatever mulch you use is a thick layer (100mm), but don’t forget to leave a gap around the base of the trunk, so the root system can breathe.

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Bare root trees are trees that are dug and stored without any soil around their roots.


More root mass: Bare root trees can have up to 200% more roots than B&B or container trees, depending on the soil and transplanting history at the nursery.

Lower cost: Without extra labor and materials, bare root trees cost seller and buyer less.

Easier planting: A young tree without soil weighs little, so it easy to move and plant.


Less time from purchase to planting: Once they leave the nursery, bare root trees need to get in the ground within a week at the longest. With no soil, the roots can dry out and die if left exposed for any time.

Narrower planting window: Bare root trees need good soil moisture, so mid-spring (before budbreak) and mid-autumn (after leaf fall) are the only two possible planting times.

Restricted availability: Some species may not be available bare root, and some nurseries may not have trees available for bare root retail sale at all.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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