A guide to amazing value bare root hedging plants

Bare root plants (sometimes called “field grown plants”) are the cheapest, most environmentally friendly, and natural way of growing hedging plants and tree saplings which, in our book, makes them amazing. Over 100 million plants are grown in Britain this way each year with even more than that quantity grown primarily in Holland, Belgium and Germany but also further afield.  They are delivered to customers “bare root” ie with no soil on their roots. They are sustainable and affordable.

Bare roots are only shipped when they are dormant (November to April) and although this growing method is best suited to deciduous species, there are a number of evergreen species that are also grown bare root (Yew, Cherry Laurel, Box, and Privet being the most popular).

The vast majority of bare root plants grown each year are whips or seedlings (grown in one season) but in some species like Beech and Hornbeam, mature plants grown over several years (virtually instant hedging) are available.

RJ Trees and Hedging is a specialised bare root grower and Ray Jenkins has over three decades of experience of this growing method. See our About Us page for more information on Ray and the company and this blog for more information on the specifications of the plants we grow.

Benefits of bare root hedging

  • Because the growing method is outdoors and plants are grown in vast quantities with modest labour costs and a high level of mechanical automation, the cost per plant is much less than pot grown or root balled hedging
  • They don’t need any help from a greenhouse or polytunnel, are grown without plastic pots, peat or compost, and they grow in the open air so there is no electricity bill for heating and lighting. Therefore they are the lowest carbon footprint plant production method by a long way
  • They’ve experienced blistering hot days and freezing cold days, occasional frost and snow, windy days, weeks when it never stops raining and spells of very dry weather. They are supremely well adapted to the British climate, the plants are strong, hardy and not at all sappy and therefore when planted into their permanent planting site they have a high success rate
  • Plants grow new roots at the start of the growing season and it is these delicate new roots that absorb water and nutrients so it is crucial they are not damaged. Because bare roots are shipped and replanted before the new season growth takes place, this means the plant suffers minimal root disturbance
  • They travel well, packed tightly onto a pallet (up to 10,000 seedlings on one pallet), and because they are packed so tightly the plants don’t move about and therefore there’s no damage in transit
  • The packaging cost is minimal
  • They are lightweight so easy to carry and manhandle
  • They are easy to plant (here’s our advice page on how to plant bare roots)

How are bare root seedlings grown?

Plants grown in fields from seed (like an arable crop) is the cheapest way to produce new plants.   Seed of the highest quality is purchased from a specialist seed merchant who collect seed from the best trees and then treat and store the seed in perfect conditions. Hundreds of thousands of bare root plants can be grown in one field, with seed sown in Spring into prepared seed beds, using a seed drill attachment on the back of a tractor, at a pre-set density (depending on the species and the experience of the grower).  Some of the very small seed need to be covered by grit so that the seed does not blow away, but again that is partly an automated process using a “grit spreader” and relies a great deal on the grower’s experience.

After the seed is sown, it needs irrigation (once again the frequency and quantity of water used is very much down to the experience of the grower), and it needs fertilising to maximise the growth of the roots and the top growth, and a lot of weeding (and back-breakingly most of that is done by hand) until the plants are growing well when they begin to crowd out weed growth.   Ray (the owner) and Andrei (our production manager) do bed walks at least every week to check all the plants for pests and diseases as part of our farm biosecurity measures.  Ray has over 35 years’ experience of plant pest and disease management.

Some species germinate within days, some take many weeks so late spring is an anxious time waiting to see what the germination rate is going to be compared with the density of seed sown.  Poor germination costs a great deal because by that stage it is generally too late to buy and sow more seed (even if there is field space available) and a poor germination rate means the grower will have many fewer plants available to sell than planned and will leave gaps in the seed bed where weeds will gather, so the labour cost increases whilst the projected revenue decreases. But hopefully germination will be good and within a few weeks of late spring and early summer weather, plants pop up and grow steadily.

Bare root transplants

All of the above paragraphs describe bare root plants being grown from seed (seedlings or whips) but in addition, we grow bare root plants that are called “transplants” and we also grow from cuttings. Transplants are small plants that were grown from seed during the previous year, are lifted and stored in our coldstore over winter, then we trim the top growth and roots so that they are all symmetrical tidy little plants, and then in spring we plant them out again in a different area, much more spaced out (for more light and moisture) and grow them on for at least one more growing season. They are described in our specifications as 1+1 which means they were one year in a seed bed and then one year grown on in the field.

Bare root plants grown from cuttings

Cuttings are a whole different ball game. Some species do not grow well (or at all) from seed. We have a stock bed area with mother plants which are allowed to grow long whippy stems, and we cut those stems once a year and plant those hardwood cuttings out to grow on for another growing season. There are very few nurseries in the UK who grow from cuttings so RJ Trees and Hedging is one of a very few to be able to offer our own home grown species grown from cuttings. Typical species grown from cuttings would be White Willow, Osier, Black poplar, and Privet and in the years to come we’ll extend the range of willow and poplar species grown from cuttings.

Summer on the farm

By mid-summer the grower will have a good idea of how his crop is performing and will be beginning to talk to trade customers about their requirements.  Many visits take place over the summer with trade buyers looking at plant quality at various production nurseries. The summer activity on the farm is weeding, weeding, weeding and more weeding. Weeds compete for nutrients and moisture so to maximise the health and vigour of the plants we are growing, we must eliminate as many weeds as possible and we do this largely by hand but also have an inter-row hoeing machine which is suitable to use when the plants are small.

How are they harvested from the open fields?

When the plants go dormant in November (that could be the same year as the seed was sown, more likely the next year, and for some species longer), they are “lifted” by a specialised harvesting machine that lifts the plants without damaging the roots, leaving as much soil behind as possible. A team of workers then gather up the plants and they are transported to the grading shed.

We have a team who “grade” all our plants by hand.  They reject anything that is too small or that has been damaged by the lifting process, they measure every plant individually and they are tied in bundles of 25’s or 10s depending on the size and age of the plants.  As a matter of course, we do not put the plants into bags (to keep the price down) but we can bag them if required by foresters or farmers.

It is important to keep the plants dormant until they are permanently planted so we keep them in a cold store, minimise the transport time, and then you need to plant them (or heel them in) within a few days of receiving them.  

Disadvantages to bare root hedging plants and trees

  • A drawback to newly planted bare root hedging or trees is that they are very attractive to all sorts of animals – particularly deer, rabbits and voles.  If the area to be planted is vulnerable to these predators, you need to use a spiral guard (often called a rabbit guard) pinned in place by a bamboo cane or for taller plants use a tree guard (we can supply or advise on suitable protection)
  • Bare root plants are only available to buy in the winter season November to April (some species will sell out earlier)
  • They need to be planted quickly after they arrive with the customer (but can be “heeled in” to buy a bit of time
  • Not every species is available as a bare root but a very wide range of native deciduous, and some evergreen hedging is available
  • There can be some damage to roots from the lifting process, and therefore a very modest plant failure rate, because the roots are not contained within a plastic pot, but the cost saving on bare root plants compared to all other growing methods is so enormous that we find customers are happy to accept this modest failure rate

Please read our advice pages on how to plant, how to heel in bare root plants, and how to look after the plants until mature.   We also have more information on rabbit guards here.

An alternative to bare root plants is cell grown plants (used a great deal in forestry and farm planting schemes) and we stock a range supplied to us by one of the UK’s best wholesale growers. We have a blog on the benefits of cell grown plants.

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