How to store bare root trees

Growing trees in the field and lifting them as ‘bare root’ trees is the most important stage of the production process here at Frank P Matthews. You can watch a short video of the field team lifting the bare root trees by clicking here.

Once a tree has grown well in the field it can then be planted elsewhere or potted up for planting later on. Traditionally nearly all trees were grown this way before being transported to their final planting place. Sometimes bare root trees are referred to as ‘open ground’ trees. This is not the same as ‘root balled’ trees which are lifted with a ball of soil around the roots, usually held together in a net or sack.

Trees are lifted when they are dormant, from November to the end of February. We usually start lifting at the beginning of November when most of the leaves have fallen off. If the weather is dry we can sometimes get all the trees up before Christmas. Though usually the lifting process does carry through into January. We always lift the two year old trees first, then the one year ‘maidens’. Fruit trees are lifted before ornamental trees. Lastly, we lift the rootstocks from the stool beds. As the lifting process is very weather dependent, we are unable to guarantee a delivery date, but we always aim to get as many trees out before the Christmas holiday.

We will handle up to 400,000 bare root trees per season, mostly these are grown on our nursery in Worcestershire. A few are bought in from other nurseries to add to our offering. Because the roots are not protected the trees need to be handled slightly differently to trees that are growing in containers.

We have two main methods to store bare root trees: cold storage and a heeling in bay. Whilst trees are in storage, we can moisture test them at various times through the winter to ensure they are being kept in optimum conditions. Over the years we have built up a lot of data regarding how best to store bare root trees.

Cold store bare root

Cold Storage

At Frank P Matthews we have two large cold stores and one smaller cold store for propagation. These are huge refrigerated buildings, like warehouses, with metal racks of shelving up to the ceiling. They cover an area of 840sqm and have the capacity to hold 370,000 trees. The trees are usually stored lying down on metal stillages that can be moved using a forklift truck. The cold stores are kept in high humidity and at a constant 1.6 degrees. The staff at FPM are provided with plenty of warm, waterproof clothing to work in the cold stores. Although it is chilly inside, during very cold spells it’s actually warmer in the cold stores than outside! Trees in cold storage can be kept for several weeks before moving and planting out.

Different bare root trees require slightly different conditions so we tailor the store environment depending on the time of year and the crop being stored. Once the growing season begins again (usually in March, depending on the weather) we switch the cold stores off and any remaining trees are delivered to customers or potted up.

Heeling In Bays

The heeling in bay at FPM is a large area of 6460sqm which is adjacent to the growing fields. This is a flat area of ground that is covered in a special blend of compost and sawdust which perfectly suits our trees. The trees are tied into bundles of five when they come out of the ground and the roots are then buried into the compost to protect them from freezing or drying out. Here, the roots are kept damp in a natural environment. Every row in the heeling in bay has a location number so that the despatch teams can quickly find the varieties they need when putting together orders.

It is important to get spring orders confirmed as soon as possible so they can be moved before temperatures begin to rise and the trees start to grow again. Digging up and moving trees when they are growing will result in failures or a much weakened root system.

Advantages of bare root trees

Bare root trees are more affordable than container grown trees, they are often about half the price

The range of varieties we grow in bare root form is much greater than the container grown range

Bare root trees often establish more readily as the roots have direct contact with the soil

Heeling in store bare root

Disadvantages of bare root trees

They have a shorter window of opportunity for planting

They can only be lifted when dormant. Trees ordered in the summer are unlikely to be available until November or December

Generally, even though bare root trees can be stored for a while before planting out, we always advise customers to plant them as soon as possible after lifting. The longer the tree can establish and settle into the ground before spring growth the better. It is also recommended that the roots are soaked with water prior to planting, as this helps to get them going more readily. Putting the roots into a bucket of water for an hour or two, or even just soaking them with a watering can or hosepipe will help.

Purchasing and storing your bare root tree

If you have bought a bare root tree from us and you’re not able to plant it straight away, it is best to keep it in a cool garden shed or garage with the roots kept covered and damp. You can also heel the tree into soil or compost outside, making sure that the roots are all covered. Do not keep in the house where the warmth will dry the roots and don’t leave the roots exposed outside where they might freeze or dry out in the wind or sunlight. It is also essential to ensure the trees aren’t at risk from being nibbled by mice or rabbits or eaten by any livestock.

Bare root trees ordered through our online shop are delivered in cardboard boxes with the roots wrapped in a special biodegradable bag. The tree will be fine in this package for several days if kept cool. You will only need to heel the tree in if you are unable to plant it properly for several weeks.

For a video demonstration of how to plant a bare root tree click here.

We grow bare root trees in a variety of different forms. The articles below will explain what the forms are and show photos of the trees:

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