Should You Remove the Wire Basket & Burlap Before Planting a Tree?

If you’re planning to plant a balled and burlapped tree, you may find that it has a wire basket around the rootball. The cage is usually on the outside of the burlap covering, although you’ll sometimes see an extra layer of burlap placed over the wire. So, what should you do with the wire, burlap, and any twine that’s holding it together? Do you really need to remove the wire basket before planting the tree? If you leave it, will the tree roots eventually grow through the holes in the cage?

Many people, including tree service companies, used to bury the entire thing – rootball, burlap, and wire cage. But, as research into tree growth patterns has evolved, we’ve learned that this is not the best way to plant a tree. In fact, failing to remove the wire basket can be the kiss of death for your transplanted tree.

Keep reading to learn why you shouldn’t plant a tree with the wire basket still intact and find out how to remove the basket and burlap without damaging the tree’s fragile root system.

Deciduous trees' roots are wrapped before being transported.

Why Trees Are Wrapped in Burlap and a Wire Basket

Many trees sold by tree nurseries are grown in the ground. They’re then dug up with a huge spade and each tree’s rootball is wrapped with burlap and a wire cage.

The purpose of wrapping the rootball with burlap and wire is to:

  • Hold together the rootball so that chunks of heavy soil do not fall out or tear roots,
  • Protect roots from dehydration and sunburn,
  • Allow trees to be safely moved by their trunk, and
  • Reduce the chances of damage to root balls during transportation.

About The Burlap and Wire Basket Around Your Tree

Many people think that they should leave both burlap and wire in place when they plant a tree, but this is wrong. Leaving these materials wrapped around your tree’s rootball will damage roots and can kill your tree.

About Burlap Tree Wrapping

Burlap has traditionally been considered a fast-decomposing material that will break down and disappear into the soil after you plant your tree. But experience has proved this wrong.

Natural burlap (woven from jute, hemp, or flax fibers) can remain intact around a rootball for a long time, particularly when the soil it’s in is not consistently moist year-round (moisture speeds decomposition).

Treated burlap lasts even longer, as it’s treated with preservatives designed to extend its life. This resistance to tearing or rotting is useful while wrapped trees are being handled and transported, but not once a tree has been transplanted.

Depending on the source of your balled-and-burlapped trees, the burlap wrapped around your tree may be plastic, not jute. Plastic burlap will remain in your soil for even longer, if not forever, and will not break down. You may not see plastic when it’s below the soil’s surface, but microscopic plastic particles move easily through the soil and can reach aquifers and water bodies, degrading our natural environment.

About the Wire Basket

The purpose of the wire basket around your tree’s root ball is to protect it during transportation and positioning in its planting hole. Once your tree is in place and ready to be backfilled, your tree doesn’t need (or want!) the wire anymore.

The metal wire will remain intact in the soil for a long time. Depending on the type of metal used, the wire will slowly rust or corrode, but not at a rate that’s beneficial for your tree. Wire can remain intact for 20 years!

The metal cage that held your tree’s rootball in place can dramatically reduce the ability of your tree’s roots to grow out into the surrounding soil. This means your tree will struggle to develop a large, healthy root system.

This spruce tree was uprooted and it was discovered that the burlap was never removed. This prevented the roots from spreading which ultimately led to the tree falling.

Uprooted spruce tree with burlap left on.

How Wire Baskets and Burlap Harm Tree Roots

As tree roots grow, they get both longer and thicker. When a tree root hits a solid barrier like a metal cage or a burlap wrap, it may grow around or through the barrier. But the root may also change direction and start encircling its own root ball. As the diameter of circling roots expand, they will strangle or girdle other roots.

NOTE: Removing the wire basket when you transplant a tree often means you’ll need to stake the tree, as the wire basket may be holding the rootball together. This is why you should partially backfill your tree planting hole first, as it will help hold the rootball in place.

Staking young trees is common, and it doesn’t matter if they were grown in containers or balled and burlapped. All young, newly planted trees need time to develop solidly anchoring roots that will keep the tree stable in windy, stormy weather.

Should you remove the burlap and wire when you plant a tree?

Yes! You should cut away both of these from around your tree’s root ball when you plant your new tree. It’s not hard to do and takes only a few minutes of work with the right tools (sharp clippers or a utility knife and wire snips or bolt cutters).

Landscapers (and even arborists!) used to plant trees with their wrapping intact. But scientific studies and anecdotal information have shown clearly that trees with wraps removed at planting (or within the first year) are healthier, more vigorous, and have more well-developed root systems.

Will burlap and wire wraps harm your tree?

They can. The wrappings around a tree’s rootball keep a tree safe during transport and make it easier to move a tree by its trunk to position it precisely.

Since burlap-wrapped trees may have twine or straps tied around the base of the tree’s trunk, it’s vital that you remove the burlap in this area. Anything wrapped around a growing tree’s trunk can cause fatal girdling. Pulling back the burlap also ensures that there’s no physical barrier to surface water reaching the rootball.

I have come across trees where the plastic and nylon twine have been left on a root ball – the twine ends up tightly wound around the root flare and becomes so tight, it will eventually girdle the tree.

You’ll also need to expose the tree’s trunk flare to be sure you’re positioning it at the right height in the planting hole. The trunk flare is often found well below the top of the wrapped rootball so you may need to pull soil away to find it.

LAM Tree Service employee removes the basket from a conifer tree about to be planted.

How To Remove the Burlap and Wire Basket From a Tree

Cut away the burlap and wire after you’ve positioned your tree in its planting hole and partially backfilled around its base to make sure it’s stable.

You can leave the portions of the wire basket and burlap that are beneath the rootball, especially if you’re transplanting large trees. The important parts to remove are the wire and burlap that are across the top of the rootball and around its sides. This is where both anchoring and feeder roots spread out into the surrounding soil.

A tree’s root system is its lifeline and is the only way your tree can take up water and nutrients from the soil. Any barrier that slows down root development and root exploration will slow down your tree’s growth and vigor, and that includes burlap and metal cages.

What Will Happen If You Don’t Remove the Burlap and Wire From Your Tree

If you plant your tree with its wrap left on, its roots will struggle to grow out into the surrounding soil. This will cause several problems, including:

  • Slow establishment after transplanting
  • Undersized anchoring roots (making the tree less stable)
  • Roots can’t grow deep into the soil to find water and avoid drought stress
  • Girdling roots that will strangle the tree

All of these things threaten the health of your tree, its safety, and even its lifespan.

Some tree roots (we’ve noticed it on spruce, especially) will grow over the top of the burlap and basket. The roots arch over the top of the root ball and enter the surrounding soil. These trees are less likely to survive dry periods, as the roots remain at surface level.

Plant Your Tree the Right Way – Remove the Burlap and Wire Basket!

A variety of pine trees and shrubs are wrapped in burlap and ready for planting.

Trees should always be planted the right way to ensure they thrive in their new home but, unfortunately, sometimes they’re not.

Call us for proper planting of your new trees, or to have us check on a recently planted tree that’s not doing well. There can be many factors that cause a newly planted tree to struggle, including improper planting. Since you can’t see below the soil surface, it can often be difficult to figure out what the problem is.

Even if your tree was planted with its wire basket, it may not be too late to remove it and save the tree. But don’t wait; the longer your tree struggles, the harder it is to fix the problem.

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