Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees
Selling trees with bare roots – that is, roots with little or no soil on them – has revolutionised the fruit industry and made it easy for people to plant anytime in the winter.
If there is one word in horticulture that I can’t stand it is dormancy. We’re told to do such and such a job on the tree when it is supposed to be dormant, as though it was hibernating, a strange sleep while it is too cold to grow. The truth is that deciduous plants, those that lose their leaves in the autumn, are not dormant at all, they are simply saving nutrients and water during the winter, a period when it is too cold to make the process of photosynthesis a profitable exercise.
In fact, all plants are doing something, even the dead ones! Most deciduous trees are growing internally, layers of tissue-producing cells called cambium are busily dividing – producing the wood that will expand in the spring to make the tree bigger.
The real benefit of deciduous trees is that you can do all sorts of things to them and they won’t drop dead so long as they have no leaves. As soon as leaves appear, the tree has to be left alone with its roots in moist soil for the rest of the spring and summer. This is because it’s the leaves that act as a heart, pulling moisture through the plant from the roots and in turn forcing sugar-rich sap to all the other parts of the plant. Once the leaves are gone, water and food movement slows to a trickle and the plant switches into winter mode.
Bare or ball?
There is a difference between bare-rooted and ball-rooted trees. The former usually come in a plastic bag which has the tree branches already pruned and bare roots in the bottom – sometimes wrapped in moist newspaper. Ball-rooted plants come with their roots in a net that also houses some compost. These are usually found in garden centres and are more convenient because the balls can be watered and the tree will manage for a year or so quite happily, so long as it doesn’t dry out.
You can plant ball-rooted trees at any time of the year so long as you’re careful not to damage the roots and you give it plenty of water when you put it in. Bare-rooted trees need to be planted in the winter – early spring at the very latest.
On the whole, bare-rooted stock do better than ball-rooted or container grown plants because they have unencumbered root systems that have been allowed to grow normally.
Many trees come with roots that are not their own, but have been grafted in position in order to create a certain sized tree. Rootstocks are used because there is no real way of determining the size of a mature tree. MM106 is the main stock used in commercial orchards and, if un-pruned, will give a slender tree about 10-12ft in height. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, Kent, is on M9, which reaches about 8ft. Trees on M27 are not much bigger than a tomato plant and after several years of shaping, need no pruning. You can tell a grafted tree because it has a wound where the scion (branch) was fixed to the stock (root). The label should give you all the information you need and these trees should be planted so the wound is at ground level.
Top fruit and soft fruit
Top fruit are those that grow on trees; apples, pears, cherries, plums, cobs and filberts, walnuts, hazelnuts and quince – all these are called top fruit. The rest are soft fruit, mostly raspberries, gooseberries, currants of various kinds, and although strawberries are pretty soft, often top- and soft-fruit nurseries don’t sell or include them in their lists. Both top fruit trees and soft fruit bushes come as bare-rooted plants.
You should get your plants into the soil as soon as they arrive. While it’s in the plastic bag the tree is slowly dying and once the root has dried out the plant will be dead. If you can’t plant it in its final position, simply dig a spit (a slit in the ground) and place it in this. Failing that, keep it in its package in a cool shed.
You need to dig a hole that is frighteningly large, 1m in diameter and 60cm deep. Keep the soil, removing stones and any roots as you find them. Add to this 30 per cent of the volume of really good, well rotted manure or compost. Also add a good handful of bonemeal or other organic fertiliser (don’t forget to wear gloves!)
Improve the drainage of the soil beneath the hole – especially important where clay is involved. Do this by adding stones, digging away with a fork at the soil and if necessary, digging a channel away from the planting site.
When you are ready to plant, put a tree stake into the centre of the hole and drive it home. People often do this once the tree has been planted and the hole filled, but I always worry about damaging the roots. Line the bottom of the hole with a few spades of the soil mixture and then tie the tree to the stake with a real tree tie with a buckle so you can loosen it off later. Don’t use string, it will rub the bark off.
Firmly but carefully fill in the hole, using your feet to compress the soil. Try not to shock the tree by stamping or bashing the earth with the spade – all that energy has to go somewhere and you can easily damage the roots.
Finally give the tree a long, long drink of water. Try to keep the area around the tree weed-free, and certainly don’t allow grass to grow. Young trees have been fatally damaged by gardeners getting too close with the lawn mower!