Apples on bare root tree


Planting bare root trees can seem a little daunting, but it’s a great, thrifty way to add fruit trees and shrubs to your allotment, or larger ornamentals to your garden.

Bare root trees are widely available from November right through to April. They come as small trees or medium-size shrubs, usually 1-2 meters tall, with a small rootball and without a container.

It might seem like a scam, being able to buy a tree for as little as £5, but if you know what you’re doing, this can be a really cheap way to add trees to your garden. Fruit trees such as apples, pears, cherries and plums are a great addition to your allotment, too, allowing harvests year after year with minimal effort.

Apples on bare root tree
Apples growing on established bare root tree

What are Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

Bare root trees and shrubs are deciduous, often grown in a relatively natural way, in a field. They will lose their leaves during winter and enter a dormant phase. During this time, they are carefully lifted and their roots are washed to clear away excess soil. Lifting the trees during the dormant phase helps to reduce stress to the tree.

Whilst bare root trees may take a little longer to set buds and leaves than a container-grown tree, their energy will be going into creating a strong root system below ground. If planted correctly, they will establish well and often overtake container-grown plants quite quickly.

Benefits of Buying Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

There are several benefits of buying bare-root trees and shrubs. The first and most obvious is the cost. They are a lot cheaper than buying trees and shrubs in pots. Also, there is often more choice, particularly if you are ordering online. This is simply because it’s easier to ship plants that don’t come with heavy containers.

Another benefit to buying bare root trees is that they are less prone to transplant stress than trees grown in a container. We have touched on this already, but this is primarily because they are planted during a dormant period, and their roots will not be restricted by a container prior to planting.

Bare root trees and shrubs establish quite quickly, with less effort from the gardener. To establish a container-bought tree or shrub, you will need to water it regularly for a long time. This will depend on your soil, the type of plant and climatic conditions. Bare root trees will need less maintenance as their root development will be relatively fast.

In buying bare root trees and shrubs, you also eliminate the possibility of introducing pests to your garden through the soil. As you are able to see the root system clearly, you can identify any potential problems before planting. As there is no soil, you also cannot bring in soil-bourne pathogens.

How to Plant Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

Planting bare root trees and shrubs is relatively straightforward. However, it’s vital to get it right to give your plant the best chance to thrive. The most important thing is to plant your tree or shrub as soon as possible when you get it home. If you can plant it straight away, that is ideal.

Before planting, you should soak the root ball for around 30 minutes. This will “reactivate” the roots. Be careful not to leave it for too long, as roots also need to take in oxygen for respiration. Allow it to have a good drink, and then plant it promptly.

Whilst your tree is soaking in water, you can prepare a hole for it. Dig a hole that is deeper and wider than the root ball, so the tree will fit in comfortably. Once your plant has had some time to soak, you can put it into the hole. Make sure that it is upright and the branches are facing the direction that best suits your space. Larger trees or imbalanced, top-heavy trees may also need a stake. It’s a good idea to do this whilst planting.

Ensure the first roots are level with the top of the soil and the tree isn’t buried too deeply. You will need to backfill slightly to get this right. Once your tree is in, you can backfill the whole hole with soil, being careful to avoid creating air pockets. Firm the soil in with the heel of your shoe and water your tree in well. This will help to maximise the roots’ contact with the soil.

Mulching Your Tree or Shrub

Mulching around the base of your tree can help the soil ecosystem to feed your tree. It will also help the ground retain water. Be careful not to mulch your tree too close to the stem, as you do not want to bury the trunk. Create a doughnut shape with mulch around the base of your tree.

If you have good quality soil rich in organic matter, you can mulch with bark chips too. This will last longer and help to retain water for longer. It is also more ornamental, but it does not feed the soil in the same way as compost.

You will, of course, still need to water your tree regularly until it is established. Be careful not to overwater, particularly if your soils are not well draining. Mulching with compost can improve soil drainage, and help to protect against overwatering.

Establishing Your Tree or Shrub

Your bare root tree or shrub will start to establish itself as soon as it is planted. They are surprisingly resilient, but to give them the best chance to thrive, you will need to make sure that they are watered regularly. Planting early on in the year, as long as the ground is not frozen, will mean that roots have a chance to grow before the drier weather hits.

If the weather is particularly warm or dry, give your plant more water to help it get established. Look for signs of stress, such as curled leaves, browning or leaves dropping too early, and respond accordingly.

Whilst bare root plants establish quickly, they may seem like they aren’t doing anything for the first four to six weeks. This is because during the dormant period, the majority of their energy will go into growing their root system. Having a good, well-established root system will help your plant out enormously when it is time to start producing leaves.

When should I Plant Bare Root Trees?

It is best to plant bare root trees whilst they do not have leaves, and before the growing season begins. Do not plant into frozen ground, as this will not only be extremely difficult to dig, but it will also shock the plants’ roots too much.

Where Can I buy Bare Root plants?

Bare root trees and shrubs can be bought from shops, garden centres or online during the winter. I recommend choosing a tree from a reputable vendor such as Plants Direct who supply very high-quality, healthy trees and shrubs. There are a number of good online vendors, the only drawback is that you don’t get to choose the exact tree you want.

If cost is your primary concern, supermarkets often sell bare root trees, although these may not be such high quality, they will still establish and produce fruits if cared for correctly.

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