Do not expose tropical plants to cold air during a winter move!
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Question: I’ll be moving in December and winters are cold where I live (zone 4). I have about 15 houseplants and I’m afraid moving them in cold weather will cause a serious shock or even kill them. Do you have any tips for minimizing the damage?
Answer: Having already moved in January with over 100 houseplants on a day when it was a more-than-chilly -8 °F (-23 °C), I have some experience in that field. And to be honest, it’s not even very complicated, at least if the move is local.
The important thing is simply to avoiding exposing the plants directly to temperatures below freezing. And this can easily be done by just placing them in cardboard boxes, packing the space between them with scrunched-up newspaper or packing paper so they won’t move, then sealing the box shut with tape. Cardboard does an excellent job of insulating against the cold; plus you’ll be sealing in plenty of warm air: an excellent start!
Double Wrap for Greater Protection
For double protection, especially if you have reason to believe that the box of plants will have to spend an hour or more exposed to cold at any point, place the box in a large plastic bag (like a trash bag) and tie it shut … or else, place the plants in individual plastic bags before putting them into the box. Or wrap them in newspaper before setting them inside in the box. This will simply reduce air exchange even further, decreasing temperature change as well.
(Don’t worry about sealing plants inside plastic bags: they will not suffocate! Promise!)
Finally, don’t hesitate to do some last-minute pruning if the plant doesn’t fit into its intended box: it’s better to have a shorter plant than a frozen one!
Prefer a Heated Vehicle
The most important thing now is that the vehicle you move the plants in will have to be properly heated. That’s why it’s better to avoid putting plants in a moving van in winter. Prefer instead a car or a SUV … but not the trunk of a car. Rather, inside the passenger compartment at a temperature you feel comfortable with. And warm up the vehicle for at least 5 minutes before putting plants inside.
Ideally, make a special trip for your plants. That way, there is less risk of an error, such as placing a box of plants in the snow while taking care of any complication that comes up (and there are always complications when moving!), then forgetting about it for too long.
When you arrive at your destination, bring the plants inside right away, preferably placing them separately from other boxes (you won’t want someone to put a heavy box on top of a box of plants) and far from any open door. Leave them in their box until the move is complete: the box will provide partial protection from other damages linked to moving.
That said, avoid, if possible, leaving plants in the dark for more than 3 or 4 days. Some won’t mind this, but it can weaken others.
Using a Moving Truck
If you have no other choice but to put the plants in a moving truck with other household items, and an unheated truck at that, the above “double wrapping” (cardboard and plastic bag) becomes mandatory. Make sure the boxes of plants are the last things to go into the truck and the first to be removed.
Since the truck box will not be heated, calculate that you have about two hours at most to transfer the plants from one heated location to another; one hour if the temperature will be below -22 °F (-30 °C).
A Long-Distance Move
So much for what to do if the move is local, but what if you are moving to another part of the country and the move will involve major cold weather stops (one or more hotel stays or even just food stops)? In such cases, you need to take special steps.
First, consider taking cuttings and moving those rather than your plants. You can fit an impressive number of cuttings into one small box that you could carry with you even on a plane and therefore easily keep warm. Wrap the base of each cutting in a damp paper towel and seal it with others inside a plastic bag you could then drop into a cardboard box, a thermal lunch bag or a small suitcase.
If you do choose to transport potted plants, consider double wrapping suggested above to be mandatory for a long-distance move.
If you move them inside your own vehicle, there is really no problem when you stop to eat a meal (but be reasonable and try not to take much more than an hour to eat). That would work at even -22 °F (-30 °C). However, if there is a stay over, do bring the plants into the hotel room when you arrive and make sure they’re the last items you put into your (preheated) vehicle when you leave.
If you decide to entrust the plants to a moving company specializing in long-distance moves, you’ll discover that there are indeed heated moving vans, but at a much higher price than the usual shipping. And do insist to the company that you want to transport plants.
I didn’t lose any of my 100 or so plants on my winter move only a few blocks away, but I did break two teeth when I received a kitchen table in the face on the way down a flight of stairs. Maybe it was me who should have been protected in wrapping paper!