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Maidens, Whips and Barefoot Trees

Becky, the Nursery gardener provides informative advice on bare-rooted trees, the different types available and how to plant a tree successfully.

At the nursery we sell a good range of ornamental and fruit trees. They are sold in two basic forms. They may be in a pot (pot-grown or containerised) where they have an established rootball. Alternatively, they may be bare-rooted (sometimes called barefoot). In this case they will have been dug out of the ground and will come with roots exposed and no soil attached. There are pros and cons for both forms.

Pot-grown trees can be supplied and planted at any time of year. They are however very vulnerable to drying out if planted in late spring or summer, and will need regular generous watering. The roots may take longer to grow out into the surrounding soil and become established. They have a relatively small root system for the canopy they are required to support. Bare-rooted trees are dug out of the ground as the tree loses its leaves and becomes dormant, usually in November. They only become available in the autumn, and must be planted before spring – March at the very latest. Once they are out of the ground the naked roots must be kept damp and dark at all times until they are committed to the earth in their final planting place. Bare-rooted trees tend to come in smaller sizes because larger trees are much harder to dig up. Larger pot-grown trees are useful for making an instant impact, but a bare-rooted tree will often catch up and overtake a larger pot-grown specimen of the same variety within a few years. Bare-rooted trees are usually cheaper, and represent better value, though fewer varieties are available.

There is a third way of buying trees which is somewhere in between the other two. It is called root-balled. In this case the tree is dug out of the ground and the root ball is instantly wrapped, usually in hessian, to hold some soil around the roots. This is a temporary measure; the rootball can dry out easily and the hessian can break down so these need to be treated the same way as bare-rooted trees. They are best planted with the hessian in place. It will soon rot down and will not prevent good root growth.

Autumn is the ideal time to plant all trees because the ground is still warm enough for root growth, and there is maximum time for the roots to become established in the soil before the tree wakes up in spring and requires water. Whichever type you plant, you must make sure they never dry out in their first summer. A really good soak once a week is better than a watering can full splashed over the surface every day.

We also sell whips. This term is used to describe young (usually one or two year old) seed grown trees which have had no pruning or training. It is an economical way to plant a large number of trees, hedging plants, or a hedgerow. They are easy to transport, and quick to plant and establish.

Maiden is another term you will hear, particularly in relation to fruit trees. A maiden is a young fruit tree with a single leader and some side shoots, but importantly has had no pruning or training. Fruit trees are almost always grafted, and a maiden will have been grafted one or two years before and is usually 1-2m tall (depending on the rootstock). A maiden is the starting point for all pruning shapes. Espaliers, fans and cordons all start off as maidens.

When you come to select your tree, whatever form you are looking at, there are some simple steps to success. Firstly, make sure the label you are reading is attached to the tree you are considering, and not a branch of the adjacent tree. Secondly, look at the tree as a whole. Inspect the trunk, it should be straight and undamaged. Examine the graft (if there is one). This should be neat and have no cracks, damaged patches, or growth coming out of it. Imagine looking at the tree from above and note how the branches are spaced around the trunk. The branches should be spread evenly to give a balanced shape in maturity. If you were planning to plant your tree against a wall or hedge it would be less important if it was a bit lopsided.

To plant a tree successfully, first dig a hole one and a half times bigger and deeper than the pot or roots of the tree. A square hole is considered better than a round one as it prevents the roots from circling around the hole, and encourages them to penetrate the surrounding soil. Break up the soil in the bottom of the hole. If the soil is poor or stony some organic matter, or compost, can be mixed in. We recommend the use of Rootgrow, which introduces beneficial mycorrhizal fungi into the rooting zone. It has been shown to promote healthy root growth. It looks like grey instant coffee granules, and can be sprinkled on the roots, or rootball, just before it is placed in the hole. Potted trees should be given a good soak prior to planting. Place the tree in the hole so the point where the roots meet the trunk is level with the surrounding ground. Refill the hole with soil making sure there are no air pockets, and the tree remains upright. Firm the soil around the tree and water well. You may need to top up the soil if it settles after watering.

Staking is recommended. The purpose of a stake is to hold the roots motionless in the soil. A low stake is best as it allows the top of the trunk to flex, which in turns sends hormones to the roots to promote root growth. If the rootball is allowed to move in the hole the newly developing roots get broken and the tree will fail to anchor itself. This is known as windrock. Filling the planting hole entirely with compost is not a good idea as it can become waterlogged and sloppy. Aim to keep the area around the tree free from grass and weeds which would rob the tree of nutrients. And finally, if there is any chance of a rabbit visiting, apply a tree guard. Rabbits can reach approximately 50cm up the trunk and can nibble the bark off a tree in minutes. A very expensive snack.