At this time of year, cash strapped garden designers (hello!) would have you believe this is a
good time for planning your garden, when in actual fact it’s the perfect time for planting.
In most of Britain, and especially where I live in Manchester, the winters are so mild, most hardy plants can be safely planted. Only the heaviest of clay or waterlogged soil should stop you considering this sound gardening option. Hardy perennial plants are so named because they are, well, hardy, and can survive in temperatures below -10 °C. They enter a dormancy period, usually from November until end of March, during which they stop growing, conserve energy, but still continue to slowly develop their roots. Perfect time for getting them established without the drama of dry spring or summer when you’ve got to keep watering them.
The other added benefit of planting now is that plants can be purchased bareroot. This way of supplying plants, straight from the growing fields, isn’t new. Prior to the development of transport and plastic pots, most perennial plants were supplied bareroot, i.e without any soil, just branches above and roots below. Now, bareroot supply tends to be mainly for hedging plants, trees and roses. Back in November I planted two new roses ordered bareroot (City of York and Rosa odorata mutabilis, if you want to know) and can’t wait to see their buds developing in the spring. They are already looking like happy settled specimens after a couple of months in the ground. Other hardy plants such as shrubs, climbers and herbaceous could also be supplied in that way. Indeed, nurseries will be getting their bareroot stock from wholesale growers now to pot on. Larger planting projects also seriously consider the bareroot option. Chatsworth partly used bareroot planting in the Autumn for some of its more recent planting schemes.
Using bareroot plants makes a lot of sense. Firstly, they don’t need plastic pots or peat based compost - two big environmental problems generated by our gardening frenzy - and so transporting them uses less fuel, another environmental impact of the gardening industry. They demand less water or plastic when grown in nurseries. They don’t harbour garden pests in their compost, and their roots, not being bound by plastic, are often able to develop in a more natural way helping the plants to establish better. They can be much cheaper than potted plants, that’s particularly true for hedging. The catch is...for private gardeners, outside roses, hedging and trees, the supply of bareroot plants remains limited.
I can see the logic of nurseries and garden centres for not offering bareroots to customers. There isn’t much of a market. We have become so accustomed to sourcing plants in plastic pots and compost that we don’t think that they can happily be supplied any other way. We also tend to think of the planting season in terms of when we dare poking our noses out, as
opposed to when it is a good time for plants to settle in. Bareroots are also less forgiving than potted plants when you delay your planting. They do need to be in the ground as soon as possible or alternatively heeled into some soil until you are ready for planting them in their final spot. I would argue that this isn't a very onerous task, but potted plants can indeed be left for longer to their own devices... Not that I’ve ever come across plants rooted through their plastic pots in desperation of ever getting planted.
Still, it seems such a shame. Particularly with the explosion of online plant retailing, where the transport of bareroot plants would be so much more sustainable than potted plants.
So, I’m starting the year hoping for the revival of an old tradition. Perhaps some gardening celebs might decide to encourage us to plant in the winter with bareroot perennials. And as we are approaching Valentine’s day, the garden centres could promote bare love for these bare essentials.
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All photos and artwork are my own.