Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Once upon a time the only way to obtain herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees was to buy them bareroot in the winter. This meant researching exactly what you wanted and ordering in advance, knowing where you want it to go, then waiting until its season of interest to find out if it really is what you ordered. This may sound negative but to a gardener this is wonderful! How exciting! All the planning, the dark evenings spent looking at catalogues, fantasizing about what it’ll look like when fully grown, then the thrill of the first buds breaking…. What bliss.
This may sound negative but to a gardener this is wonderful! How exciting!
Garden centres have changed everything and now if you see a spot in the garden, you can just pop out, buy a plant and fill the space with something immediately. This has its obvious benefits but also, it’s downsides:
planting in summer can stress the plant, they need shade and water to get established properly
the production of pot grown plants requires more water than those in the ground
plastic pots – many of which are still not recyclable
a lot of compost - many nurseries are still using peat based composts, but even the peat free compost is not ideal. Transporting compost before use and then potted plants dramatically increase the weight and space needed to transport. For example; 100 bare root plants fit easily into a standard sized plastic bag but would take up around 3 square meters of space in a lorry and weigh an awful lot more.
Bare root season is roughly November – March (this varies depending on what you are buying) but you can usually order earlier than this and often a little later.
Plants are less expensive
No plastic pots involved
No compost required
Plants don't suffer transplant shock
Plants establish more quickly
For trees and roses you will get a wider selection of plants bare root than you would potted
The reason that bare root plants establish more quickly is that during the winter plants aren't asleep as commonly thought. Although the top growth may have died back, the roots are still busy growing. Bare root plants can get their roots in direct contact with the soil and therefore establish before they start producing leaves.
during the winter plants aren't asleep as commonly thought
How to Care For and Plant Bare Root
If you can’t plant straight away don’t worry, just keep your plants somewhere cool, dark and make sure that the roots do not dry out. They will keep for a week or so like this, for trees and shrubs it is better if you can heel them in somewhere – this means finding a spot of soil you can just lift up and tuck in the roots of the bundle and cover back over. There’s no need to separate bundles.
If you can’t plant straight away don’t worry just keep your plants somewhere cool, dark and make sure that the roots do not dry out.
For trees and shrubs, roses etc it is important to soak the plants for at least an hour before planting. Woody plants particularly benefit from mycorrhizal fungi, although if you have healthy soil then this is not necessary. Herbaceous perennials can be planted in the soil with the crowns at, or just below, ground level.
Make sure that all the roots are pointing down or sideways, not up.
For larger plants dig a hole big enough to comfortable accommodate all the roots. Make sure that the soil falls in between the roots of the plant – this can be achieved by pushing it between the roots with your fingers or giving the plant a jiggle by holding onto the stem and pulling up and down a few times.
Push the soil back in around the plant ensuring that the soil level matches where it was before (except for roses where you want to plant a little deeper so that the graft point is covered). Push the soil in around the plant, or for trees and shrubs, tread around the plant to firm the soil in – do not use your heel to do this though.
What do we do?
Well, we don’t usually water the plants in afterwards as it’s winter we know that it will rain soon enough and the ground is already damp. We mulch after planting rather than incorporate compost into the planting hole. This is because we want the plant to adapt and spread its roots far and wide rather than sticking to it’s nice enriched planting hole. Mulching also suppresses weeds, feeds the soil biome and helps with water retention. For young woody plants we dip in mycorrhizal gel then stick a spade in the ground, give it a wiggle and slot the roots in – then tread soil back down. When planting a lot of plants it needs to be quick and they seem to do just fine!