This article distills our years of tree planting experience to illustrate the differences between bare root and “balled and burlapped” (aka “B&B") tree planting techniques.
Bare Root Planting
Planting a tree in the "bare root" style is very literal. If you look at the below photo, you'll see the tree is all plant: no soil included in the root mass, only roots and the trunk.
Balled and Burlapped Planting (aka "B&B")
The alternative to bare root planting is the a "B&B tree," which stands for balled and burlapped. The roots are enclosed in a ball of soil with a burlap bag and wire basket around the ball. This is the more conventional approach to planting trees, but requires more digging (typically using heavy equipment) to move the trees due to the shear weight of the soil. Below is a photo of a red bud tree with the burlap and basket removed for planting.
Now that you can picture the difference between the two options, let's discuss the pros and cons of each.
Pros of Bare Root Planting
Can be planted by hand (very light)
Correct planting depth every time
Planted with a larger root mass intact
Quicker establishment of tree in relation to B&B
Cons of Bare Root Planting
Limit on available species of trees
Limit on size to 2” diameter trees
Pros of B&B Planting
No limit on trunk size of tree transplanted
No limit on available species of trees
Cons of B&B Planting
Heavy, often requiring equipment
Can be planted too deep
More expensive v. bare root
Majority of roots are removed
Root Growth an Important Consideration
The photos below highlight some of the important advantages and disadvantages of each planting method, focused particularly on differences in root growth between the two methods.
This photo above is the root system from a 3” caliper (trunk) swamp white oak that died the first year after transplant. Notice the tape around the trunk? That was the planting depth, you can see the root flare (where roots meet the trunk) was around 4 - 5” buried. Also notice how small the root system is (approximately 16” across) for a tree that large.
Compare the previous root system with the root system of the bare root tree below. This is a 2” sugar maple that was planted later that day. This root system is exceptionally wide and is not the norm, but it does show you just how many roots that swamp white oak that died above lost in the transplant process.
The last series of photos show the planting process when a B&B tree is planted too deep at the nursery. This series features a 5-6’ red bud I planted last spring on a playground. The first shot is of the root ball exposed and in the hole. The next one shows the trunk partially excavated to expose the root flare or proper planting height. The third photo has a 7-8” tall wire cutters in the shot to show you just how deep this tree was, the top of the wire cutters represents the original soil height and the bottom shows the final planting height.
I don't want to discourage people from buying B&B trees, but I do want to educate people on potential downfalls of getting a B&B tree and just “plopping” it in a hole. If you are contracting tree planting, make sure that the company knows how to plant trees correctly. Planting depth will dictate the long-term survivability and vitality of your tree.
I encourage people to consider bare root trees for their future planting projects. Either way you can’t go wrong planting trees, just make sure it's done correctly so the benefits will outlive us all.