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Mail Order Plants

How to handle a plant shipment when it arrives at your doorstep

By: Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension

Q. Over the past few months I ordered some ornamental shrubs and perennials from catalogs, and have been anxiously awaiting their arrival. The catalogs promise to deliver the plants at the best time for planting in my locale.  Here in Pittsburgh, I would have expected that was several weeks away.  Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from one of the catalogs indicating they were shipping a couple of my new plants this week (2nd week of April).
Is it OK to plant them now? Will they be able to deal with the nighttime temperature chills and frost, or will they need to be covered and protected from cold weather through the final frost date, which is probably 6 weeks away?  Or should I just keep try to keep them inside with vegetable plants I'm growing from seed until the final frost date has passed?

A. How you handle mail order plants depends on a number of factors. Have they begun to leaf out and/or bloom or are they dormant? Are the plants in containers or are they bare root? If the plants you receive have begun to leaf out or bloom, they probably have been grown in a greenhouse or a warmer climate than ours, and will be much too tender to plant outdoors until early to mid-May. Mail ordered plants are usually small and bare-root, and do not have enough stored energy reserves to leaf out a second time if the new growth is killed by a frost.

When to Plant Bareroot Plants

Dormant shrubs and trees that are winter hardy in our climate would be fine to plant out now. In fact, it is preferable to plant trees and shrubs – especially bare-root pants - before they start to leaf out, because it gives them an opportunity to begin to re-establish a root system before having to support those moisture-losing leaves. You can “heel in” dormant trees and shrubs by digging a trench in an open spot in an existing planting bed that has some shade from the hot afternoon sun and protection from cold, drying winds until you have the opportunity to plant them permanently. Water well after you cover the root system with soil.


You can hold them for about for about three weeks this way, but be sure to make sure they do not dry out. Do not kill them with kindness, either, by keeping them too wet. Feel the soil two to four inches deep, and do not water if the soil is moist.

hoop house
Nurseries use hoop houses with shade cloth to
protect plants from frost, sun and wind

Dormant, bare root perennials can be potted up into old nursery pots or other containers and held in a cool, bright area where the temperature will not drop below freezing. Make sure all containers have drainage holes. You can hold container-grown perennials that have begun to leaf out in a similar situation – perhaps an attached garage or a cool basement. It is probably too warm in your house for their well-being, though. They are not using as much water as they will when they have more growth or are exposed to sun and wind. Keep them moist but never sopping wet. You can move them outdoors on days when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees as long as they have shade from the hot afternoon sun and protection from strong winds. Water them if needed before moving the outdoors. Move them back indoors in the evening if temperatures will drop into the low 40’s or 30’s. As they begin to acclimate, you can gradually expose sun-loving plants to more sun.  As your new plants begin to acclimate, they will become less tender to cooler temperatures, too. Be prepared to cover them if a frost is forecast, though.

Hardening-off Plants before Planting

This process is known as hardening off, and you should do this with the plants you are growing from seed, too. Start about two weeks before you begin setting them out by allowing your seedlings to dry out a little more between waterings – never to the point of wilting - and stop fertilizing them, too. This begins the hardening off process that allows them to adapt to life outdoors with as little transplant shock as possible. If you take them straight from the protected environment where they have been growing straight out into the garden, the sun and wind will kill some and set the survivors back severely. Hardening off should take about two weeks, including when you start to allow them to dry out more and withhold fertilizer.


Safely moving plants outdoors

Starting vegetable seed indoors

Rose preparation for winter


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