Bare root plants

red roses


Using bare root plants to add to your garden borders and fruit gardens is an economical way to add some of the larger plants to your garden.

Plants available as bare root specimens include:-

  • trees
  • fruit trees
  • fruit bushes
  • roses
  • shrubs

It is particularly cost effective if you need a lot of new large plants, perhaps as part of a garden design. Bare root plants tend to be cheaper to purchase than container grown plants.

Briefly, the differences are that bare root plants are grown in the field, dug up and sold (a bit like many living Christmas trees). Container grown plants are, as the name suggests, grown from seed in a container or plant pot. There are also ball rooted plants, where the tree or shrub has been dug up with its surrounding soil.

The range of plants available as bare rooted specimens is impressive. Bare root shrubs which are particularly popular are roses and fruit bushes. David Austen stocks around 800 varieties of bare root roses, for example. Whilst Brogdale can offer you heritage bare root fruit trees.

Bare root plants are generally thought of as being deciduous, so that the plants are dormant and leaf free when they’re purchased and planted. However, evergreen shrubs, box for topiary for example, are also available. Indeed, hedging plants and topiary are a good buy as a considerable quantity is often needed, so the savings over container grown plants can be considerable.


When to purchase bare root plants

Order as early as you can to get a wide choice. Many nurseries have their bare root plant lists out as early as August for October – April delivery. Planning this spring or what you may want next winter is part of the fun of gardening. If you like to be spontaneous, you might like to know that not all the best plants will have gone by Christmas.

Have you an eye for a bargain? Are you bothered about which bare root rose variety you have so long as it’s red and scented? Then February can be a good time to buy. The end of winter is also a good time to purchase ‘job lots’ as nurseries clear their stock. Mixed native hedging packs of hawthorn, dogwood, elder, blackthorn can be found for the price of a theatre ticket.

front garden - box hedge

When to plant bare root plants

The planting of bare root plants starts in autumn. It continues through the winter months, as long as the ground isn’t hard with frost or overly waterlogged. Planting ends during spring as trees come back into leaf. Deciduous shrubs and trees are best planted during autumn and winter. Evergreens do well planted in winter and early spring.


How to care for bare root plants when you get them

When your purchases arrive, unwrap straight away and check for any damage.

  • Cut off any dead stems, but be sure they are dead and not merely dormant!
  • If you’re not able to ‘heel in’ your bare root plants, perhaps because the ground is frosted, then wrap them back up again.
  • Keep them frost free until you are able to plant.
  • Check on them every day or two.

Try to have a prepared spot ready for them in the garden. It needn’t be their final planting place. A holding bed where they would be ‘heeled in’ – planted temporarily – is fine.

Be sure to put your newly purchased or delivered bare root shrubs into water for a 2- 4 hours before planting them. This really helps as they are probably slightly dehydrated from their journey. Although most firms are good about wrapping the roots in a moist environment, it’s not perfect from the plants’ point of view.

bare root currant, in packaging, root bound

How to plant bare root plants

Preparation and planting them is easy. Dig your hole or trench, making sure there is sufficient room for the roots. Add organic matter to the base and lightly fork into the soil. Place your bare rooted plant into the hole and check the depth. If the plant is a grafted one, like many roses and fruit trees, the graft needs to be above ground.

  • If you’re planting a tree other than an espalier fruit tree it is likely to need staking to give it support until the root system develops.
  • The time to do this is when you’ve placed the tree in the planting hole but before you fill it in with soil.
  • This enables you to see where the tree roots are so you won’t drive the stake through them.
  • Position the stake at an angle and so that the tree will bend away from it in the wind.
  • Use the correct tie so as not to damage the bark; string is not an adequate substitute.

Fill in the hole, making sure the soil gets between the roots and there are no air pockets. These could cause the plant to sink and may increase the likelihood of frost damage. Giving the tree or shrub a little shake as you fill in the soil helps to distribute the soil. If your soil is not the best quality, then mix it with more organic matter before using it to fill the planting hole.

We also add mycorrhizal fungi to the planting hole. This ‘friendly’ fungi helps to develop a strong root system and healthy plants and is found naturally in the wild. It has now been developed for use in gardens. That made by Rootgrow (you may have seen this in garden centres) is used by many and is currently the only plant / soil treatment licensed by the RHS.

bare root currant, in packaging


Caring for your bare root plants after planting

Finish off your planting by giving your new bare root plants a drink and add organic mulch around the stem or trunk. When planting bare rooted shrubs and trees in the autumn, a thicker layer of newspaper or compost mulch will help protect more shallow rooted shrubs from winter frost.

  • Check on your newly planted bare root specimens until they’re established.
  • This will be throughout their first season, or longer if a larger tree or shrub was planted.
  • You will see growth in the spring, and blossom.
  • Fruit trees and fruit bushes shouldn’t be allowed to develop much of a crop in their first year
  • It’s more important that they spend the first year developing a good root system.

During the winter of 2013/ 2014 heavy rain and flooding was a major problem and contiued to be an issue into the spring.  However, you can plant your bare rooted shrubs and trees in a wet, sodden soil. Add plenty of extra drainage in the form of grit in the bottom of the planting hole and coarse textured organic matter. If the ground is really water logged it would be better to temporarily plant into a large pot or raised beds.

quince tree in a bucket -RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013

If you would like garden advice on bare root plants and fruit trees for your garden, we can help. Or if you would like Plews to design a ‘mini orchard’ or garden orchard as part of your vegetable plot, or to integrate within your garden design, do get in touch. Plews also offers bespoke Gardening Lessons where your garden becomes your classroom.


Related Gardening blogs you may enjoy

Apple Trees – Designing the Garden of Eden?

Trees in the Garden – Questions and Answers

Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens

When to Prune Roses


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garden designer, gardening writer, gardening teacher, garden advisor

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