Ask most green fingered gardeners, those with the dirt ingrained up their finger nails, and they’ll tell you that now’s a great time to plant. Getting hardy specimens in the ground at this time of year – as long as the soil isn’t frozen – means that their roots can start growing down ahead of the spring. Underground the temperatures remain pretty stable once you get below 4in. (10cm) deep and plant roots can grow even when the stems are dormant.
This factor was traditionally taken into account in the days before garden centres blossomed in the 1960s. Then gardeners would plant trees, shrubs, many herbaceous perennials and fruit in the ‘dormant season’. This is usually taken as any time between late October and early March in the UK. Of course, there are a number of benefits, not least that the plants aren’t put under stress at this time of year. Deciduous plants – those without leaves in winter – aren’t prone to wilting. And even evergreens – which keep their robust foliage through the coldest months – can tough it out.
Containerised plant sales, which mushroomed throughout the last three decades of the last century – and the start this one – have allowed a couple of generations of new ‘home’ gardeners to develop with little knowledge of such dormant-season planting. And few of them know about the way plants were previously purchased for this. Hardy nursery stock would have been mostly bought direct from nursery growers as bare-root or root-balled plants. The latter involved a root ball of soil being lifted and wrapped in hessian. By April and May, the only things that would have been planted were half-hardy and tender summer ‘bedding’ plants and vegetables, which went in the ground once the risk of frost had passed. Precious little, with the exception a young veg plants would have gone in during summer.
Although bare-root planting continues to exist today, it is mostly used by professional landscapers and gardeners in charge of larger gardens. Nursery growers lift plants as soon as they’re considered dormant and then send them out any time up until around late March, when the ‘bare-root’ season is considered to have come to an end. For medium- and large-scale planting schemes it’s much cheaper and good establishment is optimised by allowing the plant roots to grow down into the soil keep up with the water table as it recedes through spring and into summer.
Risk of summer planting
Meanwhile pot-grown and potted-up plants allow today’s hobby gardeners to plant at any time of year – technically. Go on, admit it: it’s hard not to be tempted on a summer visit to the garden centre. When the days are bright and sunny, you want some of that seasonal colour in your garden – and you want it instantly. Added to that, you can see what the summer flowers are going to look like. But such a ‘see-it, buy-it, plant-it’ mentality comes with a big risk.
In fact you don’t need to have bought many things at the height of a hot summer to appreciate that risk. When it comes down to it, plants die if they don’t have enough water going in through their roots to support their soft leafy growth. And then the only way to keep them supplied with the moisture they need is for you give it to them. Not only does this entail your commitment of time and energy to applying it, but the source of that water needs to be considered too.
Where you’ve managed to store enough in water butts and tanks, then this might not be an issue. If you rely on using drinking water from a household tap, however, then it will inevitably bring with it environmental consequences and while it may cost you in increase mains water use, it doesn’t really represent the true worth of this valuable resource. Imagine not having a cheap source of drinking water piped into your house and having to rely totally on bottled water. It’s debatable if you would turn to the same source to keep your newly planted pot-grown specimens alive in summer and your new plants would be likely to die.
When you start to investigate, you’ll find all manner of ways in which our ‘freedom’ to plant what we want, when we want, will be compromised by an increasing environmental awareness. Think things through, and the logic of planting in the dormant season to allow hardy plants to establish is good gardening practice. In fact well-seasoned gardeners still buy bare-root roses, hedging, fruit bushes and trees: it makes good sense. Not only for you, your pocket and your garden – but for our planet and the other living things that share it with us.