T is for Transplanting

Transplant, relocate.  Whether you’re talking people or plants, its lifting our roots and establishing them somewhere else.

Spring is one of the two best times of the year to transplant any plants, trees or shrubs to a new location.  (The other best time is fall.)

Let’s imagine for a moment we want to move a Hosta.  Right now, as the shoots are just beginning to poke up out of the ground like little spears, but before the leaves unfurl, is the best time to transplant. The same goes for most other plants as well, but I recommend looking up your specific plant or dropping me a line if you’re not sure.

The tools you will need to transplant are a pitch fork, a sharp spade and possibly a pruning shears or lopper.

Keep in mind the goal with transplanting it to cause as little stress, trauma or shock to the plant as possible.  You want to give them lots of room and be as gentle as you can.  Before you dig-up a plant, keep in mind that you are only seeing the shoots, when they leaf out they will be considerably wider.  Tree roots, for example, extend, at minimum, out to the canopy and most often much further.  So before your spade touches the soil, look up.  If you’re inside the canopy, you’re too close.  Move out.

Most perennials are similar.  Think of their leafed out size as their canopy and dig outside of that line.  It also helps to know what kind of root system your plant has before you even start this process.  In other words, it a shallow rhizome?  Deep tuber?  Tap root?  Or fibrous roots?  Knowing this is like having a road map for digging.  It gives you a rough idea as to what to expect as you go.  If the plant has a deep tuber or a tap-root, be extremely careful not to sever the top of the plant from the root.

As a side note, tap rooted plants typically don’t like to be moved (think of carrots), so make every effort to site them properly the first time they are planted.

Okay, time to start digging.  Personally, I like to use a pitch fork to do the first round of digging.  The pitch fork will allow you to test the waters a bit without severing any roots.  It allows you to feel around in the soil and help determine whether you’re out far enough or whether you’re still in the root zone.  Once you’ve determined that you are out far enough from the center of the plant, grab your sharpened spade and slice into the soil.  (Try to keep your spade upright so you don’t inadvertently slice off the roots you just worked to avoid.)  Dig all the way around the plant and gently work your way underneath until the plant feels loose.

Hopefully you get everything on the first try to the root ball comes out of the ground.  Typically what happens with me is that I think I’m set, but as I start gaining momentum and go to lift the plant out of the hole it comes to a screeching halt because one root is still be attached.  It feels much picking up an old TV, getting a grip on it and turning around to have it nearly fly out of your hands because it’s still plugged into the wall.  If this happens to you, get back in there and continue digging until you find the “cord”.  Occasionally there will be one wild root that seems to go on forever.  You’ll be digging and digging, following the root nearly to China.  If this happens, you need to make a decision, fish or cut bait?  My recommendation is to check out the whole root ball and determine how much damage you think you will cause the plant if you cut this wild root.  If it seems like it’s a major player, keep digging.  If not, grab your spade, pruning shears or lopper and give it a nice slice.

Woo, hoo!  It’s free!  So now what?  Hopefully at this point you’ve already selected a site for your plant and have the new hole pre-dug.  If not, leave the plant in its current place in order to prevent the roots from drying out by keeping them out of the sun and wind.  Ideally you won’t have to worry about the sun and heat drying it out because you’ve chosen a cool overcast day to do your transplanting, right? 🙂

Okay, so off we go to the new home for our little transplant.  Dig a hole about 6″ wider but at the same depth as the original hole.  You want to have loose soil around the sides of the plant for roots to establish in, but you do not want to have a soft bottom or the plant will sink deeper than it was previously living.  You want the bottom of the hole to be firm to provide a nice foundation for the plant to sit on so that your plant sits at “ground level” in its new hole at about the same place it sat at “ground level” in its old hole.  This is important because plant depth can effect many things including flowering, fruiting and in the case of trees, stem-girdling roots.

Once your new location is ready, go get the plant from its first location and bring it to its new home.  Gently set it in the hole and make sure the plant is sitting at the right depth.  If it’s not, adjust the hole until it is.  Then, make sure it’s evenly spaced in the hole. Water the plant thoroughly, allowing water to partially fill the hole.

Next, add some compost to the soil loose soil that will be going back into the hole, making about a 1/3 of the mixture compost.  Put the soil/compost mix into the hole around the plant, gently packing with your hands. Do not step on it!  (Plant roots need air space in the soil in order to get established, not compacted soil.)

Finally, with some of the remaining soil, create a small ridge of soil at the perimeter of your hole.  This should look like a dish, which will help direct water down to the roots and prevent it from running away from your plant.  Cover the open soil with mulch, repeating the dish with the mulch.

Note: Never mound soil or mulch at the base of a plant or tree!  This can cause rot, disease and damage.  If you have mounds on your plants or trees, simply pull the mulch away from the base/trunk and create a dish instead.

Once you’re done mulching, keep the plant well watered until its established in its new home.

Voila!  You’ve successfully transplanted a plant.

Questions?  Let me know!


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