Keith Sacre of Barcham Trees offers a step-by-step guide to successful tree planting.

SOME 20 or more years ago, Barcham Trees was in its infancy. The impressive figure of 120,000 containerised trees currently to be found on the nursery was then nearer 10,000 and the now almost universally recognised white bag was just being promoted into the marketplace. Its adoption as a production method was fuelled by a desire to reduce the losses of young trees post-planting, particularly in the urban environment.

Forestry Journal: 2. Decompact 65 cm across by 2 fork-depth deep.2. Decompact 65 cm across by 2 fork-depth deep.

At the time, I was working at another nursery selling and marketing trees. These trees were largely bare root and the failure rate post-planting high. Increasingly, I became aware of Barcham Trees and the inroads the white bag was making into the marketplace and the growing number of clients who were prepared to pay a higher unit price for their trees in return for a higher success rate post-planting.

In response to this, I suggested to the nursery I was working for that containerised trees were going to become significant in the marketplace and that we should be developing containerised tree production. Accompanied by the then managing director of that company, a visit was arranged to Barcham Trees.

Forestry Journal: 3. Fork to nice crumb.3. Fork to nice crumb.

After viewing the site and the trees in their white bags, I asked my companion for their views. The response – and I have never forgotten it – was: “We will let them continue to buy our trees to put them in containers until they go bust. People will never pay the additional amount for a tree in a container and will always revert to bare-root trees as they are cheaper and easier to handle in volume.”

It is easy to be wise in retrospect and, at the time, what Barcham was doing with trees in containers in large volumes was an entrepreneurial gamble. There was an arguable case that customers, often cash poor, would not pay the additional amount for a tree in a container, but this argument failed to recognise the value of trees in containers, with a full, vibrant and undamaged root system, and the success of those trees once planted into the landscape.

Forestry Journal: 4. Remove pot to reveal the root system.4. Remove pot to reveal the root system.

Needless to say, the nursery did not enter into large-scale containerised tree production and I left to join Barcham Trees. The rest, as they say, is history.

Currently, Barcham despatches some 60–70,000 containerised trees into both public and private sectors. Much has been learned about containerised tree production, but the method is essentially the same and many of the clients buying large volumes of trees back in 2000 are still buying large volumes of containerised trees from the company now.

So, why the brief history lesson outlined above?

Forestry Journal: 5. Use a saw to shave the base of the root system to get an outward-facing root to facilitate rapid establishment.5. Use a saw to shave the base of the root system to get an outward-facing root to facilitate rapid establishment.

Currently, the focus on trees and tree planting has never been greater. Certainly, during my career I have never known such an emphasis on the benefits of trees and the need to plant more. There is a growing perception and realisation that climate change is real and happening and that trees can play a significant role in mitigating some of the extremes, particularly in the urban environment. This has prompted politicians from both local and central government to encourage mass tree planting with a significant amount of this planting undertaken at a community level. There is also a growing awareness of the threats posed to the UK’s tree population by the increasing number of invasive pest and diseases. The question of resilience through species diversity has become an important one.

Forestry Journal: 6. Only shave 1 cm off the base.6. Only shave 1 cm off the base.

However, do numbers alone achieve the desired beneficial outcomes of large-scale tree-planting programmes? I would argue no. Trees planted which struggle to establish and grow are unlikely to achieve their genetic potential or deliver the benefits planting programmes were designed to achieve.

There is currently a great focus on community planting. Historically, such community plantings, well intentioned, well-resourced and carried out by well-meaning enthusiastic professionals and volunteers, have relied extensively on the use of bare-root seedlings or whips. The long-term success of schemes carried out historically has, to my knowledge, rarely been assessed.

Forestry Journal: 7. Get the planting depth right.7. Get the planting depth right.

The scenario is similar to the historic one outlined at the beginning of this piece. Perfectly good and decent-quality young, bare-root trees were being planted, but a significant number died or failed. The reasons for this failure rate are many and beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail.

For many years, Barcham has been experimenting with young trees in containers, usually as an intermediary stage prior to planting bare root into the nursery field, and is now in a position to bring these young trees to market for exactly the same reasons as initiated the use of the white bag back in the late 1990s.

Forestry Journal: 8. Rabbit guard and then apply about 25 litres of mulch.8. Rabbit guard and then apply about 25 litres of mulch.

It continued to be argued that people will not pay more for a tree in a container when they can get a bare-root plant cheaper, but again it is easy to ignore the value of planting young trees which will succeed and deliver and not rely on pure numbers alone.


A small village in Rutland decided to convert the perimeter of the parish recreational ground to carbon-offset tree planting. Using a mix of trees from instant impact, ‘medium’ sized Barcham trees to smaller ‘starter stock’ two-year-old Barcham trees that we have supplied in five-litre pots for ease of handling. The emphasis is that every tree planted will be a winner as they have invested in a Barcham root system to power establishment. With this in mind, they have adopted a ‘less is more’ approach and have spaced their trees at between 7 and 10 metres apart. This negates the need for costly thinning out of stock later on down the line and produces robust stock that can develop as large specimen trees, maximising the potential for locking up carbon.

Another criterion is that a broad range of genus was planted to safeguard against future threats from pests and diseases that are usually host specific. Trees with an expected long lifespan were also preferred, as the benefits for carbon capture are extended for varieties that live a minimum of 300 years.

The parish also recognised the importance of protecting the newly created environment as there is no point in planting trees for subsequent generations if the land is going to be developed later on down the line. The parish has written protection into its constitution and approached the local council tree officer to provide further protection via tree preservation orders.

To support this endeavour, a local grant was secured to convert an existing small brick building on the site to a water-holding facility, so the newly planted trees can be watered in the summer. A 1-cubic-metre water tank is filled from rainfall collected from the roof via the guttering. An industrial water butt!

Their soil is free draining and to maximise success the following methods were employed to give the trees the very best of starts:

1. The top grass layer was shaved off using a garden spade to remove future competition from around the tree. Only a 5 cm layer was removed as the top of the soil is generally the most nutritious and should be retained.

2. A good sized hole is excavated to de-compact the soil. 65 cm in diameter to accommodate a 5-litre ‘starter stock’ tree, 100 cm diameter to accommodate a 35–65-litre ‘medium’ tree. Loosen the soil to double-fork depth throughout the hole. 

3. Turn the soil within the hole to get a nice crumb structure. Tree roots need water and oxygen blended in measure in which to thrive.

4. Remove the 100%-recyclable Barcham pot to reveal the root system. Barcham roots grow vertically down the confines of their container without spiralling so need no teasing out.

5. Use a saw to shave the base of the root system to get outward-facing roots to facilitate rapid establishment.

6. Only shave off 1 cm from the base of the root system.

7. Get the planting depth right. Trees hate being planted too deep. The top of the compost should be at ground level, before the mulch is applied, after planting.

8. Use a 6-litre watering can with rose attachment to water in your newly planted tree. This firms up the soil particles around the root system without compacting the soil. Do not firm in by applying pressure onto the soil. This just undoes all the good work you have put in to decompact the soil in the first place.

9. Fit a Barcham rabbit guard around the tree and then top off with 25 litres of mulch. The rabbit guard prevents the mulch from butting up to the stem of the tree and the mulch both protects the soil from drying out as well as suppressing weeds, especially grass, that would otherwise strongly compete with the newly planted tree in the first growing season after planting.

It will be interesting to see whether history repeats itself.

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