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Is Winter the Best Time to Plant Trees?

winter tree planting
by Ally North Ally North

You may have heard professional gardeners talking about planting trees in the dormant season, which runs roughly from November to March, but is winter really the best time to plant a new tree? The answer is a qualified yes… but it’s not always easy.

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When to plant bare root trees

Deciduous trees go dormant in late autumn, which means that they stop actively growing and take a rest until the spring. During this time they can be safely dug up from the field as ‘bare roots’ and replanted in your garden without causing any distress to the tree. Bare roots are only available at this time of the year, and planting them now gives the tree a big advantage in terms of establishing itself, as it’s not growing foliage or flowers and can put all of its energy into developing a healthy root system.

bare root tree

When to plant potted trees

Trees that have been grown and sent to you in pots can be planted at any time of the year, with two provisos:

  1. If the ground is frozen or waterlogged, you should delay planting until the soil warms up or dries out. Your tree will be absolutely fine kept in its pot until this is possible.
  2. If the tree is a tender (not winter-hardy) variety, you should keep it indoors over winter and plant out in the spring. If this isn’t possible, you can protect your tree by wrapping it in layers of horticultural fleece or bubble wrap until spring.

Planting your potted tree in winter is a good move, as you won’t have to water it regularly (thanks to the UK weather) and there are fewer pests doing the rounds. Your tree will be able to establish a nice healthy root system before breaking into new growth in spring.

planting potted tree

When to plant evergreen trees

If evergreens don’t go dormant, can you get them as bare roots? The surprising answer is yes. Although evergreen trees don’t go fully dormant, they do slow down their growth despite keeping their leaves. This means that you can replant these trees without harming them - and provided the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged, winter is a great time to do this.

planting evergreen tree

Planting a tree when the ground is frozen

If your tree arrives when the ground is frozen over or waterlogged, what should you do?

Storing your tree

First of all, don’t worry. Your tree will be absolutely fine for up to a week kept in its packaging and stored in an unheated shed, garage or conservatory as long as there’s no frost or damp in there (once they’re in the ground, frost isn’t a problem).

What if I still can’t plant after that?

If the ground is still unsuitable for planting after a week, you’ll have to heel in your tree to stop the roots drying out. This means planting it in a temporary position until you’re able to move it to its permanent spot. Here’s how.

  1. Grab a spade and dig a V shaped trench in the ground, big enough to cover the roots of your tree.
  2. Put the tree in the trench with its roots at the bottom and the stem lying on the side of the trench.
  3. Cover the roots with soil and firm it down well.
  4. Give it some water.

Earth stood hard as iron?

If it’s a really bleak midwinter and you can’t find a patch of ground to heel in, you can keep your tree in a bucket of soil or compost instead. Make sure you cover all of the roots, firm it in well and keep the compost moist but well drained. Store it in a sheltered place outdoors until it can be moved to its final position.

frozen ground

How long can I leave my tree heeled in?

The sooner you can move your tree into its final position the better, so that it can start putting down roots ready for spring. Your tree will be fine in its trench/compost, but should be permanently planted before April, when it will come out of dormancy - you don’t want to miss that bare root phase, as planting while it’s dormant will give your tree a flying start.

I feel that ice is slowly melting…

The ground has finally warmed up/dried out and it’s time to plant. Here’s how to un-heel your tree.

  1. Loosen the soil from around the roots and gently remove your tree from its trench or compost.
  2. Check the roots - shake off any loose soil and if they’ve dried out, give them a soak in a bucket of water (cold is fine) for 5-10 minutes before planting.
That’s it - you’re ready to plant! Here’s how.

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