Bare root trees and shrubs - 'tis the season to be planting


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Many trees and shrubs can be planted 'bare root': this means without soil or pots. This is done during the 'dormant season', when plants are not growing and they can be easily transplanted, generally November to March. Planting bare root is cheaper, easier and faster than planting container-grown plants. Bare root planting generates less waste (there are no pots to get rid of) and the plants are easier to transport. The plants also establish and grow very quickly. Most commercial forests are planted with bare root plants, known in the trade as 'whips'. The fastest way to plant a bare root tree or shrub is to cut a T-shaped incision in the ground and slot the plant in, firming it in carefully and checking that the roots start to flare out exactly at soil level.

Bare-root hedges: Many plants which are traditionally used in hedges can be planted bare root. Whether a native hedge of mixed species of a more formal hedge of one species, you just need to calculate the correct spacing. As a general rule, choose between 3 plants per metre for a single row or 6 plants per metre for a double (staggered) row. If the soil is already cultivated, a trench can be dug, the plants laid out and then filled in carefully around them, as shown below when planting a box hedge. If the soil is not cultivated, then use the T-shaped cut method. In all cases, it is very important that the plants are not allowed to dry out. They should be kept heeled in the ground or in their bags until the absolute last minute.

Bare root box plants being laid out approximately 4.5 plants per metre for a good-looking hedge.

Bare root tree roots should be kept moist by leaving them in their original plastic bags or by healing them into the ground.

When planting a hedge such as beech or hornbeam, it is a good idea to snip the tops off some of the taller plants after planting. This will encourage them to bush out. It is also important to make sure they are well firmed-in. Do this with your heels, holding the tip of the tree with your hands between your legs. After planting, weeds should be kept at bay by either: keeping the base mulched with leaves, compost or bark mulch; pulling up grass and weeds by hand once or twice for the following year or more; with a herbicide, if you believe in their usage. Do not strim around the base of young trees - it invariably does more harm than good.

A newly-planted hornbeam hedge in West Cork. The base is well protected by bark mulch. This is a fast and inexpensive way to create longer hedges.

Small means fast! A lot of people want 'instant hedges', but the smaller plants used as bare-root plants will outstrip and out-grow substantially larger plants after only a couple of years. You have only to keep an eye on your local stretch of bypass or motorway to see just how fast the new plantings are developing. It seems like only yesterday that they werd planted, and now they are young forests! They require no soil amending either. As a general rule, do not amend the soil. You want the plants to settle into their surroundings, not be molly-coddled. If this happens (ie amendment is added) the roots will stay in their comfort zone and be less willing to set off into their surroundings.

What to expect when you receive bare root plants: We send our plants via an overnight courier, so they will reach you in excellent condition and fresh from the field. You will receive plants that are alive and healthy - just asleep! They will be tied into tight bundles, bagged and labelled. Most plants (all except evergreens such as Yew, Pine and Laurel) will be without leaves. Some, such as Hornbeam and Beech may retain a few brown leaves. The trees have been grown in the ground for approximately two years. Most will have been undercut the previous year, which gives them a good vigorous root system. It is recommended taht some plants, such as Hawthorn and Blackthorn, be cut down by as much as half to encourage them to bush out the followig spring.

The importance of planting at the right depth: Never be tempted to plant a tree too deep. Plant trees or shrubs so that the root flare (ie where the roots begin) is exactly at soil level. You want trees that will one day look like the one below. When I was a student in Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, planting depth was one of the big things I learned about. If in any doubt, plant the the tree on a small mound - about half a barrow of soil or even an overturned sod. And make sure that no soil or mulch builds up against the stem.

A root flare on an ancient oak at Glendalough, Co Wicklow.

From bare root whip to this; a magnificent root flare on a magnificent beech tree at Larchill Gardens in Co Kildare. Just remember when planting to have the root flare (ie the start of the roots) right at soil level. You don't want the going into the ground like lamp posts. They also never prosper and roots require oxygen and rot gets into the stem.

Storing bare root plants: Drying out is the biggest threat to bare root plants. When you receive your bare root plants they will be in strong black plastic bags and tightly tied to keep in moisture. They can stay in these for a few days, but if it will be any longer then they should be heeled into the ground (ie planted out in their bundles and firmed in). The bags should be stored somewhere cool and dark such as an unheated shed or cellar. A small amount of water can be sprinked into them to keep roots moist. They should never be allowed to dry out, and it's very important that on the day of being planted they stay in their bags until the last possible minute. The bags can have an addition of water added to them to keep the roots moist - they should no be left unbagged where winds can dry out roots in minutes. Once plants have been delivered safely to you, we can take no responsibility for their welfare.

Browse our range of bare root plants available online...