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How to Plant Bare-root Native Trees

Save money by buying bare-root trees in Winter, and get them in the ground at the right time.

Does the idea of planting a native woodland in your back garden fill you with joy? Us, too! We’re here to make sure you end up with a lush forest, not a sad collection of sticks.

Planting Native Trees

Let’s take a look at how to get growing this winter – before you start digging, it’s important to get the perfect time and conditions for planting bare-root native trees. This isn’t just about sticking them in the ground and hoping for the best – there’s a science to it! 

In this article, we’ll unearth the secrets of when to plant bare-root trees to ensure a flourishing forest in your back garden, field, farm or grand country estate!

Some plants like Hawthorn can be grown as small trees, shrubs or hedging.

Why Plant Bare-root Trees?

Before we dive into the ‘when’, let’s briefly touch on the ‘why’… Bare-root trees, as the name suggests, are trees with the soil around their roots blasted off before delivery. 

They are more cost-effective, lighter to transport, and easier to plant than trees in pots. You can often buy 2-5 times more bare-root trees for the cost of a single root-balled or pot-grown plant!

The Winter Planting Season

If you’re wondering when to get your hands on these native trees, the answer is simple: winter! Planting bare-root trees during their dormant season, from late autumn to late winter, is the golden rule.

Why? Two reasons – firstly, with no leaves, the tree’s systems are so quiet that the plant can be sent across the country without its roots needing water. And secondly, because during this period, the tree’s energy is focused on root development rather than leaf growth. You can practically feel the roots reaching deep into the earth while you sip hot chocolate by the fireplace.

Timing Tree Planting

Within the winter season, there’s a sweet spot for tree planting – late winter to early spring. This usually falls in February or early March, depending on your location. Planting during this window gives your bare-root trees a headstart when the soil begins to warm up. The ground might still be a bit chilly, but your trees are raring to go! It’s crucial that you avoid planting into frozen soil, though, as this can kill, or damage the tree. 

It’s OK to plant a bit earlier – anything from November onwards can work, as this allows the root system to develop over winter.

Many trees have brightly coloured berries or beautiful fruits, like this Rowan – you can search for these using the colour filters.

Buying the Right Native Tree

Before you order your trees, make sure the planting plan isn’t going to be a disaster by checking conditions on site against the tree profile on Buy Native. Some trees, like Ash, are happy in shady, high canopy woodland, while others, like Elder, prefer open grassland and hedgerows with lots of sunlight. 

The soil conditions are also important – Willow and Alder like moist soils, and they’ll die back in a drought. Bear in mind that some trees like Aspen and Blackthorn are quite vigorous, spreading by suckers from the roots, potentially taking over smaller sites.

A healthy ecosystem has lots of diversity – not just native trees planted in rows (try and avoid regular patterns), but wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and more. A pond will create huge opportunities for nature, too, not just aquatic species but also animals like foxes and deer that come to drink, or herons, ducks and waders that feed at the water’s edge.

Should I Buy Native Trees?

If you already have a tree species present on your site – whether that’s Guelder Rose in the hedge, or an Oak tree in the middle of the grassland, then try and avoid buying this species. You can usually identify it with a plant ID app (or a book!) using the leaf. You could bring in disease, and you’ll certainly damage the local genetic diversity by introducing plants from elsewhere. 

The trees on site will be perfectly adapted to the local conditions, so it’s worth growing their seed, or putting tubes over any saplings you find if you have a problem with deer, allowing them to reach their full potential.

A healthy ecosystem like this one at Knepp has not just trees, but scrub and grassland, ponds and wetland, too.

How to Get a Healthy Ecosystem

Bare-root trees are a cheap and effective way of getting a bit more native diversity into your garden. They’re easy to plant, and in wetter years typically require no watering to get established, if you put them into the ground at the right time.

But trees are just one part of an ecosystem, and it’s worth considering what else you can do to encourage more nature. Remember that your site has a third dimension – height. Maximise the use of this by underplanting trees with other native shrubs and wildflowers that will thrive in the shade. You will create a space that is not just biodiverse, but beautiful too, and a pleasure to visit.

Author Profile

Chris D’Agorne MSc

Founder of Life to Land – an organisation devoted to the creation of fun and accessible tools for nature recovery.

Chris created How to Rewild in 2021 for landowners to access rewilding advice and Buy Native in 2023 for gardeners to find native plants.

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