Transplanting your own trees and shrubs

So you think you want to freshen up your landscape with some new perennials, shrubs or trees. You may be tired of the existing picture, or the whole thing needs a major overhaul. With the surging movement of planting your own food, you may want an orchard. An attractive and well-maintained landscape adds value to your home and knowing how to plant and take care of everything saves money and adds to your gardening skill set. Trees and shrubs represent a substantial investment and without proper planting and after-care, could perish and with it your hard-earned money. Even if the plants are gifted to you from someone else's property, you'll need to know how to dig up your prizes.

Here's a made in USA spade that will last for many generations of gardening.

Avoid transplant shock

Transplant shock is real. This is where the root system is damaged and unable to sustain the plant in its present form. The most common reason for transplant shock is when the tiny outer roots are either cut off while digging, or damaged while transplanting. These tiny roots are responsible for taking most of the moisture and nutrients from the surrounding soil and are a vital part of a healthy plant. These hair-like roots are the lifeblood of the plant and many people consider them insignificant because there are much larger roots further inside the rootball. For annual bedding plants, the little outer roots grow so quickly, there isn't usually much effect on the plant. For trees and shrubs, this isn't the case, so adjustments must be made.

root system of a plant

Pay attention to your transplant's roots

If planting a tree or shrub from a garden center or nursery, select your plants carefully. Chances are, nurseries specializing in plants have taken proper care of them and they have had a regular and proper watering schedule. If you are shopping at a big box store, the care they receive is reflected in the cheaper price. Watering is possibly haphazard and the plants often sit thirsty for extended periods of time before they are sold. They may have wilted and perked back up several times, damaging the small feeder roots. I usually ask when the plant truck is scheduled and shop that day which lessens the stress from mishandling by employees. If you can lift the plant from the container, check to see if the roots form a solid mass, or you see room between them. The solid mass of roots indicates the plant has been in the container too long and is pot bound. The image above is of a root system that could use some help. You'll have to cut the roots to help them grow outward, or choose a different plant. This damages the roots, however it has to be done. I usually make three or four vertical cuts down the rootball with an old, serrated knife and gently tease the cuts open. Since I've damaged the roots, I reduce the top growth by at least a third. I prune the branches back with a sharp pair of shears. Place your cuts just above an outward-facing bud. This will ensure that new growth grows outward instead of inward. The reduced top growth reduces the strain on the injured roots and the plant is able to recover faster.

Here's an heirloom quality garden knife that serves hundreds of purposes and is perfect for cutting through mats of roots on a pot-bound shrub.

Moving existing plants

If you are digging a plant from an existing planting, maybe moving a rosebush or shrub from another property, one of the pitfalls most people encounter is improper digging. Again, the little feeder roots are usually the issue. They spread out from the base of the plant further than people realize. Dig a rootball at least twice as wide as the the plant. Be sure you go deep as well. I would trim back the top growth by a third just like I would for the nursery sold plants. The best time to do this is in the early spring before the plant leafs out. This reduces strain on the roots trying to support the leaves. You can also move plants in the fall, however if the area where you live has hard freezes for a long period of time, the plant may heave out of the ground. It is safer to move plants in the spring. They are entering a growth period and will recover quicker from any injuries. Transplanting late in the afternoon or on a cloudy day is also helpful. Keeping the plant out of the full sun for as long as possible.

The transplant hole is important

The hole you dig is important too. I've always heard 'dig a $10 hole for a $1 plant' and that is absolutely true in my opinion. Dig your hole deeper and wider than your rootball by about a foot. This gives you six inches on either side. Chop the edges of the hole with your shovel to break up the slick sides and chop the bottom of the hole to loosen the soil there. This gives the roots an easy path to grow outward instead of just circling the hole. It also helps with drainage, as clay soil tends to hold water when ponded like that. Plant your tree or shrub at the same depth as it is in the container. Don't cover the stem or trunk more than it is already and don't plant it too shallow. Just like Goldilocks, everything must be 'just right' for the best results. Carefully set the plant in the hole and fill in around the edges, tamping the soil as you go to firm things up. Some trees benefit from a stabilizing stake to keep them upright, however, place a piece of hose or something flexible between the cord you use and the trunk. You don't want any injury to the bark. This invites disease. You can remove it after two or three months, many people leave these supports on too long. Water your transplant well and if the soil shrinks some, add a bit more to fill the hole.

These slow-release tree watering bags take 6 to 8 hours to empty and are a good way to keep those transplants properly hydrated.

watering transplant

Avoid excess fertilizer and water generously

Most people think that the freshly transplanted tree or shrub needs a good dose of plant food as soon as it is planted and this is an incorrect assumption. Most plant food encourages top growth and you want the roots to recover and settle in before the top of the plant takes off. You wouldn't give a new baby a steak, and the same is true for transplanted trees and shrubs. Some compost in the bottom of the hole is ok. So is bone meal. Bone meal encourages good root growth and that is what you want. Don't bother with the other fertilizers until you see top growth starting, and then a general 10-10-10 mix is fine. Also, for the first year, make sure that the plant is watered well at least once a week if sufficient rainfall hasn't happened. During the heat of the summer, it wouldn't hurt to water several times a week. Many plant failures occur because they don't have essential moisture in that first year.

Organic bone meal is a good first fertilizer for your transplants because it promotes healthy root growth.

Pay attention to what each plant needs

By paying attention to a plant's needs, most transplanting problems can be avoided. Make sure you purchase healthy plants, suitable for the conditions you want to plant them in. Sun-lovers should have adequate light and shade lovers should have protection. Some plants fail in boggy conditions and others love the moisture. The healthiest plant in the world will fail given improper planting techniques and environmental circumstances. It is up to the gardener to make sure all of this criteria is met. Once you learn the proper way to transplant, you'll have very few, if any failures.

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