Easy Gardening Skill – Heeling in bare root trees (or, what to do with trees you can’t plant)

I just came across a situation where I got some bare root trees in Pittsburgh in early January.  When you renew membership with the arbor day foundation you have the option of getting 10 free trees, which I always take.  Usually you get the trees in either fall or spring, but for whatever reason mine showed up in January.  Now, I don’t plan on keeping these trees (at least not most, I may plant a couple to grow for a couple years to sell a year or two down the line in the nursery) and I don’t want to be offering them up to give away in the middle of January.  So what to do?  

There are a couple things you can do to keep your bare root trees alive, short of planting them right away.  I could have kept them in a 5 gallon bucket filled with coco coir, peat moss, sawdust, or coarse sand in a shady space, making sure that there was moisture, but not too much.  The other option is heeling the trees into a temporary garden spot.  

Heeling in is lying them down at an angle and covering the roots with enough soil to protect them from drying out or freezing water and keeping enough moisture around for them to survive in the dormant state they are in.  I heeled mine into a raised garden bed.  This is because the raised bed has sufficient drainage.  I would not put the trees into our native soil, as it is clay and compact, which may be fine for establishing roots in a tree that will live out its life in such soil, but it is not okay for temporary protection from the elements before a young tree has had the chance to establish roots first in the soil.  A bare root tree’s delicate root system cannot handle being soaked (it will rot) or freezing water around the roots.  To avoid both of these, only heel into soil that is well drained.

After you heel your tree in, it is a waiting game until spring and until you’re ready to plant.  Your trees require little to no care in the winter as they are dormant.  They will likely receive enough moisture from snow and rain and should not be fertilized.  When you are ready to plant in spring, gently dig out the bare roots and shake off any of the soil/growing medium.  At this point your tree should be ready for its forever home.  Speaking of forever homes for trees, if you live in Pittsburgh and have space for a flowering dogwood, let me know.  I’m looking to give away maybe five of these, first come, first served.  Flowering Dogwoods are spectacular native trees.  They have 4 season interest with flowers in spring, foliage in summer and brilliant red or purple leaves in the fall, and berries that birds love in the winter.     

A good time to plant them out around here would probably be during the month of March.  This will be close to when the trees are coming out of dormancy and will be putting out new growth, and more importantly new roots to help them get established in their new homes.  

That is pretty much all there is to keeping trees safe over winter by heeling in.  If you have any questions or would like one of the bare root Flowering Dogwoods for free, reach out through our contact section.                  

Published by scottmeneely

Gardener passionate about organic gardening, fresh food, sustainable landscaping, home brewing, and much more! Our nursery also includes my wife and 2 kids. We work together, learn together, and travel together. My wife is Panamanian and we try to grow lots of good Latin American ingedients. We live in Baldwin, Pennsylvania in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.

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