Bare root vs Container Trees

If you’re interested in trees and gardens you will no doubt have had a discussion…and perhaps even an argument…over whether it’s better to buy and plant bare root stock over container grown trees.  I think it’s a bit like the peanut butter argument.  If you’re a fan of smooth over crunchy then nothing anyone says will convince you to change your opinion. You may accept there are those who like crunchy peanut butter but you will forever believe their position is incorrect.

And so it is with bare root versus container grown trees.

When we purchased Winter Hill Tree Farm just over five years ago the truth is we had little idea of the difference between bare root and container grown stock, let alone any knowledge of the argument for one over the other!

Fives years down the track and we have learnt a lot. One of the most common questions we face when people learn that we own Winter Hill, a mature tree farm, and that we grow most of our stock in pots is whether or not bare root trees  are better.

Now, I recognise that given our focus on container grown trees anyone reading this blog will find it impossible to believe the arguments I present will be fair and balanced.  There is no doubt I am biased about the benefits of container grown trees but I am also realistic. So let’s look at a few of the key arguments.

Planting Window:
The biggest and undeniable benefit of trees grown in pots is that they can be planted year-round. Bare root stock can only be supplied and planted during the dormant winter growing months.  Given I’m writing this blog in Winter the option is certainly there right now for people to access bare root trees, so what are the other differences?

Life Support:
John tells people that buying a tree in a pot is like buying a tree with it’s own life support system.  As the name suggests, bare root trees come with no soil but also the very barest of root system.

Root ball of a bare root tree

At Winter Hill our trees grown in pots are root pruned regularly to facilitate a fibrous root system and root ball.  Transplanting that root ball from pot into the ground gives the tree the benefit of that fibrous root system to settle into the ground and immediately, seek and deliver nutrients.  You’re giving the tree the best possible start to their new life in your garden.

Root ball of container grown trees showing fibrous roots

Size Matters:
Also specific to Winter Hill Tree Farm is the fact that we can supply more mature stock. Bigger trees with a bigger root ball.  For most species we grow our smallest available tree will be in a 75 litre pot. As a general comparison the standard bare root tree has a root system best suited to a 33 litre pot at best, and many much smaller.  So if size matters to you then buying a tree grown in a pot gives you the option to buy bigger.

The other side of that argument is the fact that bare root trees, without a root ball, are significantly lighter in weight and therefore easier to handle.  You can probably purchase them from a local nursery, take them home in your car, lift and plant them without raising a sweat. It is obvious that larger trees, in a pot with a root ball will require a bit more muscle to move.

A bare root tree is small and easy to move

Larger trees sometimes require equipment to move and plant

This is a controversial point and it is difficult to find anything other than anecdotal opinion on the comparative growth success of bare root versus container grown trees. Which ones thrive and grow more vigorously over coming years?

I have already given one reason why container grown trees are more likely to thrive – the fact that with a root ball and fibrous root system they come with their own life support system. However in addition to that is the reality that the success of any tree is most dependent on the preparation, soil and care given to that tree when planted. So to compare is difficult because the fault may be in the conditions rather than the plant itself.

For all the arguments for and against the growth and health of a bare root vs container grown tree often the biggest determining factor is the price.  There are many people who come to our farm, visit our website or call our team of horticulturists looking for big trees for their garden, but as with most purchases budget is often a limiting factor. That’s realistic and our team will look at options to help customers identify the best way for them to get the best trees within their budget.

Bare root trees are relatively cheap. Obviously they are smaller which accounts for some of the cost variation but in comparison to bare root trees Winter Hill trees grown in pots have been staked, potted, fertilised, mulched, pruned, potted up and root pruned.  That’s a lot of care and maintenance!  We have over 50,000 trees on the property at any one time and I think John knows each of them!

Can you tell that over the last five years we have learnt a lot? Hopefully this blog will help give you some points to think about if you are considering purchasing trees.  Working in the garden over Winter is ‘bracing’ but a great way to warm yourself up and earn yourself a cup of tea and piece of cake for afternoon tea but feel free to give us a call if you would like to talk through the best option for your garden. Bare root or container grown – there are benefits to both.



This entry was posted in ball and burlapped, Bare root, Container grown tree, Planting, Production, tree in pot, Uncategorized, Winter. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *