Establishing a plant in the soil: rootball vs bare root vs container grown
When a plant is newly placed in the ground, its first aim is to establish the roots into the surrounding soil. This will support the tree, keeping it upright in the soil and allow the leaves to be as close to the sun’s light as possible, maximising photosynthesis (the production of sugar). Secondly, the growing roots will absorb both water and nutrients from the surrounding soil efficiently to allow the plant to remain hydrated and enough nutrients to thrive and grow. The roots also store and manufacture chemicals (such as sugars and hormones) that are vital for the plant’s survival. It is often the sugars stored within the root system that allow the newly planted tree to start developing in its new home.
A container-grown plant has a root system. Their recent life (usually up to about 2 years) has been in their container and the roots happily fill it to the bottom. The roots often start to circle the pot, remaining happy as long as there is compost there. Root-balled plants have been dug up, severing the roots from the ground, leaving just enough to allow the plant to regrow in its new location. The soil is then wrapped up in hessian sacking and wire netting to protect it and hold it together. Root-wrapped, or bare root plants have gone through a similar process to rootballing, however, the soil is knocked off to leave just the roots. It is imperative, therefore, that the roots are protected from damage and the elements and are kept moist without drowning. They should then be planted as soon as possible.
The primary reason behind planting in autumn is to allow the roots to become as well established in the ground as possible, while the soil is moist and warm. A summer like the one we have just experienced (2022) leaves the plant open to drought and dehydration if it doesn’t receive enough water through the roots. The better the root system, the more water the plant can absorb when you diligently go around with your hosepipe or watering can.