Bare Root Bonanza
By Jonathan Diaper
Winter is the time to make the grandest changes to a garden. Deciduous plants are dormant, making it the ideal time for planting. Trees, hedges, roses, fruit bushes and canes – all manner of woody plants can be planted easily and economically as bare-rooted stock. It’s an inexpensive and satisfying way of re-sculpting a garden, or of planting large areas of landscape.
Bare root plants are sold, as the name suggests, naked as the day they germinated, without compost or a pot. They will generally be young plants – hedging plants sold as individual ‘whips’ of varying heights – bundled together and wrapped to keep the roots moist as they are transported. Whatever the plant, they should have strong root growth.
Environmentally, bare root production has a light touch. Bare root plants are not sold in plastic pots, and so compost is not necessary. Their light weight makes them energy efficient in transit. Bare root plants can be purchased as one year old seedlings. We would recommend 2 year old transplants, which have a more developed root and plant structure. When the bare root season is over (November to March), the pot grown, equivalent plants are a great substitute. As younger plants, they will adapt to the soil conditions more readily than larger plants. In several years they will most probably have reached or overtaken the size of larger specimens planted at the same time. A tree, or shrub, which is pot grown can develop a spiralling mass of roots that can remain constricted even after planting. Many plants never break this habit and die before their time. Smaller, bare root plants won’t be susceptible to this root bound weakness. They will throw out roots that will anchor them in high winds and sustain them through periods of drought.
Action is needed when the plants arrive, as the roots are in danger of drying out. Unwrap them and, if you cannot plant them immediately in their final position, plant them temporarily in a spare piece of ground. A bundle of whips can be planted as one for now, so long as the roots are covered with soil. If the roots arrive dry, then water them. This stop-gap planting is known as ‘heeling-in’ – not a phrase that should be taken as a permission to stomp! We want them to be gently firmed in. Gardeners’ boots are not a tool.
Hedges are ideal planted bare rooted. The amount of plants needed makes it a better economical choice, so long as an instant hedge is not required. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) grows quickly to make a native hedge attractive to people and wildlife alike. Field maple (Acer campestre) is a native that is often overlooked but it grows strongly from a whip and looks great mixed into a hawthorn hedge. For wetter, heavier ground, hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is a good choice. Many of our native hedging plants will exhibit interest throughout the year, be it berry, flower or autumn colour. Nurseries offer whips of differing heights and cost, but all are good value. Whatever hedging plant you choose, preparing the soil beforehand will pay dividends in terms of the speed of growth. Keep the young plants free of weeds and grass, as competition from these will compromise soil moisture levels, which the roots require for successful development.
It is such a pleasure to plant a young tree and watch it grow. Some majestic trees are sold bare root, not least the English oak (Quercus robur) and beech (Fagus sylvatica). Another mighty tree, sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), with serrated leaves like dragon scales, will do well planted as a bare root tree. The first few years are the most vital for trees. Caring for them at this time could give centuries of life, and in 20 years you could well be looking up into their branches.
Roses are better value at this time of year. Ordering them bare root in no way compromises their quality; in fact, because they are less expensive, it is less of a stretch to plant groups of shrub roses that will be a scented lure to any garden visitor. Plant them with the graft union centre below ground to stimulate young shoots. If the plants arrive with dry roots, soak them in a bucket of water for a few hours before planting. Again, soil preparation – the addition of manure, leaf mould, or compost – will give them a head start in the longevity stakes. Please note, at Nicholsons these are only available to order in, subject to availability.
Fruit bushes are wonderful value. Raspberry canes are inexpensive and choosing different varieties can extend the fruiting period from early summer into autumn. Picking fruit must be the epitome of summer – plant now and book summer early.