Shopping for Plants in Cold Weather

These simple plastic sleeves may be enough protection if you buy plants in the summer, but they’ll need more protection than that in the cold of winter.

It’s probably more tempting to buy a beautiful potted plant in the winter than at any other time of the year. After all, winter is long, cold, and gray… and a plant full of flowers will bring a little bit of life into your home. However, choosing a plant is one thing… you still have to know how to bring the plant back home in mint condition!

Houseplants and gift plants are not able to cope with extreme cold. Even a few seconds at temperatures below freezing can be enough to damage them, especially their flowers (usually more delicate than their leaves). Often the damage doesn’t show up immediately, but a few hours or a few days later, when the petals turn brown at the edges or drop off and the leaves roll up, turn brown or fall.

And that kind of damage is unfortunate, as it’s actually quite easy to wrap up a potted plant for a short period outdoors, even in the coldest weather. Usually just ensuring there is at least a thin sheet of paper or plastic between the plant and the cold air is enough, at least if you’ll only be carrying it from the store to your car and from your car into your home.

Florists and Garden Centers Know What to Do

Plant sleeves provide adequate protection if they are folded down and stapled to keep cold air out. Source:

Specialist shops (florist shops, garden centers, nurseries, etc.) know how to wrap the plants they sell. Typically, they use paper or plastic sleeves. The plant is inserted into the sleeve, then the sleeve is pulled up, the top is folded down and then sealed shut with staples or adhesive tape. Simple but effective! The plant is now ready for its journey home unless the cold is really extreme (more about that later).

Non-specialist Stores

Nowadays, however, it’s not just the specialist shops that sell potted plants. You’ll also find them in box stores, hardware stores, supermarkets and so on. Even small convenience stores often sell potted plants at special occasions like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Often the price of their plants is quite enticing… but they have no idea how to wrap plants for the cold! In fact, I recently saw a store clerk hand a woman a poinsettia with no wrapping whatsoever as if she expected the lady to take it home like that… and it was a bitterly cold day, about 10˚F (-12˚C)! Fortunately, the woman insisted on having the plant bagged up more carefully.

And that’s often the situation, sadly enough: the customer has to step in to direct the process! And customers who don’t, who assume the cashier knows what they are doing, may lose their plant.

A Bare Minimum

At the very least, the plant should be completely covered before going outdoors, with no exposure whatsoever to freezing temperatures. An open bag protecting the sides but not the top is not enough. If the seller does not have plant sleeves or if the sleeves are too small to fully cover the plant, insist that it be placed in a bag high enough to completely cover the foliage and flowers… and then have them place a second bag over the first to really make sure that the cold air stays outside.

(If you’re concerned about the overuse of difficult-to-recycle store bags, either bring extras when you shop for plants or return the used ones next time you visit that store.)

Double Bagging

Double bagging will be necessary in really cold weather. Source: &, montage:

At 5˚F ( -15˚C) or less, or if you’ll be walking outdoors with the plant for more than a few minutes, you can’t trust the simple wrapping above to adequately protect your plant: you’ll want double bagging. Again, florists and garden centers have what it takes: large plastic bags in which they can drop the sleeved plants. Once knotted shut, you’ll have a double layer of protection.

In a non-specialist store, insist they wrap up your plant by placing it in one bag and covering with another, then drop it into a yet larger bag that can be sealed shut.

When You Get Home

Don’t leave potted plants wrapped up too long. A few hours is okay, but not a whole day. Otherwise, they can be slightly poisoned by the very gases they give off themselves (notably ethylene gas) and that can lead to petal loss.

If you want to offer a plant as a gift and you buy it a few days in advance, it is important to unpack it once you arrive home “so it can breathe” (actually, to air out the toxic gases), then to rewrap it a few minutes before you leave to deliver the gift.

The information above is so basic it almost doesn’t seem worth mentioning. You’d think it would be obvious that any plant salesperson would wrap up a plant when it’s cold outside… but you’d be wrong. Sometimes you really do have to insist on having your plants properly prepared for their trip home!20161228b

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

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