Potted vs Bare Root

I understand the advantage of bare root over a potted tree, but if you purchase a potted tree, couldn’t you simply remove all dirt and prune the roots and essentially create a bare root tree during the dormancy period? As opposed to planting the tree with the rootball as is?

I could be wrong but it seems that you are inferring that all potted trees have excessive roots (circled and root bound)? Potted trees for the most part are kept in an “artificial” growing environment (continuous water and fertilization) that is how you get those trees with tremendous top growth in a small pot. While root pruning can correct some of the potting issues, unless you balance out the top growth with the root pruning you are going to have a tree that puts on very little vegetative growth for a year or two. As the tree tries to grow enough roots to support the top growth.

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You’re right, TurkeyCreek Trees…….that’s why a 2 or 3 inch caliper balled and burlapped maple tree will get caught up with by a 3 gallon potted tree. Too many roots lost in digging the big b&b trees usually. The container tree with 3/4 or 1 inch caliper will catch the big tree in 5 years usually.

Bare root fruit trees do fine, as do potted ones. Just don’t let the roots dry out on the bare root stock.

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There are so many variables that hard rules and recipes are just faith based measures to sustain confidence in the grower- not competence. Confidence and competence combined should be the goal.

I would start with the tremendous variability in species to bare root vs potted starter trees. Pears and other species devoid of fibrous root systems struggle with bare root transplanting, one reason they are often sluggish, even when transplanted bare root as whips.

Apple trees are on the other end of the spectrum and can be transplanted without losing much to transplant shock either via container or bare roots. It isn’t just having a fibrous root system either- they seem to have more stored energy in their wood to generate new root systems quickly.

Peach trees do poorly in containers, if you want to get them in larger than 1" diameter, and transplant very well as bare roots, even in up to 3" diameter trees. For larger trees it is particularly important to move as much root as possible.

Then there is the question of how they are installed and cared for after. I fail to see why a container tree can’t continue to grow without interruption if you continue to provide it the same care it received when it was in the pot- until it sends enough roots into the native soil.

What stunts potted trees more than anything is that the potting soil dries out so quickly, even when surrounding soil remains moist. Their root systems are mostly very fine and subject to quick death by dehydration.

Potting soil is course and capillary water flow runs from course to fine soil, so potting soil can’t draw moisture from the soil next to it. Creating a bowl with a ring of native soil along the diameter of the potting soil can help force water into the potting soil. Don’t cover the potting soil itself with the native soil- plant at the same level as existing soil. By creating a bowl, water has time to soak into the potting soil instead of running off.

As suggested, you could shake the potting soil from the roots of species with fibrous roots and plant the trees directly into the soil, but for quickest establishment, it is probably better to leave most of the roots undisturbed and make sure the potting soil stays moist and receives regular fertilization.

When roots circle in the pot they can be pulled free so you plant part of the roots in the native soil and leave some finer roots undisturbed. Sometimes these roots need to be staked with landscape fabric staples or held down to force them outwards- the wider they are spread from the trunk, the better.

It is important to realize that severed roots tend to regenerate right at the point they are cut and grow outward, starting as fine root. Roots in pots also need to be encouraged to grow into the native soil. This growth is encouraged by providing loosened, moist soil for them to establish into and can be accomplished by loosening soil outside the rootball with a shovel at a fairly shallow depth not exceeding the depth of the rootball. 12" beyond the rootball should be adequate. During establishment, soil should never be allowed to dry out, as this kills fine roots.


Thanks, Alan. Good info–nice to know why we do the stuff we do.

In my garden, moles and voles seem attracted to the potting soil of container plants that I have planted in the ground, and do a lot of damage. I now hose off, all of the potting soil, and spread out the roots in a hole wide enough to accomodate without encircling.

Around here, almost all of the cotainer trees that I buy have actually been balled & burlap trees that are planted in compost in a container, hiding the burlaped root ball. By hosing off the soil, I can identify girdling roots and broken roots, and prune them before planting. The hard clay at the center of the b & b tree is removed, as is the compost, so there isn’t the problem of differences in how the soil absorbs water.

I dig the hole before hosing off the soil, so roots are not exposed too long. I dont do it on a sunny day. I’ve bare rooted in Spring or Fall, and done it with trees that are leafed out. i water in thoroughly.

It’s a challenge if there are a lot of encircling fibrous roots, and kind of messy.

In the planting hole, I only use the local soil. The container soil gets spread on my vegetable garden. If the tree is in a rough compost mix, I use that to mulch around the tree.

I like the choices available as bare root trees from mail order. But sometimes I find a nursery tree that is a variety I want, and often bigger and nicer shape than what I get mail order. So I do both.

Ball and burlap trees

Bare-Rooting Trees

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Thanks for taking your time. Very good info.

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I was about to start this topic myself. In my experience potted trees have far outperformed bare root and b&b. Also, like one of the other posters noted. A smaller tree often will outgrow a larger one. He said five years, but I have seen it in usually three. For the most part I have had very poor experience with bare root plants. Of the ones I have ordered they either die, or they have lost so many roots being harvested that they stand still for several years. Most of my trees were potted and very few of those have died. One year to establish then they launch. Mail order bare root companies may have been quality at one time, but I do not think anymore. (Most all the roots chopped off in the harvesting process or to fit in the box) Plus to get the same sizes they are roughly the same price anyway.

