How to bareroot, store 120 apple 7' whips?

As the coming snow approaches tomorrow, and my leaves only just now are beginning yellow and drop, I am searching in vain to find literature on how to dig and store my trees bare root this Winter? One video I found on YouTube showed a large tree nursery business bundling trees in a large warehouse, and “watering the roots occasionally,” but no specific information was given. Likewise, a friend told me he had a root cellar I could use if I wanted, and it made me wonder…just what do the roots need to survive in storage until next year? Don’t tell me the name “root cellar” means what it sounds like, and that’s all there is to it? People used to dig their trees and keep them in cellars…without water?

First things first, however, would be the timing of the digging. I read someplace most nurseries dig trees for bare rooting in early December, and so I am hoping I still have some time, but with 1 to 3 inches of snow expected in the next two days, and nightime temps following in the 20’s , I am wondering how long it will take the soil to freeze(?) Perhaps the snow will accummulate more quickly than thawing, and December will bring a foot or two of snow(?) In any case, the digging would be easier if the soil is dry-ish and not muddy. (I am only one guy.) The photos below taken just a couple days ago shows the leaves still green mostly, and not yet falling, though today the larger apple trees in the backyard have leaves turning yellow and dropping in the same day (and progressing quickly). So far, my plan is to just monitor the soil and test it daily. The longer the trees remain in the soil the better, I am sure, and so I will wait as long as practicable.

My biggest worry is how to store them. When making bench grafts each year, I put the roots in plastic tubs packed with sphagnum peat until ready for transplanting. It is not hard to get 150 trees into two large plastic tubs. Those tubs are pretty heavy though when filled, and keeping the peat moist until planting does require a little care. The scion and root joined are both now beginning to come OUT of dormancy, however, and I am trying to KEEP these trees dormant until May (when the soil thaws and their permanent location is ready). When the rootstock comes, it is packed in shredded paper and or wood chips, but that doesn’t really help me, other than that they are very tightly bundled rolls (100 ea bundle), and that the roots are sometimes sparse. (Is that how they are stored at the Treco nursery? I read the bare root trees need to be stored at temperature above freezing, but below 40 if possible. Maybe they don’t need any peat at all, and I can just lay them in bundles on the floor, and stack them? The trees are just dormant…so they do not need any water? The video about the tree nursery said they water the roots occasionally I believe (but no other details), and so? I was hoping to be able to fit these trees into one space or another, but which space I need depends upon the manner in which I am going to have to store them.

I have four rows of 30 trees one foot apart to dig, all 2 year old whips, between 4’ and 7’ height. Two of the rows are b-118, one row is on Ranetka, one on Baccata rootstock. I also have a dozen or so 3 year old trees to dig and store, and some Honeyberry/Hascap bushes I want to do the same. Trying to pack all that in plastic tubs with sphagnum peat could be a lot of unneccessary work, and perhaps an ill-fated course to take for some reason(?) Maybe the bare root trees should NOT be stored in a moist (but not damp) sphagnum peat? On the other hand, maybe the peat is what would give them all the best chance for success next Spring? I am asking for some help here. :sweat_smile:

Here are some photos:

I must say, it is very hard to find out how this is all done–about as hard perhaps as finding a great baseball glove at the thrift store!

I certainly do appreciate all the help I have received in the past from the many very fine and generous members of this group, and so thank you in advance for your kind help and advice on this matter. Thanks for helping an old guy out.


Nice looking seedlings.
As for me, I’d leave them alone in the ground…unless you plan is to sell them in early spring.


I do plan to transplant them in early Spring. I transplanted a 3 year old tree last Spring, but the timing window between ground thaw and bud swell is very short. The transplant was successful, but I read that once the roots begin growing and buds swell, transplanting is not likely to succeed. With 120 plus trees to move, timing a dig and transplant operation in the Spring would be difficult, if not impossible, to get it ALL done so quickly by myself. It may be possible to dig them all in the Spring and then store in peat until ready to plant, but it would have to be done very quickly, and the digging will be in muddy soil most likely. Doing the digging and storage now, will reduce the stress of timing it in the Spring, and also reduce the risks of failure I belileve.

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I just went through the same research that you are doing and pretty much found the same lack of information on the subject. This year i just uprooted a bunch of various things so i could gather some practical experience.

I would not try to do them all this year, i would leave the bulk on the ground and do only 10 or so. That ought to be enough for you to do a solid amount of learning without risking most of your crop of trees. From the ones i pulled i learned that the right soil mix makes a huge difference. You also want to refine a workflow or else you’ll be fighting a mess and the follow up cleanup. Lastly you don’t need a root cellar, you could just heel them outside on very lose soil or sand. The thing is to keep them from direct sunlight and wind while ensuring the soil doesn’t get bone dry.


Perhaps you could ‘heel them in’ outdoors after digging them up, then?

I’d just be concerned you don’t have control over humidity like commercial orchards might have for holding bare root trees in good conditions for months.


Leave them in the ground. We leave all of our nursery stock in the ground over the winter, granted we usually have little to no frost in the ground come March when we dig. Once we dig then they go into our cold storage room. As close to freezing as you can get and very high humidity, 90% or higher. You would be better off pre digging your planting holes this fall so you can just put a tree in it come Spring. Trying to maintain those temperatures and that humidity level is going to require you build a cold storage room capable of maintaining those conditions. If you feel you have to dig them now to make planting easier in the Spring, then as was alreay suggested I would heel them into a trench.


Just curious if that is the usual nursery practice … Do all nurseries leave them in ground for the winter and then bring them into the cold storage room (for shipping) in early spring?
Or do alot of big nurseries do the work be4hand as they have tons of trees to ship out early spring. Like they have a moist cold storage room with thousands of trees (nurseries like RainTree and OneGreenWorld) already in there by the fall (for future spring shipping)?

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Raintree and OGW likely get their trees in late winter from a wholesale nursery. Most wholesale nurseries will have dug them in late fall after they are dormant and stored them over winter in a big cold storage room.

RT, OGW, and similar retail nurseries ship them out in spring. They probably hold them outdoors heeled into sawdust or soil.

Many retail nurseries in CA got their trees in January and held them in sawdust until sold. They were out of trees by March if not earlier because things start growing early in CA.


I have a small storage room that stays cool and dark, and so I dig my trees asap in the spring, once the ground thaws, and then pack the bare root trees in peat moss to keep the roots moist. The trees are able to be stored, then, for over a month, until ready for planting anytime later in spring. Those which are left over, or unsure what to do with, could go into pots and grown outdoors also, of course.

Most of the mega nurseries dig in the Fall.

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But don’t they have to maintain very precise temperature and humidity controlled environments in the storage facilities for keeping the roots moist and trees dormant all winter?

Yes they do if stored inside. Some places like Dave Wilson Nursery heel them into large beds outside for a short time.