A Guide to Buying Fruit Trees - bare root or containerised?

A Guide to Buying Fruit Trees - bare root or containerised?

Visit our Plant Centre here in Pickering on any day of the year and hopefully you will find a fruit section with an array of plants for sale. The selection may change slightly from season to season, but generally it stays much the same. This is what the vast majority of gardeners are used to - being able to buy and plant what they like at any time. But what about this mysterious ‘bare root’ option that you may have heard about or seen adverts for? Older or more experienced gardeners may understand the term, but there is a whole generation that have never bought plants that way, or even know what it means. In this article we will explore the differences, so whether you are planning to buy one blackcurrant bush or plant a whole orchard, you’ll have the knowledge to make the best choice to suit your needs.

Let’s starts with some basics. The plants and trees you will find at a garden centre are almost always in containers - normally black plastic pots, filled with compost and the plant growing happily in it. Some plants will spend their whole lives up to this point in a pot (container grown), whilst others may have been grown in the ground to begin with and then potted up into a container before being offered for sale (containerised). Either of these two options means that the plant can be sold (and theoretically planted) on any day of the year.

Bare root plants and trees are different. These will have been grown in fields or open ground for all of their life. They are then offered for sale during the winter months when they are dormant. The plants are dug up from the fields and supplied as just the plant - no soil or pot involved. Generally this is used by specialist nurseries, so you will need to search for your nearest one or mail order and have the plants delivered to you.

There is a third option you will come across - rootballed plants. These will have been field-grown, but when they are dug up by the nurseryman they will keep a ball of soil around the root system, which is then wrapped in a hessian square to keep it intact. This method is used for some types of plant which don’t transplant well using the bare root method - either because they don’t go fully dormant in the winter (like conifers and other evergreens) or have a very delicate root structure.

All of the above methods can work very well, but each has their own advantages and drawbacks. Container plants are the easiest and most convenient. They are readily available all year round, they are easy for the garden centre to look after, and there is no rush to plant once bought. They will happily carry on living in their pots for weeks or even months after purchase, if you haven’t got the planting site prepared yet. You can also see the plant before you buy it. However there are some serious disadvantages - your choice of variety, size and rootstock will be severely limited to what is in stock, prices are generally higher than for bare root trees, and you need to check that the plant is not pot bound. Even though you can buy plants this way all year round, it’s generally not advisable to plant in late spring and through the summer - plants will need a lot of care and attention to make sure they have the water they need to establish successfully. There is also the thorny issue of single use plastic pots going to landfill. Most black plastic pots are not recyclable, and after the use of peat in horticulture this is probably the single biggest environmental issue facing the industry. The good news is that pots made using recycled plastic and which them selves are kerbside recyclable are now available - they are generally a light taupe or pale green. Keep an eye out for them, and if your local garden centre doesn’t offer them ask why not!

Bare root trees and plants are the traditional way of buying. Before the advent of plastics in the 40’s and 50’s, it was just about the only way to buy new plants. Trees are grown in nursery fields, and then once they are dormant (normally between November and March) they can be dug up, ready for collection from the nursery or packed and sent out by courier. The main disadvantage of this method is the obvious one - you have a limited window in which to plant. If you decide to plant in April or May, you will have to place and order and wait until the start of the next season to receive your plant. (Once a tree has started to wake up in the spring and buds start to break, the chances of it failing on being moved increase dramatically). However the advantages are numerous- nurseries who still grow plants this way will have a much better choice of varieties and sizes, so you can get the best tree to suit your needs. Field grown trees tend to have much better root system than those grown in pots, and planting in the winter months is ideal to let the new plant start to establish before it has to start producing new growth and foliage.

Buying bare root trees does take a little more planning and preparation than an impulse buy of a tree in a pot. Here at RV Roger we will start to take orders as soon as the old season closes in April, so on the first day of lifting there will be a large backlog of orders. When the trees arrive they need dealing with quite quickly - they should be unpacked and planted or temporarily ’heeled in’ within 3 or 4 days of arrival. Most mail order suppliers will work with you to get a delivery to you at a time which is convenient for you. Old gardening books will say that the best time to plant is in November or December, and is is true that the soil is normally still relatively warm then, and will have sufficient moisture in it from autumn rains. However you can plant bare root trees at anytime in the winter, as long as you can get a spade into the ground, so don’t fret if you need to plant later in the season. A little frost or even a light covering of snow isn’t a problem - the trees will undoubtedly have experienced worse in their earlier years. The only time you shouldn’t plant is if the ground is solid after several days of freezing temperatures, or if the soil is completely waterlogged. In this case cover the bare roots with some soil or dig into the compost heap and wait for better conditions.


Like almost every other sector of the economy, the past two years have been a bit of a whirlwind for nurseries and garden centres. Lockdown and hybrid working have caused many people to take a renewed interest in their outside spaces and gardens, which has caused demand for plants to rise dramatically. At the same time, new plant health regulations which came into force when the U.K. left the European Union have made it much harder for many smaller garden centres to import plants from Holland and Italy. All of which means that supplies of fruit trees are bound to be under pressure for the foreseeable future. Most nurseries are working as hard as they can to meet this increased demand, but as it can take up to 5 years to grow a trained espalier or standard tree, there is no quick fix. If you are planning to buy trees over the next year, there is no need to panic - no one wants to see fisticuffs over the last Bramley! - but do speak to us and use our knowledge. We will be very happy to either recommend alternative varieties which may suit your needs just as well, or else offer a slightly younger tree along with pruning advice so you can grow the fruit you want.