My advice stick to potted. Might not have all of the varieties, but sure to have better success.


I have over 90% of bare root stock survive, so it’s not really a problem, it just takes them awhile to get going.
B&B …. over 95 % are alive 10 years later.
Container? Probably 99%+ alive after one year.

One year I planted over 200 plants, mostly container…and gave a one year warranty. No losses.

Some bare-root perennials fall under 90% success rate, but it may have more to do with how they’re stored, and how dry they are upon receipt, and not that they couldn’t or wouldn’t live if properly taken care of and planted with care and nurtured.

But my results may not be typical…I have nearly 6 decades of experience…I started my own plot and dug my first little garden with a mattock at age 5.

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I have lost a few containers. Those can be tricky. Sometimes they are bareroot plants that they cut the roots to fit the pot and added some kind of medium. That seems like double transplant shock after you plant it. Some of my bare root losses were due inexperience, but for the most part they just did not have much for roots which in turn took much longer to get going like you said. Plus unless you are looking for a certain variety bareroot and potted are about the same price of equal size. Only have a few B&B trees, but all of them lived, just took and extra year. Vines seem super easy bare root. No losses there.

Where have you ordered from lately and received a nice well rooted tree? Will give them a try over the winter.

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Hmmmmm……….One of my favorites is out of Business…Lawyer’s Nursery.

Burnt Ridge Nursery in Washington has always sent me good healthy bare root stuff.

Some of your consumer mail order people who run lots of adds for cheap stuff…I suspect I better not name names or somebody might get upset…but it the deal is for retail quantities and it’s too good to be true…it probably isn’t true!

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I did order several things from Musser Forest a few years back, and lost most of the order, including 100% of the pawpaws. I reported dried up stock to them soon as I opened the package…but agreed to plant and see what happened. Was not rewarded.
(But they did eventually send me a refund check.)

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I have been looking at Burnt Ridge. They have a lot of things I want at reasonable prices. They have a bad internet reputation for slow and poor shipping though. I actually called them once to ask questions and they were unable to tell me when the plants would ship saying they were backed up for months. Not what you want to hear when you want something. I have been sticking mostly with the east coast companies (with poor luck). If I can get a shipping date out of them think I will try burnt ridge. Trying to find walnuts and fuzzy kiwi.

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I had read both bad and good things about burnt ridge so avoided them for a while. I took a chance on them this year and was quite pleased with what I received. I’ll definitely order from them again.


I’ve ordered from Burnt Ridge and have been very pleased with them but if you look on their shipping information page they do not ship to anyone east of the Rockies except March through June 30. So no fall shipments.

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BlueBerry- Paw Paws grow wild here. I have tried to dig them up tons of times and they never live. You have to buy potted ones that started in that pot. I bought a few off of e-bay that were potted and they washed the dirt off for shipping, but all of them survived. Surprisingly. You do know those things take 10-15 years to start fruiting well. They grow super slow, but are super tasty.

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Robert, I’ve seen pawpaws bear a few fruits the 4th year after seed came up. But, it may take 10 in some instances.

I’ve dug up wild pawpaws 2 or 3 inches tall with my bare fingers under a tree before…so I know they will live just fine. (But, I am talking seedlings. I suspect sprouts from the roots of the parent tree don’t live so well when digging and moving them.)

Speaking of Burnt Ridge…or any of a number of other small-but-growing orchards, they may be understaffed, but if you let them do their thing rather than call or text or email (which they probably ignore for the most part because they are busy…I can relate to that in the springtime) then if you get your stuff at about the time the catalog suggests…and it’s decent stuff…
then, there’s nothing to complain about.

Unscrupulous operators lie and/or give you the run around. Mom/Pop types don’t have time for as much “customer service” as some people expect. I’m not saying Burnt Ridge is still a mom and pop operation, but many lesser known nurseries are.


Blueberry- Root sprouts are the problem with digging pawpaw. Almost every one of them is a root sprout. I bought several wild ones from around the country to get some different flavors. Nothing but the local ones are fruiting though.Those things are awesome. Just cut in half and eat with a spoon out its own bowl.

I have bought a lot of plants from e-bay with pretty good luck and cheap prices. To me that is the way to go at the moment. They are cheaper and in better condition than the big name mail order companies. Plus you have the e-bay guarantee to back them up and a positive delivery date. Just not as many to choose from, but you can read their reviews to verify quality first.


The container plants can be planted 12 months a year. (And when they are all leafed out, you don’t want to disturb the soil they are in. So any suggestions for removing soil from containerized plants needs to come with that warning statement not to remove soil if the plant isn’t dormant.) Most regular gardeners would know that, but newcomers might not.

For what it’s worth, I’ve bare rooted multiple trees in full leaf. I do it in the shade, on cloudy or drizzly day, hose off the soil, have the hole dug before bare rooting the tree. Plant immediately and soak it in. I have never lost a noticeable leaf, and every one of those the trees did great. I agree there is risk and caution is important, but it’s not a complete given that you cant bare root a nondormant tree. Bare rooting has such advantages, the risk is worth it to me. Planting a container tree with winding roots is not something I ever do any time of year. Also, the interface between container soil and native soil can result in winding roots and drainage issues.

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