Steps For Heeling In Plants

Run out of time to properly plant everything this year? Don’t worry, we have all been there. But the good news is you can heel in your plants until the ground is soft and warm enough to plant correctly.

Heeling in fruit tree – Photo by The Fruit Nut – Pomology, Fruit Exploring, & Orcharding

Why heel in plants?

In winter plants like bare root trees and container plants don’t have the protection needed to survive the cold of winter or might become susceptible to damage from excessive heat in summer. To protect the plants from these conditions and give you some more time you can heel in your plants, giving them an extra layer of protection. You should also heel in your plants if you are unable to plant them within 7-10 days of receiving them.

3 simple steps to heel in plants

1. Prepare your plants

To be able to start heeling in your plants, you need to prepare them correctly. If you are heeling in a bare root plant or tree, you must remove any of the packaging’s and soak the roots of the plant in water for 4 to 7 hours. If you are heeling in container plants, you can either leave the plant in the container or take it out; if you are leaving the plant in the container make sure you do not leave them in the container for too long as they may become root bound. If you have a large number of plants already in bundles, you can heel them in without being untied. If you have a small number of plants or they are large, it is better to untie them and arrange them so that all of their root collars are around the same level.

2. Dig a trench

Once your plants are prepared it is time to dig the space they will be placed in. This is best done in a cool, well-shaded spot out of the wind. You need to dig a trench deep and wide enough to accommodate the roots of the plant. In winter try to dig the trench near a building foundation, it will add an extra layer of protection as the building radiates heat. In the summer, dig the trench in a shady area to protect the plants that are being heeled in from the intense sun. Lay the plants in the trench with the plant at an angle so that the top is just above the trench and the roots are in the trench. Angle the plant so that the exposed area is as close to the ground as possible to give it more protection from the wind.

3. Cover with soil

Once the plants are in the trench fill the heeling in trench back in with soil. If you are heeling in plants for the winter, mulch the plant with sawdust, hay or leaves. If you are doing this in the summer they can be left in the trench for around a month. In winter, plants can be left for several months but should be dug up as soon as possible in spring for their permanent planting. The time plants can be heeled for winter is between November and March, with 10-12 weeks being completely normal, but make sure to plant correctly once the ground is no longer frozen.

How to heel plants when the ground is already frozen

“If the ground is frozen, then heel in using any container large enough to hold both roots and compost,” says Chris Bonnett, a gardening expert for The Express. Start by putting compost in the bottom of the container, and arrange the plants so their root collars are all at the same level. then put the roots in the container, making sure to tuck any loose ends in. Cover the roots with the remaining compost until you reach the level of the root collar. Make sure the compost settles in by giving the plants an occasional jog when filling. Firm the compost down gently and make sure all of the roots are covered. put the container somewhere cold and shady. Water well and leave plants alone until the freeze has gone and the ground is soft enough to dig.


For more care advice for your plants in winter, check out our Guide to protecting your plants in winter.

Updated on April 12, 2023

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