Originally Published: February 5, 2010 9:56 p.m.
The definition of a bare-root plant is one that has been grown in a field, lifted from the field with no dirt left clinging to its roots, and shipped to market in that condition. Hence the name bare-root. This process is hard on the plant and is reflected in the extremely high failure rate with this type of planting. Also, bare-root plants are at least one to two years behind the development of their fully-rooted counterparts.
As you might suspect, cost has always been the reason for these naked plants. However, even including shipping from distant farms, I find there isn't much cost difference between a bare-root tree and a year-old fully-rooted tree from a local farm. Especially considering that the fully-rooted tree will produce fruit this year, not two years from now!
Just as soon as you can see soil in the landscape, it is time to get new fruit trees into the ground. That also is good advice for grapes and most berry-producing vines. Following is the proper planting technique for the local area and some of my personal favorites for planting in the landscape now.
It's important to know that a tree grown in mountain clay soil does not send down a typical taproot. Instead it sends out a bent growth that I call a "hockey stick root." This root will send out runners just under the surface of the soil in order to absorb rain and nutrients from our area's sporadic rainfall. Because we know this is how the root is going to grow, it only makes sense to give it a hole that is wide but no deeper than the current root ball. My rule of thumb is a hole that is three times the width of the roots in the container and the same depth.
Remove any rocks and debris that are larger than a golf ball and amend the excavated soil with composted mulch, using one shovel of mulch to three shovels of native earth. At this time it's good to add a natural fertilizer, too. I suggest my "All-Natural Plant Food; it's the perfect blend of nutrients to encourage leaf growth which in turn will bring on a hardy root system. To save time, I blend together the soil, mulch, and plant food into a single planting medium.
Using your foot, pack down this nutrient-rich soil firmly around your newly planted tree so there are no air pockets remaining around the root ball. Water the tree thoroughly with a mixture of water and "Root Stimulator." This rooting hormone encourages new root hairs to form right away and results in a strong plant well before the stressful effects of summer heat.
The final planting instruction is to stake. Each new tree requires two stakes, one on either side of the root ball. Use one of my specially designed 'V-straps' to secure the tree to the stakes. They allow the tree to move and sway with the wind, but never snap in two.
Here is a tree-planting postscript: To top off or not to top off the top of the tree - that is the question. In years gone by, gardeners were advised to cut most of the branches off of newly planted fruit trees, the thinking being that the existing root system could better handle the reduced leaf mass. That no longer is the accepted thought because it takes many leaves to create the photosynthesis that produces more aggressive roots. The more leaves you can have on a new tree, the better the rooting process of the first year. Do NOT top your trees; it makes for weaker plants.
There you have it. For a more detailed list of instructions and visual aids, please visit me at the garden center and ask for my special instruction guide on planting new trees. It is available to anyone and is given with each purchase of a tree.
Most gardeners have their favorite varieties, and I find that some fruit trees, when planted in our alkaline soils and low humidity, produce more prolifically than others or have a better flavor. I confidently can say: "If in doubt, start with these varieties and you can't go wrong."
For an apple tree that produces a consistently heavy and sweet crop, my choice is the Arkansas Black. Its fruit has a deep red skin with a crunchy flesh that just makes my mouth water thinking about it. For a self-pollinating pear I look to the Bartlett. Because it is one of the last trees to bloom in spring it has a better chance of setting its luscious large fruit for late summer harvest.
You can never go wrong with an Elberta peach tree, the nation's all-time bestseller and a proven mountain producer. A self-pollinating cherry that is big, bold, and juicy is the Stella. If you only have room for one tree, this may be the one for your yard. It not only produces great-tasting fruit, but is really good-looking, too. Plums produce exceptionally well at higher elevations and my favorite is the Satsumi plum. It produces a large fruit with dark skin, a small pit, and is firm and juicy - exactly what I like in a plum. I love apricots and my favorite is the Royalty apricot. Its plum-sized fruit has a sun-gold-orange flesh with a mildly sweet flavor.
If you need information about planting figs, nuts, grapes, and more, you'll just have to bring your questions to me and the many other garden experts at the garden center. Next Saturday I'll be listing my favorite choices for roses and some of the exciting new varieties for 2010.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Throughout the week Ken Lain can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."