(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 29, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
If your gardens are anything like mine, you've probably got a few plants that, for one reason or another, need relocated. Fall and winter are the perfect times to move plants, as they are dormant and therefore less likely to suffer from the rigors of transplanting.
Here are some common reasons why you might want to move a plant in your landscape:
- The plant is getting too much or not enough sunlight
- The surrounding soil conditions are too wet or too dry
- The plant has outgrown its current location
- Secondary situations: bloom color doesn't fit it with the surrounding color scheme, plant attracts too many bees to heavy traffic area, plant drops dead leaves or flowers into swimming pool, etc.
The first two reasons listed will be evidenced by plants that are not performing well in their current location. While they may appear healthy overall, plants that don't receive enough sunlight will be undersized. Conversely, plants that receive too much sunlight will often have a scorched look on the leaf surface. Many will eventually succumb to the overabundance of sun and the heat that comes with it.
Soggy or overly dry soil can each eventually kill a plant. Most plants enjoy well-draining soil that is loose and nutrient-rich. There are, of course, exceptions, such as bog plants and, on the flip side, succulents. You can try to adjust the soil conditions without moving the plants, of course, but sometimes relocation is the only answer.
The third reason above will be pretty obvious - maybe a plant that you thought was going to remain a tidy 1'x 1' became a 4'x 4' monster. Well, good for you that your plant is so happy and healthy that it exceeded all expectations! But if it's a big ornamental grass clump hanging out over a sidewalk or a gargantuan lilac bush that's popping the concrete up in the driveway, it's time to get out the shovel. After all, the plant may be doing well now, but it could eventually suffer if it's too crammed into a small space.
Ok, now we know why we should relocate plants. Let's explore how to go about moving them.
So, you've identified several plants in your landscape that are struggling, or they just plain don't work in their current spot, or whatever. Next, you need to determine where they will work. Be smart, plan well, and pay attention to less obvious factors in the chosen new locations, such as wind exposure or microclimates. For example, don't move a cool weather-loving plant up against a hot South-facing brick wall, even if it's in the shade. It will probably eventually die from the combined stress of transplanting and unsatisfactory environmental conditions.
Map out where each relocated plant will end up, then go ahead and dig the holes. Make them about 50% wider than what you anticipate the current root ball size is of each plant, but no deeper. It's important that the new planting holes be ready and waiting, because the more time a plant spends out of the ground after being dug up, the more stress it will endure.
Fill each new hole with water and watch to see how quickly it drains. Heavy clay soils usually drain slowly and may benefit from the addition of some compost and expanded shale or turkey grit. However, if the water disappears immediately, as tends to happen with sandy soils, add some compost.
Actually, tossing a shovelful of compost in a new planting hole is rarely a bad idea, but avoid adding any other fertilizers or special soils at this point - you don't want your newly migrated plants to put on a burst of new growth only for winter to come along and freeze it. Keep the existing soil that you removed on hand to backfill each hole.
Be sure the plants targeted for relocation have been well watered beforehand. Digging is much easier on both you and the plant if the soil is moist and soft.
For digging up plants and shrubs less than six feet tall, use a "sharpshooter" type shovel with a long blade and a pointed tip. Measure a radius of 8 to 12 inches out from the stem or trunk. Larger plants and shrubs require more diameter, and trees even more than that. It's important that you dig up as much of the existing root ball as possible.
Carefully start to dig a trench around the plant, easing it gently out of the ground as you work around it. If you hear a lot of roots snapping as you lift, douse the root ball with water and move your digging diameter outward a couple of inches. Lift the root ball out gently and examine the roots. If the roots are circling, bunchy or crowded, cut off the bottom one-third with your shovel or a sharp knife.
In the case of small trees and big shrubs, you'll probably need help in lifting and moving the root ball. In these situations, a tarp or wheelbarrow is often useful in moving the plant to its new location. (Moving large trees is best left to the pros.) The most important point is to keep the root ball moist. Wrapping it in wet burlap is a common practice. Small plants can simply be submerged in a bucket of water and transported across the yard to their new locale.
When you place the plant in its new hole, make sure the top of the root ball doesn't sit below the soil line - ideally, it should sit slightly above it, as settlement will cause it to sink over time. Fill the area in around the plant with the removed soil, tamping gently as you go. Water well, then tamp again to remove any air pockets, and mulch. Keep the newly-moved plants well watered throughout the winter, and monitor them carefully in the spring. Hopefully they'll start to show signs of growth as the weather warms; feel free to fertilize at that time.
If your transplants prove unsuccessful, well...take heart. You tried. If your plant was suffering in a bad location before, you probably would've eventually lost it anyway.
Finally, it bears mentioning that if you plan to do a lot of deep digging (12 inches or more) in your yard, you should contact your local "Call Before You Dig" folks to make sure you're not hitting any utility lines. Otherwise, your landscape problems could become much more serious-type problems, and nobody wants that.