The Ashridge Nurseries Blog

Caring for bareroot plants in cold weather


Frozen ground

When the ground is frozen, please don't plant your
bareroot trees, shrubs or hedges! They'll be much
happier staying bare and dormant...

Most of the damage caused to bareroot plants in cold, freezing conditions is to the delicate roots themselves.

The roots are fine, fibrous structures with a high water content: moving them, or even the slightest touch whilst frozen, can cause damage.

Almost all of a shrub or a tree's energy reserves are stored in the roots during winter. So broken roots mean that stored energy is lost, and this reduces the plant’s ability to establish. And poor establishment means poor growth in spring.

Worse still, if root damage is serious, the plant may not grow at all.

So if your plant’s roots, or the ground you intend to put them in, are frozen, please leave them be!

So, what should I do with my bareroot plants?

We all know that nature is very clever! If the ground is too frozen for the plants to go in, it’s going to be cold enough for plants to stay fast asleep in their winter dormancy.

So, as long as you keep your plants in cold place (a shed is perfect, out of direct sunlight), and make sure that they don’t dry out, your plants will happily sit dormant until a break in the weather. However tempting it might be, and however cold it gets, never bring plants indoors, or into any other warm environment like a greenhouse.

Moisture: not dry, not wet, but somewhere in between

If you’re storing bareroot plants, the roots should be kept under sealed cover in their bags. And you want the inside of that bag to be moist – wet enough for mud to form from the soil around the roots, but never pooling with water.

And if you’re storing them for longer than a week or two, an occasional sprinkling of water will keep them happy.

If it’s freezing, just leave plants be!

If temperatures are below freezing, be very careful when handling your dormant plants. Frozen things stick together, and roots can get stuck to themselves and to other plants.

In this condition it’s very easy to accidentally break them – especially the small, delicate ones, which are so important for establishment, making their way out into the surrounding soil to find nutrients.

What about the ones already in the ground?

Almost always, plants already in the ground will be fine. Just leave them be!

If you’re concerned, you can protect evergreen plants with fleece or similar breathable material to help protect them from times when the air temperatures are high enough to encourage transpiration, but when the soil is still frozen and water cannot be taken up by the roots.

A plant trying to transpire when the ground is frozen will not kill it, but be prepared for it to lose some leaves – this is simply the plant balancing its resources in order to protect itself. Laurel is a really good example of a plant that does this.

‘Soil lift’ from frozen ground

If we get some seriously cold weather, you may see what is called ‘soil lift’, caused by ice expanding in the ground. If you do get soil lift, leave it to thaw fully first, then gently press the soil back down with the ball of your foot. Don’t stamp!

Taking extra care of your bareroot plants

"Heeling in" is a reliable, medium-term, low-maintenance method of storing your plants until you can safely place them in their final location. "Heeling in" simply means to lightly cover your bareroot plants with soil or compost – not enough to support them, just to cover the roots – until you’re ready to plant them properly.

In warmer months, or if you have a nicely sheltered patch of ground (near a warm building wall, for example), you can heel directly into soil.

But as we’re talking ‘brass monkey’ weather, heeling in to a bucket or planter (any container really) of soil or compost in the shed will be the preferred option for periods of frozen weather.

Tops off, bottoms on

When heeling in, store your plants with their tops exposed, but with the roots snugly covered and moist.

Leaving the tops in the open is especially important for evergreen plants, or early season deciduous plants with a lot of foliage. Such plants will happily continue to transpire through their leaves, even though they aren’t in the ground. If the tops are covered, heat and moisture can build up and rot the plant, if left for long periods. Imagine perspiring in a plastic mac for a week or two – not pleasant!

Is it frozen ground? Or not?!

There may be times when you’ve planned a day to get your plants in, and the conditions are such that you’re just not sure whether to take the plunge with the blade of your spade.

In all honesty, it’s not an easy call. But unless you can do the following two things with ease, we would suggest packing the plants away and saving it for another day:

  • Can you get your spade into the ground a full blade length?
  • And once you have, can you see soil of a condition that will work back easily around delicate roots after planting?

