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Cheops' Law: Nothing ever gets built on schedule or within budget.
Robert A. Heinlein

Keeping Seedlings Alive

What to do with these tiny plants until the weekend.

The folks at UPS left a phone message or the good folks at Canada Post left you a card in your mailbox telling you that you have a parcel.

Executive Summary

Seedlings are stressed by shipping. It’s warm, they are waking up, but there isn’t any light. Guidelines on reducing further stress once they arrive. What to do with them to keep them alive until the weekend. Keep them cool. Keep them moist. Let them breathe.

Don’t let it sit there. One hour at 25 C or so ages them more than a day at 15 C. As soon as they are above about 5 C they start using sugars stored in their buds and leaves. If too much of this gets used, before the leaves start making new food, they are more likely to die. The warmer it is, the faster these chemical reactions occur.

Open The Box Open the bag inside. Let them breathe. Bare root: Give them a quick mist, or a dip in a bucket of water. Plug bundles: Check that the root plugs are damp. Set upright.

Keep them cool Wrap in a wet towel and bury in a snowbank. Or put in the fridge.

Set them up to wake slowly The fridge or snowbank work for a week. If it's going to be longer, start them up in slow-mo.


More detail and background

Once they are out of the freezer, we have a race condition: Get them in the ground before they use up all the reservers in their cells.

Everything happens slower at cold temps. Ideal is to store them just above freezing, in humid conditions so they don’t dry. There is danger of mold if you do this too long. And they still are using up stored sugars, just not as fast.

With plugs, you can open the box, set the plugs upright on old carpet or towel. Keep the towel wet.

With bare root, open the bundles and pack into pails or pots filled with peat moss, sand, sawdust, or garden soil. Sawdust should not be fresh pine or spruce sawdust. The turpentine kills roots. Chainsaw sawdust from where you’ve been bucking up poplar and birch into firewood last fall is perfect. Sand and soil are heavy. Pails should have a dozen 1" holes for drainage.

First watering should be with a hose and nozzle to push the mix between the roots. Bundles that are under 2 inches in diameter can be left whole. Larger bundles will require breaking up. Otherwise they leave open spaces betweein the roots in the middle.

Set this up in full shade. North side of a building, under a spruce tree. You want some light. You are trying to stretch out the waking up process. If the buds break, but the leaves stay pale green or white, you don’t have enough light.

I set up a electric water timer to run an oscillating sprinkler 4 times a day for 1-2 minutes to water my seedling patch. Watering is set at 10:00 a.m., 1:00, 4:00, and 7 p.m. Start time was chosen because that was when it started getting warm. The 7 p.m. one takes them through the warm part of the evening. The timer is about $50 at Lee Valley tools.


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Do not arrive unannounced. Phone for an appointment. Why? See Contact & Hours That same page gives our hours of operation.


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Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.