Planting Trees – Remove String, Burlap and Wire Basket

Robert Pavlis

Society has been planting trees for hundreds of years and yet we still don’t know how to do it properly. The average landscape tree is not planted correctly – but that long discussion is for another post. Today I would like to show you what happens when you do not remove string, burlap and wire baskets.

Planting B&B (bare and burlap) trees, with permission of Maple Leaves Forever
Planting B&B (bare and burlap) trees, with permission of Maple Leaves Forever

What is a B&B Tree?

B&B stands for ball and burlapped. It is a convenient way to prepare and ship larger trees in the nursery trade. The tree is dug up from the field, wrapped in burlap, covered in a wire basket, and then the whole thing is tied up to keep it secure.

Many nurseries will tell you that you do not need to remove the burlap, string and wire – but they at wrong. Many landscape contractors will not remove the material because it is faster to plant by leaving them on the tree but that is the incorrect way to plant the tree.

I have purchased trees in pots, only to find a B&B tree inside the pot – that is false advertising. These trees need to be treated like B&B trees, not pot-grown trees.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Why Remove the Burlap, String and Wire?

Before we discuss why they should be removed it is worthwhile understanding the rational for leaving them on. It is believed that removing them disturbs the roots if the soil falls off the root ball. Keeping the burlap in place prevents root disturbance.

That may be true, but I have news for you. Your recently purchased 8 foot tree was dug out of the field where it had a root span of 15 feet or more. Now it has a root ball of 3 feet. Most of the good feeder roots are left in the field; they are not in the burlap. A bit more disturbance will not harm the tree at this point.

So, why remove the hardware? Because if you don’t it will strangle the tree.

Today’s burlap decomposes very slowly because it is synthetic. It will still be in the ground 10 years after planting. During that time it prevents roots from growing into the surrounding soil. Some people do pull it back a bit when the tree is planted, but that is not good enough. Take it off.

The wire takes decades to rust out and most ropes made today are plastic and will last a very long time.

If you want to disturb the root ball as little as possible, place the whole thing in the new planting hole, and peel it all back right to the bottom of the planting hole. Remove any peeled back material. But to be honest, it is much better to remove it all.

Death Due to Strangulation

The following pictures show what happens when a tree is planted without removing the hardware.

In the picture below you can clearly see the rope tied to the top loop of the wire basket. As the tree grew, the trunk expanded until the rope strangled it. Water and nutrients move up the tree in a thin cambium layer just under the bark. Sugars produced in the leaves travel down the tree in the same layer. It does not take much strangulation to stop the movement of water, nutrients and sugar, and then the tree dies.

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In this case, the dying tree fell over, reveling the murderer – rope and wire.

Planting B&B tree; rope is clearly seen wrapped around the trunk and the wire loop of the basket.
Planting B&B tree; rope is clearly seen wrapped around the trunk and the wire loop of the basket.

 

Planting B&B trees; white pine in South Nashville after a storm
Planting B&B trees; white pine in South Nashville after a storm
Planting B&B trees; rope has created a constricted trunk making it weak at this point.
Planting B&B trees; rope has created a constricted trunk making it weak at this point.
Planting B&B trees; showing poor trunk development
Planting B&B trees; showing poor trunk development

These four pictures are used with permission from Soil, Plant Pest Center Facebook Page; https://www.facebook.com/SoilPlantPestCenter/posts/1774887455888494

 

Planting Trees the Right Way

This post discusses the whole planting process; Planting Trees the Right Way

You might also be interested in: Washing Roots Before Planting which is a newer, experimental, way to plant trees.

Best Time to Plant Trees

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

13 thoughts on “Planting Trees – Remove String, Burlap and Wire Basket”

  1. Removal of the top 1/3 of the basket (usually the top ring of wire) as well as the burlap and strapping (from the top of the ball) is industry standard practice. Removing the entire basket is not standard practice and while it is necessary to remove the top to prevent trunk girdling, it is unnecessary in the root zone. Leaving a “cupcake wrapper” of wire and burlap on the bottom 2/3 of the root ball is standard and appropriate.

    Reply
    • Agreed – but that standard is the wrong advice. It makes it easier to plant trees but it is not the best way to do it for the trees.

      If you disagree – post some studies to show this method works best.

      Reply
  2. Thousands of years have passed for humanity since they are planting trees. But the removal of string, burlaps, and wire baskets are not emphasized.

    Reply
  3. This is 100% correct. We had 8 trees planted in our new home with baskets and burlap left on. Every. Single. One. Died. The growth was completely stunted from the top. It failed to thrive. All roots were girdled and they were in a tight ball and tangled. NO roots on the outside. As for people who say they are good for hurricanes. Ha! We live in Florida and had minor winds from a storm. One tree snapped above ground. It was weak and dying. It really makes me angry when I read comments from so called experts who claim they can be left on. It is common sense. Didn’t take long for us to figure out.

    Reply
  4. I wish I had read your post years ago as I have had so many trees planted in my yard in the last 7 years – 2 dogwoods, 2 maples, 5 cryptomeria, not to mention 8 large holly shrubs. The way you explained it makes so much sense, plus I trust your 45 years of gardening experience and biochemistry & chemistry background. My cryptomarias have been in the ground for 7 years and while they have grown tall they have constantly had problems with branches growing out then turning brown & falling off. (I know cruptomarias drop branches, but this is not what I am talking about). An area arborist who I trust & have worked with over the years looked at my cryptomarias and thinks it maybe because the rope/belt was left on the ball & burlap part. He said he sees that a lot! He said he could dig around it and see if the belt is still on & he could cut the belt. He thought that would help. Any other suggestions?

    Reply
    • He is an arborist – and is probably right. Will it help? If the material is strangling the plant it will definitely help.

      Reply
  5. This isn’t true at all. If you have a tree planted with synthetic burlap, definitely remove it. Don’t remove wire basket. There is no research at all that the roots girdle. In fact, In hurricanes or bad storms wire basket trees are superior.

    Reply
  6. Trees not planted with wire baskets tend to lean. I admire Lawn trees that stand regal and stately. It would seem that wire baskets tend to support the trees.

    Reply
  7. Hi. I planted a gum tree 2 years ago and under the advise of the nursery that sold me the tree I left the burlap and wire. The tree has hardly grown in the past couple years. What can I do now to help the tree?

    Reply
    • Dig down around the tree. If the burlap is not decomposed I would dig up the tree and remove it. If you find a lot of new roots and it is growing through the burlap, you can decide to leave it.

      Reply
    • A neighbor had this exact situation with a small plum tree that had hardly grown for two years after planting and looked generally scraggly. The tree would move when pushed by hand. We dug around the ball and found burlap, wire ,and rope mostly intact and constricting root growth. We carefully removed everything and refilled the hole. The tree thrived thereafter.

      Reply

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