Wild Wanstead part VII

Bare-root plantBare-root plant

In the seventh of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project – which aims to transform Wanstead into a multi-garden nature reserve – Susie Knox recommends bare-root plants as a cheap way to add shrubs and trees to your garden.

If you had to pick one thing to do that would bring the broadest environmental benefit to Wanstead, it would have to be increasing the amount of greenery in built-up parts of the neighbourhood.

The loss of vegetation in residential areas has been dramatic in Britain. The Royal Horticultural Society say one in three front gardens now have no plants at all. Yet, research from all over the world consistently highlights the enormous benefits of urban vegetation. Greenery in towns and cities supports struggling wildlife, acts as a barrier against car pollution, lowers temperatures during heatwaves, improves the look of streets, increases the value of houses, mops up carbon, improves mental health and wellbeing and even enhances children's brain function and learning.

If you've got a patch of soil and want to add some vegetation to your garden, you'll get most impact if you plant a shrub or small tree – something with a bit of oomph about it. And now is the perfect moment to do it. Autumn and winter months are the best time to establish deciduous trees and shrubs, and one of the simplest, cheapest ways of doing it is to buy bare-root plants.

Bare-root plants are sold as saplings when they're dormant and without any foliage, so they generally look like a stick with roots. As a result, they're easy to buy through mail order and usually come in more environmentally-friendly packaging than potted plants. They are great value, so you can create a hedge or add bigger plants much more cheaply than buying them in plastic containers. Bare-root plants also tend to establish really well – although the air might be getting colder in autumn, the soil is relatively warm, so once in the ground, the roots quietly grow, helping the plant settle in and make the most of the damp winter months, ready to spring to life the following year.

Bare-root shrubs and trees are available from around mid-November to the end of February. Full instructions on how to plant your new purchase will be provided by the seller, but the general principles are to:

  • Keep the roots moist once the plant has arrived (they'll be packaged in a way that's easy to do this).
  • Give them a proper soak in water immediately prior to planting.
  • Dig a hole twice the diameter of the root spread (and put in a stake if you're planting a tree).
  • Make a little pile of earth in the middle to support the root ball.
  • Place the plant so that the crown (where the trunk meets the roots) will sit at or slightly above soil level with the roots spreading downward.
  • Backfill with soil.
  • Keep the plant watered while it gets established.

There are loads of attractive plants that are easy to grow as bushy shrubs or trees and that offer food and a place to live for urban birds and insects. Some options include:

  • Elder: large, scented cow parsley-type flowers, purple-black berries in late summer and autumn.
  • Dog rose: pink flowers plus red hips in autumn.
  • Hawthorn: dense, spiny shelter for birds.
  • Holly: year-round greenery.
  • Juneberry: early spring flowers.
  • Laurel: great for shady spots.
  • Viburnum: different varieties to choose from that flower in winter or spring.

For more information on the Wild Wanstead project, including 10 'wild ways' to make your garden more welcoming to wildlife, visit wildwanstead.org

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