Heeling in Your Bare Root Trees or Plants if You Can't Plant Right Away

Heeling in Your Bare Root Trees or Plants if You Can't Plant Right Away

Bare root trees and plants are a popular choice among gardeners and landscapers due to their affordability, ease of handling, and the promise of healthy, vibrant growth. However, when these plants arrive at your doorstep, it's crucial to know how to care for them, especially if you can't plant them in the ground right away. In this guide, we will walk you through the steps of heeling in your bare root trees or plants to ensure they thrive until you're ready to transplant them into their permanent homes.

Determining Optimal Planting Conditions

Your plant’s success hinges on selecting the right time for transplanting, and this decision depends largely on the air and soil temperatures in your region. When considering winter planting, it's essential to gauge whether the prevailing temperatures align with the needs of your plants.

In regions where winter temperatures consistently fall below freezing, it's typically impractical to plant bare root specimens directly into the ground. Instead, opt for heeling in as a temporary measure to shield your plants from frost damage until more favorable planting conditions arise in the spring. Ideal soil temperatures for planting bare root plants generally above 40°F (4°C), while air temperatures should be in the same range to support healthy root development and minimize the risk of frost damage.

Our customers have always enjoyed healthier plants when receiving them during winter dormancy, versus risks associated with shipments after temperatures have increased in shipping channels.  Shipping bare root plants during dormancy, before the risk of developing buds and leafing out, is a key strategy for ensuring their health. This approach minimizes stress and potential damage during transit, allowing plants to arrive in optimal condition for transplantation. It also provides gardeners with greater control over the timing of planting, leading to healthier, more vigorous growth when the plants are finally established in their new homes.

Step 1: Inspection and Assessment

The first order of business upon receiving your bare root trees or plants is to carefully inspect them. Look for any signs of damage, particularly at the graft site in the case of bare root trees. Minor issues like broken branches are generally not a cause for concern, as they can regrow once spring arrives. However, any severe damage or signs of disease should be documented and reported to the seller if necessary.

Step 2: Gathering Your Materials

Before proceeding with heeling in your bare root trees or plants, gather the necessary materials. You'll need a large pot, wheelbarrow, or some type of container, loose soil, compost, or wood shavings (avoid cedar, redwood, or rice hulls), and access to a suitable location for storage.

Step 3: Choosing the Storage Location

Your choice of storage location for heeling in your bare root trees or plants will depend on the weather conditions in your area. If the ground is not frozen and outdoor temperatures are reasonable, you can perform this process outdoors. However, if the weather is harsh or the ground is frozen, consider alternative storage options such as a garage, shed, basement, or greenhouse. The key is to maintain a temperature between 35-45°F to keep the trees/plants dormant until planting time.

Step 4: Preparing the Container

Whether you opt for a pot, wheelbarrow, or another container, ensure that it is clean and free from contaminants. A container with drainage holes is ideal to prevent waterlogging. Fill the container with loose soil, compost, or wood shavings. This medium will provide insulation and protection for the bare roots.

Step 5: Placing Your Bare Root Trees or Plants

Gently place your bare root trees or plants into the prepared container. Ensure that the roots are evenly spread out and do not overlap. The depth at which you plant them should mimic their natural growth position, with the roots fanning out and the crown or bud union (in the case of grafted trees) slightly above the soil level.

Step 6: Covering and Moistening

Once your trees or plants are securely positioned in the container, cover them with the chosen medium (soil, compost, or wood shavings). Make sure the roots are completely covered but avoid burying the crown or bud union too deeply. The medium should insulate the roots and protect them from drying out.

Step 7: Maintaining Moisture Levels

Proper moisture management is crucial during the heeling-in process. While you want to keep the roots moist, avoid overwatering and creating a waterlogged environment. Check the moisture level regularly, and water if the medium begins to dry out. Ensure that the container has proper drainage to prevent excess moisture buildup.

Step 8: Temperature Control

Maintaining the right temperature is vital for keeping your trees or plants dormant until you're ready to plant them. Aim to keep the storage area between 35-45°F. This temperature range ensures that your plants remain in a state of dormancy, preventing premature leafing out or blooming.

Step 9: Timing and Planting - Assessing Planting Readiness After Winter

Determining the right time to transplant your heeled-in bare root trees or plants after winter is critical for their successful establishment. Proper timing can help your plants thrive, while planting too early can expose them to various risks. Here's how you can gauge if the weather is conducive to planting and how to mitigate potential risks:

Assessing Planting Readiness:

  1. Soil Temperature: The soil temperature is a crucial factor in determining planting readiness. Ideally, soil temperatures should consistently range above 40°F (4°C) for most bare root plants. You can measure soil temperature with a soil thermometer inserted a few inches deep into the ground.
  1. Air Temperature: The air temperature should be in the same range as soil temperature to support healthy root development. Check local weather forecasts to monitor air temperatures and trends in your area.
  1. Frost Risk: Keep an eye on the last expected frost date in your region, typically found in local gardening resources or online. Planting before this date can expose your plants to the risk of frost damage.
  1. Soil Moisture: Ensure that the soil is not excessively wet or waterlogged. Planting in soggy conditions can lead to root rot and other issues.
Risks of Planting Too Early and Mitigation:
  1. Frost Damage: Planting too early can expose your bare root plants to frost damage, which can harm tender new growth. To mitigate this risk, wait until the last expected frost date has passed or use frost protection measures such as row covers, cloths, or temporary greenhouses.
  1. Slow Growth: Early planting in cold conditions can stunt plant growth and development. It's essential to wait until both soil and air temperatures are consistently within the recommended range to ensure vigorous growth.
  1. Disease and Pest Vulnerability: Cold, wet soil can increase the vulnerability of your plants to soil-borne diseases and pests. Proper soil temperature and drainage are essential to minimize these risks.
  1. Watering Challenges: In cold conditions, plants may not absorb water efficiently. Be cautious not to overwater during the early stages after planting. Water sparingly until the plants show signs of active growth.
  1. Root Stress: Planting too early can stress the plant's roots, making them more susceptible to damage and disease. To minimize this risk, gently handle the roots during transplanting, and avoid planting in frozen or excessively wet soil.

The key to successful planting after winter lies in patience and careful observation of environmental conditions. Wait until both soil and air temperatures are suitable for your specific plants, and be mindful of potential risks associated with early planting. By taking these precautions and timing your transplanting correctly, you'll give your heeled-in bare root trees or plants the best chance to flourish in their new outdoor homes.

Additional Tips:

  1. Protection from Wildlife: If your storage area is outdoors, consider protecting your heeled-in plants from wildlife by using fencing or barriers.
  1. Labeling: To avoid confusion, label your heeled-in plants with their species or variety. This ensures you can easily identify them when it's time to plant.
  1. Monitoring: Regularly check your heeled-in plants for any signs of stress, disease, or pests. Early detection can help you take prompt action.
  1. Choosing Suitable Containers: The size of your container should accommodate the size of the bare root trees or plants you have. It should provide enough room for the roots to spread comfortably.
  1. Pruning: If your bare root trees have excessively long or damaged roots, consider pruning them before heeling them in. This can encourage healthy root development.

Watch our video for more information. Learn more about bare root trees in our Fruit Tree Central Guide.  See our collection of bare root trees for sale.

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