HOW TO: Relocate Plants



WHY

Moving plants is an easy, economical way to improve the look of your garden. There are many reasons to move a plant-

  • size issues (a tall perennial is blocking a smaller one for example)

  • proximity issues (plants growing too close together can spell trouble)

  • finding a home for a newly divided plant

  • sunlight/water needs aren't being met


WHAT

Small/medium perennials, small shrubs, and small trees are easy to move. Large trees can be moved but you need some serious equipment. Large shrubs and perennials that are deeply rooted can be more difficult to relocate.


Not all perennials transplant well- anything that has a strong taproot or plants with underground rhizomes probably won't survive extraction from the ground. Also avoid transplanting when the plant is flowering- it is particularly vulnerable to root damage.


WHEN

Early spring (March, April) is the favorite season to relocate plants, but fall works too. Both fall and spring have a few important things in common- the weather is cooler, the plants are dormant, and frequent rainfall means diggable soil. Dormancy is key when getting ready to transplant. Trying to move a plant during it's growth period puts their new, extra-sensitive roots at risk. Can a plant be moved in the summer? Yes. But you need to be extra careful and be VERY diligent about watering to get it through the periods of extreme heat.

WHERE

Make sure your plants' ideal growing conditions are being met. If it's not getting the right amount of sun or water, all your hard work will be wasted. Unsure of what your plant needs? Observe how it's doing in its current spot. If it's in good shape make sure you put it in a spot that gets similar amounts of sun and moisture. Doing poorly? Do some research on the plant itself. Sun and moisture could be a factor, but other factors like soil quality or disease could be at play. If you need help with identifying your plant contact the Master Gardeners at your local Co-Op Extension office.


Now that you have the basics, let's take a look at a real life example from my yard last fall...


Plant Relocation: A Tale of Two Dogwoods

Two dogwoods, both alike in dignity, in fair Orchard Park where we lay our scene...


I planted these two dogwoods the first year we moved in. I purchased these $20 saplings from Home Depot, both labeled as the same variety. But as you can see in the picture, these aren't the same variety at all...as in different colored flowers, bloom times, and leaf shapes. This is the risk you take when buying plants at a big box store. I thought I could live with it but my OCD won the day and I decided it was finally time to relocate.



Tools:


You will need:

  • a long-handled shovel (I used my favorite little one)

  • a wheelbarrow (for holding shoveled soil and plants if necessary)

  • a water source (a hose or watering can)

  • a positive attitude


Pre-work: Site prep


You want to minimize the amount of time your plant is uprooted, so it's best to get the new spot ready for its arrival. Make sure you've dug a hole that is adequately large and deep enough and keep the displaced soil in a pile nearby- you'll want to reuse it when backfilling. Also make sure you have a hose or watering can handy to help settle the soil around the newly relocated plant.


Step 1: Cut trench around the roots


I want to start with a general PSA on tree roots.


Picture Source: Edmonds News

I was always taught that the tree's roots end at the edge of the canopy. Myth! They actually extend much farther. Another myth? That you have to dig out all the roots to successfully transplant a tree. Believe it or not, the tree will transplant better if you cut off some of those fringe roots. Refer to the red arrows below on where to make the cuts with your shovel.

Once you've identified the canopy and where the roots possibly extend to, it's time to dig a trench. My dogwood is really small, only about 6' tall, so I didn't have to do too much digging. The purpose of digging a trench is so that I can get a good angle with my shovel to dig beneath the roots. I made a straight cut with my shovel about eight inches into the ground, then dug another six inches from beyond that line (away from the trunk), removing wedges of earth into the wheelbarrow as I went. Here's a closeup:


Make sure to save the soil you dig up in case you need to refill the hole the plant is being moved to. Using the same soil from the original site encourages an easier transition for your roots and the plant is less likely to go into shock. If you don't end up using the soil at the new location, use it to fill the hole you just created.


Step 2: Gently wiggle the tree out of the earth


After the trench is completed I work my shovel horizontally underneath the tree roots as best I can, using my foot to slowly push beneath the root ball. I dig a little bit, remove the shovel, take one step to right, then do it all over again until at last the tree is free. This takes time and a lot of walking in circles. With every dig I use the shovel handle as a lever to try and wiggle the roots free from the ground. Be patient! Minimize root damage by working slow. It's okay if you feel some roots snapping while you're doing this, but don't worry- plants are more resilient than we give them credit for!



Step 3: If it's heavy, use a wheelbarrow.


Time to relocate the tree. As you can tell from the picture, this was a small tree. The trunk was only about an inch and a half thick. But holy crap was the root ball heavy. If I knew how heavy it would be I would've done this when my husband was home, but I chose to tough it out since rain was in the forecast. It really is deceiving how heavy a root ball (and accompanying soil) can be, so make sure you have help nearby if you need it. If you're like me and jump into projects without looking, having a wheelbarrow nearby can help. Ideally you were already using it to collect the access soil, so just plop the tree (or plant) on top of it.


The goal is to minimize the amount of time the plant is out of the ground, so make sure you get it over to it's new location as fast as possible. If for whatever reason you can't replant it right away, water the roots and wrap the root ball in wet newspaper or burlap. Keep the plant in a shady location out of direct sunlight and continue to water frequently until you're ready to transplant.


Step 4: Plant!


Depth is key. If you did the site prep in advance you should have a hole ready and waiting. It may take a few extra scoops (or some backfill) to get the depth of the hole just right. Once the tree is in the hole make sure the soil level at the top of the root ball is ground level at the new location. Burying plants too low can kill them, and planting them too high can lead to root damage. I use my shovel's straight handle as a makeshift level to make sure the root ball is flush with the ground.


Once the plant is in the hole, backfill (if necessary) with the soil from the original site. Water deeply and observe if any spots need to be topped off after the soil settles. Keep an eye on the soil level for a few weeks to make sure it doesn't sink too low relative to the surrounding grade. Similarly, if after a few rains you notice the soil washing away and the roots becoming exposed, it means you've planted too high. Removing the tree and adding an adequate amount of soil right away- the plant will come up easier now versus a few months down the line!


Here we have the dogwood in it's new location. I relocated this at the end of October so I could keep an eye on it. There was no major leaf drop (which can signal that the plant is in transplant shock) and I didn't need to make adjustments to the planting depth. It's now March and I observed buds on all the branches so I'm hoping (knock on dogwood) that it survived the move. Time will tell!


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