a guide to bare root season

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Planting a tree seems, at first glance, very simple. Unless you plant it upside down, after all, what could go wrong? You simply dig a hole, place the roots in said hole, backfill with soil, water generously and Bob is your uncle. Law? Not enough. With the busy bare root season kicking off this month, here’s a handy little guide.

In container, bare root or in clod

Trees grown in containers are available for purchase at nurseries and garden centers throughout the year, while bare root and root ball specimens are only available during what is known as the bare root season. , which usually runs from early November to late March. when deciduous species have shed their leaves and entered a state of winter dormancy. The advantage of trees grown in containers is that as long as they are watered during times of drought, they can be planted at just about any time of the year. The downside for gardeners is that they are considerably more expensive than their bare root counterparts, as well as much heavier and bulkier to transport, which also makes them more expensive to ship, which should be considered if you are order in line. As the shape and size of their root system is defined by the pots they grow in, they also often take more work and time to plant.

Water the tree liberally immediately after planting. Photography: iStock

In comparison, bare root specimens are considerably cheaper, easier to transport, more environmentally friendly (there are no plastic pots or compost to worry about) and due to their smaller size of root ball, less time to plant. The downside is that their bare root systems make them much more vulnerable to damage and desiccation, which means extra care needs to be taken when it comes to transporting, storing, and planting them. For this reason, they can only be planted during the bare root season when the plants are dormant.

Available during the dormant season, root ball trees fall somewhere in between, with their root systems (often pruned) not in pots but enclosed in the ground and wrapped in a layer of burlap or protective plastic. . Just like bare root specimens, they should be treated gently, stored carefully in a cool, dark place with their root systems kept moist, and planted as soon as possible after purchase.

Trees grown in containers should be checked to make sure they are not tied to the pot.  Photography: iStock

Trees grown in containers should be checked to make sure they are not tied to the pot. Photography: iStock

Choose a healthy plant

Avoid trees grown in containers with pot-bound root systems that have been starved of nutrients and strained for too long. To check, gently pull the tree partially out of its pot. If the base of the root ball is a very dense mat of fibrous, woody roots with little compost, then it has almost certainly been left in its container for too long. Also avoid trees with broken branches (especially if this is the main vertical shoot, which will impact its size and eventual shape) or an uneven silhouette. With bare root and root ball trees, choose healthy specimens with root systems that show no signs of drying out or exposure to bright sun, hot temperatures, or drying winds.

The right plant, in the right place

An oft-cited mantra that makes some gardeners moan, it’s a cliché for a reason. By providing any tree species / variety with the growing conditions they need, you are already doing a great deal to roll the dice in their favor.

To help you make the right choice, take the time to think carefully about the look. Unless shaded by shade from neighboring buildings and / or established trees and hedges, a location facing south or west is considered full sun while north and east are considered like cool and shady. Also consider the type of soil in your garden (its fertility, structure, pH, and ability to flow freely) and the local climate. Not sure? Take inspiration from local gardens that share similar growing conditions to yours and add the trees that bloom there to your list.

A tree with root ball being planted.  Photography: iStock

A tree with root ball being planted. Photography: iStock

Ideally, these will be species with a proven resistance to pests and diseases, which offer multiple seasons of interest, and which can fit comfortably into the overall design of your garden as well as the larger landscape. Last but not least, take into account the size and possible spread of the chosen species / variety as well as its growth rate. Is there a good chance that it will grow too tall for the location you have chosen, or that it will end up casting too much unwanted shade, or that its root systems are spreading too close to the foundations of the trees? nearby buildings, walls, paving or underground drains? All good garden centers and nurseries have experienced and knowledgeable staff members who will be able to guide you in this regard.

site preparation

No tree likes to be planted in compacted, weed-infested soil filled with buried builder’s rubble. So take the time to properly prepare the planting location, using a sturdy garden spade, pitchfork and / or pick to eliminate the persistent and greedy root systems of perennial weeds and the invasive roots of plants established nearby as well. as large stones and construction waste. .

Break up large clods and clods where you can; the goal is to create something nicely crumbly, crumbly and well ventilated. If the soil is very poor and stony, improve it by working with a little well-decomposed organic matter (manure, homemade garden compost, or products like enriched). If it is very poorly draining, work in a lot of large horticultural gravel. But avoid the easy mistake of killing your tree kindly by amending the soil with so much compost and / or well-rotted manure that the planting hole then acts as a sump that quickly fills with rainwater in the winter. Likewise, excessive soil modification can discourage a tree’s developing root system from propagating outward in search of fresh nutrients and water. The result is a tight, less resistant and less stable root system with consequences for the long-term health and vigor of the tree.

The most common mistake is to plant too deep.  Photography: iStock

The most common mistake is to plant too deep. Photography: iStock

A round or square planting hole

The traditional advice has always been to dig a round, deep hole, but recent research suggests that a wide, square, and shallower hole is better to encourage rapid, healthy root development. With bare root specimens, be sure to gently extend their roots into the planting hole before backfilling, aiming for a planting hole of approximately 150cm x 20cm width and depth.

Preparation of plants

With container grown or bare root trees, be sure to water the roots well 30 to 60 minutes before planting. If they still seem dry, do it several times or gently soak the root ball in a wheelbarrow filled with clean water enriched with a little liquid algae to promote good rooting. If the roots show early signs of binding to the pot, gently loosen them. Bare root specimens should have their roots fully submerged in water for approximately 30 minutes before planting.

The right planting depth

The most common mistake is to plant too deep. Instead, your newly planted tree should sit in a very slightly raised mound of soil with its “trunk flare” – the point where its roots start to extend from the bottom of the tree – just above it. from ground level (2-3 cm). If in doubt, look for what is called the nursery line on the trunk and plant to match the level of the finished soil. Always gently firm the ground with your foot as you backfill to eliminate air pockets that could later lower the ground level. For the same reason (as well as to hydrate the roots), water the tree gently but liberally immediately after planting, then finish with a shallow organic mulch, keeping it away from the trunk.

To stake or not to stake

The once conventional advice of staking all newly planted trees has been overtaken by research suggesting that it can do more harm than good by discouraging the development of strong, resilient root systems that can cope with local site conditions. Instead, it is now only recommended for larger specimens likely to suffer from rocky roots or those located in extremely exposed sites.

When / if staking is required, use a wooden stake or double stake with a crossbar (the latter for larger trees) to a maximum height of 50cm, placing it on the side of the tree facing prevailing wind to prevent accidental wind damage to the trunk. To avoid permanent damage, disfigurement or annealing of the tree trunk (a kind of slow strangulation), staked trees should be regularly checked and their rubber tree ties gently loosened if necessary, with the stakes completely removed. a few years after planting.


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