It is planting season in France: Why plant bare root?

Cathy Thompson's tips on bareroot planting in your French garden this autumn

16 November 2020
'Size is not everything. A small bare-root plat will often grow away and establish faster than a larger plant in the pot'
By Cathy Thompson

Once again we’re into the season of planting trees and shrubs. Why plant bare root? If you have a largish garden (and many of us do in France) you are going to want to do a lot of planting, and this is the cheapest method.

For instance, if you try out Amelanchier lamarckii (which I recommend below), you can acquire small bare-root plants for less than €6 from a good online nursery like Jardin des Gazelles.

To my mind, size is not everything. A small bare-root plant will often grow away and establish faster than a larger plant in a pot, easily overtaking it in just a few years. However, some plants will be unavailable as bare-root specimens, since they do not take kindly to the root disturbance involved with the grower lifting the plant from the field, washing the soil away from the root system and shipping it off to you. Magnolias are a good case in point.

How to ensure success with your bareroot plantings?

When I was a fledgling gardener, we used to amend the excavated soil with some sort of soil improver. Now it’s believed that this is not good practice, since it’s best to allow your shrub or tree to acclimatise to your own soil type as quickly as possible.

What I would add is bone meal, since this stimulates and feeds the kind of new root growth you want. In France we call this poudre d’os, or farine d’os. There are also products available claiming to stimulate root growth (such as ‘Viviroot’), but I suspect they are largely comprised of bone meal.

If I had not planted them already, I would be choosing to make bare-root plantings of Amelanchier lamarckii. My four went into the ground in 2015 and 2020 has seen the first bumper harvest of fruits. It’s an odd truth that the genus Amelanchier seems to be better known in French gardens than in British – when I opened my garden up in 2018 they were probably the most commented upon plants I have. I guess this interest stems from the French love affair with eating and finding a table use for everything possible!

And those berries really are delicious. In size and flavour they are a little like blueberries, but sweeter and more like an apple, with whom they share the same plant family (Rosaceae). The fruits are a good red colour in June (one common name is Juneberry), turning gradually to dark purple. And they can disappear overnight because the birds love them as much as we do.

I caught them at just the right time this year. I did not have enough on my four small trees to create the jams and jellies they are renowned for, but I made a luscious Tuscan cake whose recipe came from Jamie Oliver’s book, Jamie’s Italy.

In Italy the cake is normally made with grapes, but Jamie uses blueberries and my Juneberries were the perfect substitute. Apparently they dry quite well too; since the various Amelanchier species come from North America, I imagine it was the Native Americans who discovered this adaptability, as they searched for food to sustain them through the long cold winter.

Amelanchiers are small trees with three seasons of joy

Amelanchiers are small trees (to no more than about 10m – so easy to harvest the fruit) with three seasons of joy. First, during March and April, the slender, dark branches are covered in clouds of star-shaped white flowers, then comes the harvest of the berries, and finally an explosion of autumn colour in vivid orange and red.

Both the flowers and the autumn display look glorious floating against the backdrop of the oak woodland behind my house. They do well on almost any kind of soil, from sandy to heavy clay and, although I have read that they prefer moist soil, they do very well in the baking hot, dry position I have given them.

There are several species and hybrids (A. canadensis, A. laevis and A. alnifolia are the most well-known, after A. lamarckii), all very popular in North American gardens where they are variously called snowy mespilus, shadbush and serviceberry, as well as Juneberry. Generally they are very tolerant of exposed and difficult positions. Many of the best cultivars are less easy (but not impossible) to get hold of here; I have read that ‘Robin Hill’ (with pink flowers only gradually fading to white), ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Rainbow Pillar’ (more columnar in shape, growing to only 2.5m wide in 20 years) are worth looking out for.

These tend to be used as single specimen plants, with a more tree-like habit than bushy Amelanchier lamarckii, which fits more readily into an informal hedge planting.

Over to you

Do you have a favourite fruit that’s less run of the mill than your strawberry or apple, and how do you like to use it? Email: editorial@connexionfrance.com.

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