Every spring, I make a habit of planting at least a few new trees or shrubs across my farm. Apples, plums, pears, cherries, chestnuts, lilacs, even a couple of hardy peach trees—it’s a pleasant way to start the growing season. I know I’m laying the groundwork for harvests and blossom shows that will keep on giving for decades to come.
You may wonder whether I plant potted or bare-root specimens. The truth is, I’ve done both. Each approach offers different advantages.
Sometimes you can only purchase a particular specimen one way or the other. But if you have a choice, it’s worth pondering which advantages best suit your needs.
Let’s explore the pros and cons offered by potted and bare-root trees.
Simplicity of planting is the big upside offered by potted trees. Their roots are already growing in soil, so all you have to do is dig a hole two or three times as wide as the root ball. Then you loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and plop the tree into the hole.
Loosen the outer roots from the root ball (even cutting some if they’re rootbound), and backfill the area around the root ball until the plant is snugly secured in place.
There are other advantages as well. You can plant potted trees during the summer if you desire, so long as you water them thoroughly. If you’re shopping at a nursery in the spring, potted trees are likely to be leafed out, giving you a good chance to select healthy and vigorous plants.
And potted trees can be purchased in larger sizes than bare-root specimens, which—in the case of fruit trees—can cut down on the amount of time you spend waiting for your first harvest.
Root balls can be heavy. I’ve bought trees planted in 15-gallon pots, and wrestling such trees into their holes can be a two-person job. If you want to handle even larger potted specimens, you may need the assistance of machinery.
Potted trees also require frequent watering. You need to water daily for at least the first few weeks, followed by a weekly regimen for a year or two.
If a convenient water source isn’t close to your planting location, this can be quite a commitment.
Whereas potted trees require ample watering, bare-root trees aren’t as needy. They can get by with weekly watering for the first year after planting. This is a big benefit if you’re planting far from a handy water source or if you’re pressed for time.
Bare-root trees are also lightweight and easy to handle, since their roots are free of heavy soil. Even a fairly large bare-root tree can be handled with relative ease. And as a general rule, they’re less expensive than similar potted specimens.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I find planting bare-root trees to be a little trickier and slower than planting potted specimens. It can be harder to gauge the proper planting depth (there’s no potted soil line to judge by!). And spreading out the bare roots so they aren’t bent or curled over in awkward directions requires diligence, especially as you start backfilling the hole.
There’s also the issue of planting bare-root trees immediately, before their roots dry out. A potted tree will happily sit in your yard until you’re ready to plant, even if planting is delayed for weeks. There’s no such leeway with bare-root trees. While keeping the roots moist can buy you a little time, you’ll want to plant as soon as possible.
You also need to plant during the right season. Summer is not recommend, with early spring and late fall being the suitable times.
Ultimately, both potted trees and bare-root trees offer meaningful pros and cons. If you’re new to planting trees and have time for diligent watering, planting potted trees might be the perfect choice.
On the other hand, if you’re on the ball planting bare-root trees as soon as you acquire them, you can grow nice trees at a lower price point with less long-term watering needed.
No matter which route you choose, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. So you’d best get started!