Planting Bare Root Trees in Clay Soil. Or…we now have an orchard!

January is a month usually spend curled up inside, listing to the pouring rain while looking at seed catalogues, and lustfully waiting for spring to come. Except this winter has shown us NO rain, and the days have been warm. I want to be outside, planting seeds. Except we wake up each morning to a thick layer of frost, prohibiting any real gardening from happening.

Thankfully, the restlessness of winter is broken up by finally being bare root season!

Bare root means they are plants sold, literally, with bare roots. These are plants that are dug up from the commercial nursery while dormant and sold with no dirt attached to their roots. And now is the time where nurseries are filled with things that can be sold as bare root, such as: roses, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, blue berries, black berries, currents, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish!

rows and rows of bare root trees at Harmony Farm Supply, our go-to nursery
rows and rows of bare root trees at Harmony Farm Supply, our go-to nursery

Because these plants are sold without a pot or nursery soil, they are usually more affordable. They also tend to adjust quickly to a new location. Bare root season has a fairly narrow window, and its best to get them soon after arriving at the nursery. By March, they will be potted up as they start sending out roots and leaves, and sold for much more.

bare root

At the nursery you will find bare roots fruit trees just buried in a box of sand or dirt, and to purchase your pull them out of the sand, bag them up and head home. Sometimes they will be pre-bagged, usually at the big box stores, but I recommend finding an independent nursery so you can check the quality of the root crown.

bringing the trees home

We’ve been prepping for fruit tree planting since last fall, when we planted cover crop in a strip along the East side of the property. I’ve spent HOURS pouring though all my gardening books and catalogues. Did we want semi or dwarf? How many peaches did we want? While we are planning on eventually turning the back third of the lot into an orchard, right now we were focusing on the side strip, which would fit 6 trees spaced 15 feet apart. This past weekend, we were finally able to buy our trees and get them in the ground.

Traditionally, bare root plants are planted by digging a hole in the ground two times the size of the roots and creating a cone in the middle. The roots are then draped over the cone and then the native soil is backfilled back to ground level. However, fruit trees won’t survive in poorly-drained or heavy soil, which we are plentiful in, so we went a different planting method: on a mound.

The goal was to never have the tree’s roots in standing water. We chose trees that are on a root stalk, “Citation”, that is more tolerant of wet soils than others, but we still needed to get our soil amended and draining better. And since we’ve had every neighbor tell us our yard floods, we had some work to do.

First step was to loosen the soil directly under the root crown, which was achieved by digging a 2 foot hole about 2 feet deep. Our cover crop helped significantly to soften the soil, but it was still a pain in the ass to dig though. We also used the pick ax to chip up the sides, preventing the smooth “side of a bathtub” effect.


Then, moving in a circle around that hole, we turned that loosened soil into the hole, breaking apart our cover crops as we went. After a few more concentrically circles of turning over the soil, we had a tilled area of about 5 feet.

turning the soil

On this, we dumped about a wheelbarrow worth of compost, then turned over again to mix in with the native soil. I chose to work the soil this way so we didn’t create a hole just filled with compost, which could cause the roots just to hang out in that area. The gradual transition between straight compost to part compost to broken up native soil will hopefully encourage a wide root system.  Fruit tree roots don’t go down that deep, but outwards. We will gradually turn the rest of the cover crop over and work in more compost.

turned soil

In the center of the worked area, we created a mound about a foot high and sprinkled about a 1/4 cup of fish-meal based organic fertilizer with Mycorrhizal fungi, to stimulate root development. Then we placed our tree on top, positioning it so the graft knob faced north (to protect it by the tree’s shade). We then covered the roots with more compost. General rule of thumb is to bury your tree to the same level it was at the nursery, which on our trees was a few inches below the graft. We filled in more compost around the mound to level it out a bit and create a sloping mound, more so than a volcano.

At this point, we then pruned the tree, taking off about half to 1/3 its original height. This was scary at first, but because lots of the roots were lost when being dug up, the nursery staff recommended doing so to better balance the tree. I confirmed this with my elderly neighbor who has many fruit trees and does her own pruning and grafting. We also pruned back the branches to one or two buds.


