In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
August, 2007
Regional Report

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Moving shrubs takes effort but sometimes the hardest part is finding the ideal location.

Moving Day

I'll bet every gardener at one time or another looks out at a shrub in the yard and wishes it was someplace else. Or that a different shrub was in its place. Perhaps the shrub has become too big for its location. Maybe it's just not thriving and the gardener isn't ready to give up. Maybe it doesn't offer enough ornamental value for its prime location. Sometimes a gardener is moving and wants to take a particular plant along.

I once had a boss who found another reason for moving shrubs. I was working as a professional gardener, and during the winter months professional gardeners are basically lazy louts. Gardening outdoors in frog-strangling rain loses its luster very quickly. Eventually, after all the outdoor chores have been completed, gardeners move inside to propagate, transplant, and do equipment maintenance. However, soon all of the benches have been painted, the tools have been sharpened, the oil has been changed in the mowers and tillers, and the last of the spring seeds have been planted. My boss was savvy to the ways of winter-weary gardeners. Very much like an army sergeant, he would then command the crew to move shrubs from one side of the garden to the other. Once we had completed the task, he would instruct us to move all the shrubs back to their original positions. I am sure this was just to keep us busy, but if you have ever dug holes in wet, heavy clay soil, you know that it was also a lesson in patience. Clay clings. Let's leave it at that....

Over the years I've learned that the best time to move shrubs and trees is in the fall while the soil is warm, so that the roots can become established with very little stress on the foliage. The sun has lost its teeth, and the warm soil encourages new root growth.

Easy Does It
When you have decided to move a shrub or plant from one section of your garden to another, there are several steps you need to take:

1. Select a suitable location and dig the new planting hole twice as large as the rootball. Make an educated guess as to the eventual depth of the rootball. The reason to pre-dig the hole is so the roots don't dry out during the transplanting process.

2. Reduce the overall foliage of the plant by one third using selective pruning. Roots will only support a certain amount of green growth. If you damage the roots, the plant will go into shock. By reducing the amount of foliage, you reduce the chance of stressing the plant.

3. Spread a plastic tarp on the ground near the plant. Then, with a sharp shovel, dig around the drip line of the plant, trying to get as large a rootball as possible. You may need to use an ax to sever deep or thick roots. Use the shovel handle to lever the plant out of the hole and onto a waiting tarp. This may be a two-person job if the shrub is large. Remember, bend at the knees to save your back!

4. Drag the plant to the new planting site. You can actually drag the tarp right into the hole, then slide it out from under the rootball. Adjust the depth of the hole so the top of the rootball sits 1 inch above the surface of the surrounding soil. You may need to pull the plant out of the hole several times to get the planting depth just right; it's very important. Fill in around the rootball with compost, and water well.

Larger shrubs, or even small trees, can be moved with the help of several friends. One of the gardeners I worked with taught us to use two or three plywood skids for big, heavy plants. Instead of using a tarp, he would set the rootball onto a piece of plywood. Using a watering can to wet the surface, we would all push together as the plant slid along the wetted surface. The next piece of plywood would then be set in place, and we continued to slide the plant along until we reached the new planting site. It was very messy work, but the plant arrived at its new home in good shape.

One last thing: No fertilizer or pruning until you begin to see new growth!


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