Late winter is the last chance to plant bare-root whips and the best time for other plantings, says Gardening Editor Ruth Hayes

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Mulch around container trees and make sure the pots are raised on feet

The prime time to plant trees is during the dormant weeks of winter. This is especially important for bare-root trees, which are usually only available until around the end of February.

Container-grown trees and shrubs can go in the ground at any time of year, providing the soil isn’t frozen or waterlogged. However, winter is the optimum season as the ground is damp and the plants have time to get established and settle their roots before they come into growth in spring.

January is a good time to plant fruit bushes

Whether you are planting a potted tree or a bare-root one, there are various things you need to do to give it the best chance.

Nothing will grow if the soil is compacted or depleted of nutrients, so prepare it well before planting. Remove weeds and debris, dig the soil over and add plenty of well-rotted compost or manure. If your soil is heavy clay or frequently becomes waterlogged, make sure you buy trees suited to the conditions. Alternatively, plant the tree on a mound around 1ft (30cm) high and 3ft (1m) in diameter.

Post-planting care is critical. Don’t let your tree dry out, but also don’t over-water it as this can starve the roots of oxygen. To get the balance right, slide the blade of a trowel down through the soil to gauge how much moisture is present.

Keep the planting area free of weeds and make sure there is 4ft (1.2m) of bare soil around the tree so its roots aren’t competing with other plants for water and nutrients. Mulching helps, but make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the trunk as it can soften and rot the bark.

Protect bark from being eaten by deer, rabbits and other pests. The tree will not need feeding until the following spring if the soil is poor.

Why bare-root trees?

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A line of bare-root whips may look barren, but they will soon thicken into a dense and attractive hedge

If you don’t mind waiting a couple of years for plants to grow, bare-root planting is a cheap and easy way of creating a hedge or populating your garden with trees and shrubs.

The plants are usually young ‘whips’, a year or so old. They may not look like much, but don’t be deceived – they have robust roots and will grow considerably in their first year.

When your whips arrive, check their roots are damp and don’t let them dry out, as this is the quickest way of killing the plants or stunting their growth.

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Plant through membrane to suppress weeds

Clear the planting area and enrich it with well-rotted compost or manure. If you are planting a hedge, anchor weed-suppressing membrane over the top and make holes where you want the trees to go.

Plant the trees to the depth of the ‘soil tidemark’ up their stem from the original planting. Firm them in, attach them to a support and water well.

In a couple of seasons’ time, your spindly whips should have matured into robust and attractive young trees and shrubs.

 

Step-by-step

Planting a bare-root tree in a container

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  1. Immerse the roots in a bowl of water for at least 30 minutes before planting.
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  2. Make sure the container is large enough for at least two years’ growth. Line its base with crocks.
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  3. Add the compost and place the tree centrally. Spread its roots so it is well balanced.
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  4. Add more compost, making sure the tree’s knobbly graft is visible. Leave room for watering.
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  5. Insert a stake into the compost, firm it in and attach the tree using a figure-of-eight to avoid chafing the bark.
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  6. Water the tree well, letting it soak through. Stand the pot on feet and keep it well watered.

 

Top tip

Plant trees at the right depth, as deep as their rootball or up to the soil tidemark on bare-root plants. They will not thrive if planted too deep or shallow.

 

Step-by-step guide

Planting pot-grown trees

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  1. Dig a hole as deep as the tree’s container and slightly wider. Fork up the base and add some well-rotted compost or manure.
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  2. Having placed the tree in water to saturate its rootball, gently ease it from its pot and tease out any tangled or circling roots.
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  3. Position the tree in its hole, making sure the trunk is straight, and in-fill around it. Firm the soil by treading on it.
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  4. Water the tree well and add a layer of mulch. Keep it well watered and don’t let it dry out while it becomes established.

Taking hardwood cuttings

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Taking hardwood cuttings requires patience, but is worth it

  • Select a long, healthy shoot from last year’s growth and remove its soft tip. Cut it into 6-12in (15-30cm) sections, giving each one a sloping top to repel rain.
  • Cut straight across at the base below a bud or pair of buds, and dip the lower cut end in rooting powder or gel.
  • The cutting can now be inserted into a pot of cuttings compost mixed with grit or perlite, or into a trench enriched with well-rotted organic matter in a sheltered part of the garden.
  • Two-thirds of the cutting should be below the surface, as roots will form along the stem.