Trees get most of their water from smaller feeder roots, that are at the outer edge of the root system, not near their trunk. Called the drip line, this is the same distance from the trunk as the branches extend. A brilliant evolutionary technique of trees, as falling rain moves along the canopy to the outer tips of branches and falls onto the area where these roots are. For now, my tree is small, so I created a moat about a 2 feet diameter surrounding the tree to act as a water trough. After giving them about 2 gallons of water, I heavily mulched with alfalfa to keep the soil moist. Until we get rain, for the first year we will need to give our baby trees 1.5-3 gallons of water, 3 times a week.

creating water moat
creating a moat to keep the water at the roots

Choosing what type of tree to plant was difficult, and there are lots of things to consider.  There was an epic amount of notes taken, diagrams, and pro-and-con lists. The first way to narrow it down was to only look at trees that worked with our amount of chill hours, between 700-1000.

Then was to look at the rootstalk, as we wanted to only have the Citation type. This root stalk also is a semi-dwarf, causing the trees to only get between 12-18 feet tall. Some trees require a pollinator of a different variety, and I didn’t want those- in case one of the pair died, I could be left with a non-producing tree, so all trees needed to be self-fruitful. I also then considered the climate range each tree can live in. Some trees are only good in a few zones, but I wanted to have trees with a wide range so they may better survive climate change. Having fruit that ripened throughout the season was also an important consideration: we didn’t want everything to ripen at one time, nor did we want everything to be blooming early or ripening late in case of rouge frosts. I also wanted all fruit preserving to be done with by early September, so I can focus on canning tomatoes. Trees with fruit that were recommended for freezing, canning or drying were also preferred, as there is only so much fresh fruit one can eat. After preserving 50 pounds of clingstone peaches last summer, freestone stone fruit was crucial. I also valued varieties that are historic or listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.


So what types of trees did we end up getting? There are many other varieties I’d like to get in the future, but for now, our orchard now contains (from South to North):

July Elberta Peach: Developed by Luther Burbank, this peach is described as “large fruit, skin blushed or red streaked over yellow. Juicy, sweet, melting, very flavorful yellow freestone. For canning, freezing and fresh use.” Ripens early July.

Fantasia Nectarine: Described as “very large fruit with full, rich nectarine flavor. Sweetest when soft-ripe.” Ripens mid July.

O’Henry Peach: Originating in Red Bluff, this peach is described as “A favorite fresh market yellow freestone- renowned for its firm texture, rich flavor and consistently high quality. Large fruit, mostly red, yellow flesh heavily streaked with red when fully ripe. Heavy bearing tree.” Ripens mid August.

Blenheim Apricot: We already have an ancient Blenheim in the front yard, so we wanted to make sure we got one producing before the other one died. Blenheim is a Slow Food Ark of Taste. Described as “A longtime favorite in California. Low acid, sweet, aromatic, flavorful. Used for canning, cooking, drying and fresh-eating.” Ripens late June.

Santa Rosa Plum: Luther Burbank’s most famous variety of Japanese plum. Described as “when firm-ripe, has reddish-purple skin and tart, amber flesh. Soft-ripe fruits have dark purple skin and sweet, juicy, aromatic, crimson-streaked flesh, with some tartness near skin and pit.” Ripens Late June.

Tilton Apricot: Discovered in 1885 near Hanford, California. Described as “traditional canning apricot, also used for fresh or dried. Medium size, firm, very flavorful when fully tree-ripe. Buds are more resistant to frost than Blenheim.” Ripens early July.

line of trees

“To be able to walk under the branches of a tree that you have planted is really to feel you have arrived with your garden. So far we are on the way: we can now stand beside ours.” -Mirabel Osler


8 thoughts on “Planting Bare Root Trees in Clay Soil. Or…we now have an orchard!

  1. Love our orchard here. Glad that it was already planted when we moved in…so much work to establish one, as you’ve no doubt figured. We do have some citrus and grapes in our future though, on an espalier. Congrats on your bare root babies! Jealous of your dirty hands.

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