Heeling In How-To

How long will bareroot roses and elderberry bushes last before planting if I keep them moist and shaded?

By Willi Evans Galloway

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To successfully grow bareroot plants—dormant woody plants with roots washed of soil—you must prevent the plants from breaking dormancy prematurely and keep the roots moist. The easiest way to fulfill these requirements is to pre-dig planting holes and then plant the bareroot plants the day they arrive. Or you can store the plants temporarily if weather conditions or your busy life prevents you from planting immediately.

Bareroot plants can survive in their packaging for a week or more if stored in a cool (ideally 33° to 35° F), shady, frost-free place such as an unheated garage or shed. Before storing the plants, open each package, moisten the roots and surrounding material, and reseal the package. Check the packing material's moisture content every three days. If you can't store the plants at their ideal temperature or you need to wait longer than one week to plant, you must heel in—temporarily plant—your plants.

To heel them in, choose a sheltered, shady site and dig a V-shaped trench. Make the trench wide and deep enough to accommodate the plants' roots and long enough to prevent crowding. Place the plants in the trench at an angle, making sure the roots are below ground level. Refill the trench with soil (don't pack it down) and water the plants thoroughly. Check the soil moisture occasionally and water as needed. "You can leave plants heeled in for months, but I would suggest holding them that way only for a few weeks," says Amy Grotta, extension faculty in forestry education at Washington State University. "You don't want them to break dormancy before planting." Plants that come out of dormancy early are susceptible to frost damage, so plant as soon as possible to prevent harming your new purchases.

When you're ready to plant, carefully remove the soil from the trench and take out the bareroot plants. Soak their roots for five to 10 minutes in a bucket of water. "Don't leave the roots soaking in water for more than an hour or so, because roots need oxygen just like leaves do, and when they're soaking in water no oxygen is available," says Grotta. After hydrating the roots, you're ready to put your bareroot plants in your garden.

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