Autumn is the perfect time to plant: Container-grown or field-grown plants?

04. October 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
Categories: About gardening, Autumn, english, Seasons | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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Herbstliches Topfdisplay © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Autumn container display

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzungauf Deutsch lesen – I promised to write more about planting as there is much more to it than just digging a hole and sticking a plant in. Young plants are like small children: they are much more likely to thrive and develop into strong adults, if you give them the appropriate care at the start of their lives. It also involves so many decisions. Not only which plant to choose, but what size, and as a container-grown or a field-grown plant? 

Why you should plant in autumn?

In theory, you can plant at any time of year, as long as the soil is not frozen. Even in high summer it is possible to plant, but you must be extremely vigilant that the plants become sufficient water as its root system will take a while before it can tap into the surrounding ground water supplies. Normally, with autumn arrives the rainy season. During autumn, winter and spring months, the soils, rivers and lakes are replenished with water. This spring however was very dry, so that anything newly planted very soon became dependent on humans watering. In the autumn there is still warmth in the soil, which will enable roots to develop more quickly. This way, trees and shrubs have the maximum chance to establish before summer arrives with its relentless heat and lack of rain.

Bare-rooted, root-balled or container-grown?

Trees and shrubs can be bought in various forms. There are advantages and drawbacks to all of them.


Instant-gardening © Isabelle Van Groeningen

The majority are grown and sold in containers. These have the advantage that they are easily to handle and transport, and do not have to be planted straight away. Container-grown plants can be planted at any time of year, as long as the soil is not frozen. With these it is possible to give your garden a quick face-lift, at any time of year. Just like the Chelsea flower show.

Ilex Kugeln im Topf © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Ilex Kugeln im Topf

Many growing-substrates used in the commercial production of plants have a high peat-content. This is convenient as it is light-weight and regulates nutrient levels, but environmentally is peat a disaster. I often compare these container-grown plants to human beings being kept in intensive care. They are fully dependent on others for their care and well-being. This work-intensive care makes it proportionally more expensive.


Field-grown plants are much easier and therefore more cost-effective to produce. Although these too will be watered, weeded and fertilized, they have direct access to water and nutrients in the soil, and are therefore less reliant on human support. The drawback of a field-grown tree is that it can only be lifted from the soil during its dormant season: sometime between leaf-fall in autumn and budding out in spring. Once out of the ground, it is also important that the exposed rootball does not dry out or become unnecessarily damaged. They have to be planted as soon as possible. Most larger trees and shrubs will be rootballed: they are dug out with a good-sized clump of soil, which is then tied up in a hessian cloth. Larger specimens will be additionally supported by wrapping a wire meshing around the rootball.


Wurzelnackte Rotbuche im Bündel © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Wurzelnackte Rotbuche im Bündel

For larger forestry projects, or when planting hedges, it is also possible to buy the young plants bare-rooted. These are simply lifted out of the soil without any earth, bundles into bunches of 25 plants. The simple procedure combined with the transport-friendly lightweight and compact format makes this by far the most cost-effective of all.

Eintauchen der Wurzel © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Eintauchen der Wurzel

Great care has to be taken that the delicate roots of these young plants do not dry out. Keep the roots covered at all times to stop them from drying out and soak them in water the night before you plant them. Also prune the tips of the roots before planting as these are usually have been damaged or have dried. From a clean cut they will quickly form new roots and thereby establish quickly.

Wurzelschnitt © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Environmental aspect

From an environmental point of view, the latter option is by far the best: growing in a more natural environment, there are fewer chemicals involved in the production, no plastic pots are required, no use of peat and the compact, light-weight format of bare-rooted plants makes the transport much more cost-effective. Many impatient souls will say they cannot afford to plant smaller trees, as they will take too long to reach maturity, but these young trees normally establish much quicker, and will race ahead, whilst a mature specimen will take a few years before they really start putting on noticeable new growth.  


Spaten oder Gabel © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Was benutzen Sie lieber? Spaten oder Gabel?

The one drawback of field-grown stock is that in most cases it does not offer you the botanical diversity many garden owners seek. Usually nurseries produce larger quantities of one variety, as it is more cost effective to plant and care for a whole row of something, than to have a myriad of different plants, each with different requirements. The ease of transport and distribution that comes with container-growing, means that very often the more unusual species and cultivars tend to be produced in pots.

Have fun in your garden!

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