Ordering plants in freezing weather

Do not let the weather stop you ordering online and selecting your preferred delivery week as soon as possible. Ashridge Nurseries works on a forward delivery system, so ordering your plants early reserves them for you and also helps us keep good stocks.

The weather is unpredictable too – what might promise to be a good week can turn nasty, and you end up losing valuable planting time.

Please remember that no money is taken from your card until right before delivery. Just contact us if you ever need to cancel your order.

Delayed delivery

We lift plants and pack and send them out to you whenever there is a break in the weather.

However, because the parcel carriers we use can face frozen, unsafe road conditions themselves in cold weather, please recognise that delivery delays happen.

As we’ve described, in cold weather your plants will be fine, and we will work with you to deliver your plants at the most suitable time for you:

  • If the ground here at the nursery is frozen, lifting plants is impossible. We will email you if this happens.
  • If your soil is frozen and you would prefer that we held your order back, please contact us. We will change your order to suit. Otherwise, we will send your plants out as soon as we can. We cannot promise delivery on a certain date in these conditions.

In general, any worry about winter frosts only applies to the time you want to plant your trees. Almost all of the plants from Ashridge Nurseries are fully hardy and will do just fine once they are in the ground.

In fact, if you think about it, all of our native hedging plants and big trees are directly descended from plants that survived the fierce winters of the late 19th century and the 1940s. And we bet some can probably trace their ancestry back to the Ice Age...!

Happy planting!

10 thoughts on “Caring for bareroot plants in cold weather”

  • C. Butler,

    Will placing cardboard over soil when planting bareroot plants help or hinder ? I'm thinking it might help initially but then hold the cold in the soil when it too becomes wet and sodden thru' frost

  • Darren

    Hi there,

    Cardboard would indeed add a little extra insulation, however the soil alone should be sufficient.

    You might also get cardboard blowing around your garden, or turning to mush like you say, or even freezing to the surface (or the plant itself) depending on our lovely weather... which wouldn't be good.

    On balance, we'd say leave it to nature!

    However if you shred your cardboard and add it to the compost heap it rots down to a rich humus - very good for the soil.

  • Sarah Trone

    I’m storing peony’s and bleeding hearts that I potted up in a high-tunnel with a single small heater. Temps are predicted to dip down low and I know the tunnel won’t hold much heat. Any idea what kind of low temps those plants in pots could handle?

    • Ashridge Support
      Ashridge Support 4th March 2019 at 2:38 pm

      From your IP address it looks as if you are in Oklahoma. We are in the UK so our knowledge of your local weather is not good.

      Peonies are pretty tough customers - from personal experience, they will comfortably deal with temperatures as low as -12C and I suspect a lot colder than that. A late frost might take out emerging buds though so covering them while it is very cold won't hurt.

      If by Bleeding Heart you mean Dicentra(s) then I think the same applies. Generally hardy in pretty low temperatures, but cover up new growth if there is going to be a late frost.

      Hope this helps!

  • Terry

    We are getting in the 40s and 50s during the day and below 32 at night. Can bare root trees be planted

    • Mark Cadbury


      Where are you based? You can plant bareroot trees in the winter months in the UK and in April depending on the weather. If the ground is frozen it is best to wait for it to thaw.

      Ashridge Nurseries

      • Samantha

        What counts as frozen though? Is a light frost overnight that thaws during the day "frozen"? Or is it more - if you can dig you're okay....

        • Ashridge Support
          Ashridge Support 5th December 2019 at 8:10 am

          The golden rule is that if the ground is too hard to dig then you should not be planting and you then treat everything as "frozen". I would just let common sense prevail - feel the roots - if they are pliable then plant. If they are brittle then don't.

  • Fiona Chalmers

    If I order plants and then temperature falls and ground is frozen, will they be ok stored in an unheated outdoor shed until the ground thaws enough for planting?

    • Ashridge Support

      Exactly right. Freezing does not damage a hardy plant's roots. Moving them when frozen (they are like icicles and break easily) does. So fi the gorund is too hard to dig, then it is too hard to plant and you just put them somewhere where the most important thing is that the temperature is cool and does not fluctuate. So not in a sunny greenhouse for example.

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