Planting bare roots is super easy and cost-effective. A number of people have written to me in surprise when their new shrub or tree arrives and it's a bare root plant that doesn't resemble the finished specimen as shown in the glossy brochure. There is no need to panic though and this handy guide should give you all the information you need about how to plant a bare root tree or shrub effectively.

Planting bare root shrubs and trees is a preparation method often used to package and transport deciduous and sometimes evergreen plants. Trees and shrubs are lifted when dormant and the soil is then removed from the roots and they are wrapped ready to be replanted. So why do nurseries lift and sell bare root trees?

It is a quick and easy way to transport plants which are cost effective and means you can plant them out at either the very end or beginning of the gardening season. Bare root planting is for the patient gardener, and whilst you may need to wait a year or two to see you plant start to blossom fully, it can be a very cost-effective way of planting. Bare root season starts late Autumn when the trees are dormant and you can plant all the way through to early spring. Still a bit confused? Why not watch my handy guide!

Bare root is often commonly used in plant mail order catalogues and plants bought from online garden stockists. It’s when a dormant plant or tree is packaged up with its roots bare and then sent out. Hence, the name ‘bare root’. You can find a huge variety of cultivars in bare root that otherwise wouldn’t be available at garden centres and nurseries.

Bare root trees often arrived dormant and wrapped in film

If you’re expecting full-size plant specimens, always double check with the seller and also the month in which the plants will be ready. Many an eager gardener has fallen foul of ordering plants which are not in season for a good few months and having to wait for them!

Why choose bare root over fully grown plants?

There are a few benefits of bare root plants which make them a popular choice.

  • They are usually much cheaper than fully grown specimens
  • Easier to transport without damage
  • Greater variety of plant choice
  • Ideal to buy dormant plants out of season before you are ready to plant them

How to plant bare root shrubs

Bare root shrubs are easy to handle due to their size and relatively straightforward to plant. As with most gardening preparation is key and failure to properly prime the bare-roots may impact their chance of survival. Bare roots require soaking before planting as they are dormant. This is an essential step when planting them and shouldn’t be overlooked.

1. Firstly unwrap your bare root plants and inspect for signs of disease, fungus or damage. If found then get back in touch with your stockist and discard as not to infect other plants. If they look ok then you’re good to go!

bareroot unwrapping

2. Bare root plants are dormant this means that their respiration has slowed down. It doesn’t mean they are dead but that they have reduced their need for water and oxygen to minimal levels. It is, therefore, essential that you allow them to imbibe, drink, take on the water to start the process of reawakening the plant.

3. Ideally, leave the bare-roots in a bucket of rainwater for 30-60 minutes before planting. Failure to do so will harm the chances of the plant’s success.

bareroot soaking in water

4. Ensure your planting position allows enough space for the shrub or tree to grow, considering plants around it and how you will be able to prune and attend to the plant.

bareroot shrub planting placement

5. Then prepare the planting hole for the bare root. Using a trowel dig a hole that’s wide and deep enough to take the bare root up to the part where the stem and roots join. You don’t want to over bury the stem as it may cause it to rot. Add some organic matter such as compost to provide slow release nutrients and retain moisture.

preparing bareroot for planting

6. There is no need for other fertilizers at this stage and they may inhibit the roots growth. Always wait until plants established before deciding whether to fertilize or not.

7. Place your bare root in and then backfill with organic matter and topsoil, ensuring you firm in the bare root and stake/support it if necessary.

planting bareroot for planting

8. Lastly, water generously to give your bare root the best start. There you have it a planted bare root!

watering bareroot planting

Using bare root shrubs in garden design?

In reality, you wouldn’t use bare root in garden design as they do take more time to grow and establish. It would mean that the finished result of your design would be somewhat elongated as you waited for them to grow. However, if your budget is restricted them bare root can help keep costs down.

However, Hostas and growing hedgerow and bushes can be highly effective using bare root. Given that Hostas die back in the winter, planting bare roots in spring after the frost can ensure summer growth. Hedgerow from bare root allows you to hard prune the bushes early on to ensure more vigorous lateral growth than a  full-size bush and at a fraction of the cost.

Bare root plants are best saved for fruit bushes, such as Prunus spinosa above or deciduous perennials like Hostas. Then you can tweak and prune them as they grow, in Hostas cases divide them when they get larger for more free plants! Otherwise, pot bought specimens are preferable when implementing a garden design.

Planting Bare Root Trees

Planting bare root fruit trees is easy and relatively quick to do. By choosing bare root you are saving yourself considerable time and also opening up your cultivar choices to a much bigger selection of fruit types. Planting bare root trees follow the same principles as for shrubs but with one noticeable difference. The amount of time you soak the roots for.

Before you get started you will also need some key pieces of equipment which are shown below.

  • Compost or organic matter to help feed the tree and retain moisture as it takes on its growth spurt
  • Garden Spade
  • Garden Fork
  • Tree Stakes
  • Rubber tree ties (these are better than rope or wire which can bite into the bark damaging the tree)

1. Soak the roots overnight: I always soak them overnight for bare root trees. You have to imagine it will take a lot of effort and energy to wake up a small tree compared to a shrub. So an overnight soak will ensure you the best chance of success!

2. Dig a hole at least twice as big as the root ball: Digging a hole bigger than the root ball is vital. I add organic matter in the form of compost. By making the hole generous it allows new roots to form and work their way through the soil quicker than compacted soil. I always fork the bottom of the hole before adding organic matter to help break up any compaction.

3. Placement of the Tree: Ensure that the tree has enough space to grow to its mature height and spread. The RHS plant finder on their site is a great resource to check the ultimate growth of the bare root tree cultivars you have.

Bare root planting

The graft is just above my thumb in this picture

4. Backfill the bareroot: Once the hole is dug and ready to plant waste no time in taking your soaked bare root out of the bucket and placing it in the hole. Ensure that the graft, the knobbly chunk near the base is at least 4cm above the ground level when backfilled. This prevents rotting and ensures the best chances of survival for the tree. Compact the soil with your heel:

Planting a bare root fruit tree

5.  Hammer a stake in at an angle next to the tree: This will ensure that the tree has adequate support against prevailing winds. By angling the stake it prevents strong winds from blowing it over. Use a rubber tree tie to carefully tie the bare root tree to the stake ensuring a snug fit. The rubber ties should be loosened as the tree ages.  After a year or two, the stake can be removed once the tree is well rooted.

6. Water your bareroot thoroughly: Watering is the key to success. You need to water as soon as you plant and then roughly every 5 days until it starts to bud or send our fresh growth. Be careful that it’s not sitting in water or too wet. Best to water slightly less than too much. Forking the planting hole helps provide drainage which is essential.

There you have it, successful bare root tree planting! Grab yourself a brew and pat yourself on the back. Once your bare roots start to root and grow you’ll be on your way to your own mini orchard!

How to divide plants

Dividing plants is an excellent way to increase your plant specimens, fill gaps in borders and save money. Dividing plants, especially hostas is an excellent way to keep them in great shape. It’s best done towards the end of August or September in the UK when they are actively growing. There’s a handy guide below on how to divide hostas.

As always, if you have any questions on bare root planting or division of plants why not get in touch below and leave a comment. Check back soon for more hints and tips or visit my youtube channel here.

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