Why are bare root plants becoming so popular again?

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Its a good question – here is the background.

There was a time, a couple of generations ago in the 1960’s when there was a choice of just three TV channels, mobile phones had not been invented, the only electric vehicles were milk floats and supermarkets were in their infancy – our high streets and lives looked very different.

At the same time a small handful of visionary commercial growers around the country had started to rebrand their nursery sites as ‘Garden Centres’ –  but you wouldn’t find a cafe or gift section in store and the range of plants would often be limited to what the business grew on site themselves.

Fast forward to the 2020’s and gardening consumers now have different expectations, Garden Centre’s have proliferated into big business, numbering around 2,500 stores across our land. The most successful businesses will have a good quality café, kiddies play area, gift shop, florist, garden furniture, BBQ’s, books, and every gardening gadget you can imagine. The range of plants on sale can be breathtaking – trees, shrubs, perennials, alpines, veg plants, bedding plants for every season, houseplants, and even giant specimens such as Photinia trees from Italy, gorgeously gnarled old Olive Trees, early season Lavenders and Rosemary from Spain.

Like the fruit and veg aisles in our supermarkets now have everything all year (and we have been conditioned to expect it), the old ‘barriers’ of seasonality have been progressively broken down in the nursery trade with international sourcing, better transport and improved plant breeding that has provided an avalanche of new plant varieties that flower earlier, longer, and better. In short, Garden Centres have become destination shopping experiences with giant car parks and finely tuned merchandising. (The irony is that despite their great variety and year-round availability, plants often make up a minority of a Centres overall sales)

innovations

The biggest breakthrough that made our plants available all year is however something rather more basic – our nurseries started growing them in pots! In the times of 3 channel television, plastic pots were an innovation and provided new opportunities. Before then plant pots were made of clay and reserved mostly for small plants, bedding plants were grown and sold in shallow wooden trays. The compost they were grown in was soil based with little or no peat, so the combination of heavy soil-based compost and clay pots made transport difficult and expensive, especially for larger plants.

Trees, shrubs, hedging plants and rose bushes would have been grown the same way they had always been grown – in the soil of a nursery field, known simply as field grown bare root plants. Dug up in autumn or winter when they were dormant and shipped to customers or other nurseries to be sold. These bare root plants were cheaper and lighter to transport, they didn’t need compost, extra water, or fertilizer or even a greenhouse to produce them. (Polytunnels had not yet been invented!). The expectations of gardeners were that they would choose their plants from a nursery catalogue, and they would be delivered or collected at the right time for planting during the shorter days of winter. These bare root plants were the perfect, economical, and environmentally friendly product that had a natural seasonality.

Over the last 2 generations it has become normal to buy all our plants in plastic pots, grown in peat-based compost with pot, compost and plant all being transported longer and longer distances (as production nurseries get bigger, and fewer in number – most Garden Centres no longer grow their plants on site like the early days). We expect to buy at any time of year when it suits us, the concept of seasonality has been lost and the cost in terms of CO2 emissions has certainly increased. At the same time, our old faithful bare root plants have vanished from most retail outlets, forgotten like the local baker, butcher and greengrocer. Our busy lives make it more convenient to source everything from a single shop. The business of bare root plants had been relegated to a small number of specialist nurseries.

The future

We are now increasingly seeing the importance of being sympathetic to our environment, its certainly good for the planet to plant a tree in our plot that will provide oxygen and sequester carbon dioxide, that bit is beyond doubt. But the benefits are limited if it is a big tree weighing 150 kilos or more, in its pot and it’s been transported by truck 1,100 miles from an Italian nursery to a Garden Centre on the edge of Birmingham, to be sold to a well-heeled and well-meaning gardener!

This is where the old-fashioned bare root trees, shrubs and hedging plants come in. They are soaring in popularity once again because their production process is unquestionably in tune with nature – not trying to force back against it. The better informed/environmentally conscious gardeners increasingly realise it. They stand the test of being environmentally friendly, these are the reasons why:

  • The seeds or cuttings are planted directly in the soil of the nursery fields – no heat, glasshouses or compost is needed.
  • Often the plants are fed from a natural ‘green crop’ that the nurseryman planted in the field (to make the soil more fertile) the year before (or some old fashioned farmyard manure) – so the crop of trees needs little if any artificial fertliser to grow successfully.
  • The plants have a free root run in the soil they don’t need watering every day in the summer like trees grown in a pot. Just occasionally if the weather is very hot and dry.
  • No plastic pots or peat compost are required.
  • When the plants are dug up for sale during winter dormancy (the season runs from November-April) all the soil is shaken off in the field. This leaves a much lighter plant that is cheaper and easier to transport. Better for the environment.
  • Because of the low-cost production method, bare root plants are much cheaper to buy. Expect to pay less than half the cost of the same size plant in a pot.

What bare root plants are available to buy?

  • Hedging plants – hedges often require significant numbers of plants and so the economy of bare root plants is especially welcome. Specialist bare root hedging nurseries will always have a far wider range of plants to choose from including favorites such as Beech, Yew and Privet – not to mention all kinds of native hedging mixes to bring a little bit of the countryside (and all kinds of beneficial insects) into your garden.
  • Roses – specialist nurseries will have literally hundreds of varieties to choose from, far more than any garden centre
  • Fruit Trees – Autumn is a great time to plant bare root fruit trees, again a much wider choice of varieties and root stocks is available in bare root from.
  • Ornamental Trees – many of the more unusual and beautiful trees are available from specialists as bare root plants over the winter months.
  • Hardy perennials – not just trees and shrubs – but many hardy perennials are available in bare root form too with the same benefits of being cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Do’s and don’ts with bare root plants, our expert tips.

  • Do aim to plant earlier in the season rather than later. Autumn (November/December) is best, that way your new plants have several months to settle and make new roots before they start growing again in Spring. Also, the soil is still comparatively warm, this encourages the new roots to grow far more quickly.
  • Do add mycorrhizal fungi to the roots when you plant. It is available with a pack of gel that you mix with the granules (a bit like wallpaper paste) and dip the roots in when you plant. This is a great way of getting the maximum potential from your plants.
  • Do add a mulch after planting. This is a layer of organic matter such as well rotted garden compost, coir or wood chips placed around the plants in a layer 5-10cm deep. When the warmer days of Spring arrive, it will conserve moisture around the young roots, and cut down on any weeding needed.
  • If you are planting a new hedge, do order an extra 5% or so of your plants. One or two failures are almost inevitable but if you have some spares planted temporarily in the corner of a veg patch or border, you can easily fill in any gaps that might appear later.
  • Do check your new trees/shrubs periodically over the Winter, strong winds can dislodge young plants before they get a ‘foothold’, they can then sway in the wind (wind rock) causing a hole to develop around the stem that can fill with water and kill the plant. Simply use the heel of your foot to firm any wobbly plants when you spot them.
  • Don’t plant bare root evergreens if you have a windy/exposed garden or planting site. Evergreen plants and shrubs such as Laurel and Box are never completely dormant and can lose moisture without a little shelter – they can dry out die long before spring. Invest a little more in some potted plants with a complete root system, they will fare much better.
  • Don’t choose the tallest plants unless you are able to provide support by staking them. Sometimes there is much to be said for planting smaller and cheaper plants that will need less work and less watering the following season – and they always catch up in size!
  • Don’t forget to water your new trees and shrubs in spring when they start to grow – easily forgotten when it’s been months since they were planted – but so important. As the new leaves emerge in Spring, a dry spell can be fatal, aim to give them a good soak once a week for the first season at least.

 

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