bare_root_bundlesAs we roll on towards Christmas, you might be lucky to receive a present of some bare rooted shrubs like George Wellbeloved from the Scottish highlands:

‘I’ve been given a birthday present of some shrubs but the ground is frozen in the garden and I’m not sure what to do with them. Can you advise me?’

A belated Happy Birthday George, what a great idea for a present! Most shrubs and climbers, and especially deciduous ones sent out by mail order, are despatched with bare roots, not in containers. If they dry out they will die, so when they arrive, and there is not soil at all on the roots, stand them in a bucket fo water for a day or two in a cool, frost-free place until the soil is in a fit sate to plant them. Alternatively, store them for longer periods with their roots in damp compost – this can be ‘spent’ (old) rather than new if you have some (from emptying out summer flowering hanging baskets or other containers, for example).

If the plants arrive with some soil, on the roots, probably wrapped in netting, these are best watered carefully with a can fitted with a fine rose and then stored in moist compost. As soon as possible after arrival, dig  a trench in a vacant bed of soil, lay in their roots, and replace the earth. ‘Healed in’ like this the shrubs will stay in good condition for many weeks until the planting site is frost-free, fully prepared and in good condition.

When planting shrubs there are two schools of thought. The traditional method is to mix a good supply of well-rotted manure with loosened soil from the bottom of the planting hole, but if you can’t get hold of this, try using your own compost, or spent growing bags (you might be able to get hold of these from commercial tomato growers). Spent mushroom compost is also a possibility, as it usually contains some manure, but as it also contains chalk it should not be used for lime hating plants. Lastly, you can use shop-bought composts or bulky organic materials, though the latter can be pricey. Add a few handfuls of bone meal to the material you use to encourage root development.

The alternative method is to raise the fertility level of the soil around the planting site so that the plant’s roots are encouraged to spread out and so lead to more vigourous growth as the roots are encouraged to seek out nutrients more than if all the goodness is concentrated in the planting hole. Of course for ‘belt and braces’ job you can do both, or use your judgement about whether and how much  fertility needs to be added to the site of the planting. Increasing fertility in the space surrounding the planting hole may be impractical where there are already plants in this area or where you’re planting into a lawn. Here’s a useful guide to planting bare rooted trees.

You can also consider adding Mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole. These are now widely available in Garden Centres and online. As the RHS says:

‘Mycorrhizas are beneficial fungi growing in association with plant roots, and exist by taking sugars from plants ‘in exchange’ for moisture and nutrients gathered from the soil by the fungal strands. The mycorrhizas greatly increase the absorptive area of a plant, acting as extensions to the root system.

Phosphorus is often in very short supply in natural soils. When phosphorus is present in insoluble forms it would require a vast root system for a plant to meet its phosphorus requirements unaided. It is therefore thought that mycorrhizas are crucial in gathering this element in uncultivated soils. Phosphorus-rich fertilisers are widely used in cultivated ground and not only reduce the need for this activity but are thought to actually suppress the mycorrhizas. For this reason it is best not to use phosphorous rich fertilisers in conjunction with mycorrhizal fungi.

Neither fungi nor plants could survive in many uncultivated situations without this mutually beneficial arrangement. Mycorrhizas also seem to confer protection against root diseases.’

Root tips showing mycorrhizal fungi (the white coating)
Root tips showing mycorrhizal fungi (the white coating)

Further information:

A Guide to planting bare root trees, shrubs and perennials- Toby Buckland

Mycorrhiza- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener