Plants move places while they're dormant. You can dig up a woody perennials after they've gone dormant pretty safely, but how you handle that tree, bush, vine or herbaceous plant is important before the move to their final home and this process of storing woody plants while dormant in a temporary location is called "heeling in".
(Bur oaks heeled in soil temporarily while harvesting)
Why Heel in Your Plants
A nursery has pretty obvious reasons to dig plants at certain times of the year. In our case we aim to fall harvest the majority of our plants so we can assess accurate numbers of what we can sell and most importantly to avoid problems living in an area with intense snowfall with a deep valley snowpack and a spring pileup of work. If we didn't dig our trees before the first foot of snow fell we would be stuck waiting until mid april some years to dig them out.
For folks who aren't running a nursery you still might find yourself needing to heel in your plants. When you order from a bareroot nursery you receive plants when they decide to send them and not necessarily when you or your land is ready to plant. Your ground still might be frozen, you might have other tasks to do before planting and you might simply want the option to buy some time for design before planting your bareroot plants. Knowing how to heel in plants is a good skill for any homesteader, farmer and renegade tree planter to bridge the gap between a dormant plant and its final planting home.
(Sasha the dog helping dig our hole for heeling in plants)
How to Heel in Your Plants
Heeling in your plants is simply burying their roots in a wet medium while leaving the top growth exposed to the air. There is a lot of freedom when heeling in your plants with what medium and location to use as long as you follow a few basic principles. The first and foremost rule for heeling in plants is keeping the roots moist but not waterlogged. Selecting a heeling medium that can hold moisture but allow air in is important. Some suitable materials:
- Loose garden soil
- Moist sawdust
- Moist woodchips
- Moist Coco fiber
- Moist Peat Moss
- Moist shredded newspaper
All of these materials are appropriate and the best one is usually whatever is readily available to your site. We have an abundance of woodchips and sawdust and end up storing our trees in a large excavated hole about 2 feet deep that we place our tree bundles in and pack with woodchips over the winter. In the spring we get a dump load of sawdust from a local mill, wet it down and place the trees we are preparing for customer orders into the sawdust mound as we pick them out of the hole. On a smaller scale you can simply dig a hole in your garden that can hold the plant roots and cover with soil. Another option is a mound of wood chips or sawdust. If you need a cleaner contained option you can use a bucket or plastic tote packed with any of the mediums we discussed, just be sure the roots aren't waterlogged if you choose not to poke holes for drainage in your bucket or tote. The tote solution works for the short term ( a month or less) but if you plan on storing your trees longer its best to punch holes in the container for drainage and airflow.
(Bundles of bareroot trees waiting to be heeled in)
- If heeling in trees for the winter or freezing conditions make sure the roots dont freeze if heeled into a container by sinking the container in the ground or mounding up the sides with wood chips or other insulating medium.
- If you want to slow down the bud break (waking up) of the trees because you aren't ready to plant locate your heeling site in a cold shaded area like the north side of an outbuilding, in a cool root cellar, garage or underneath a big tree.
- Check on your heeled in trees for rodent damage, snow damage, bud break (the plant waking up) or any other threat that can happen over time. Observation is key.
- When heeling in your plants its important that roots aren't exposed to dry air for too long, 5-10 minutes is fine but anymore than that can be detrimental to the plants
- Wet down your heeling medium beforehand. Moisture content should feel like a wrung out sponge. If you can squeeze water out of the medium then its probably too wet. You can water your medium with plants heeled in but be not to make soggy anaerobic conditions if you're heeling into a container
- For more information on what to do with your bareroot plant order see our FAQ page