Plant Moving Day

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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It happens to every gardener sooner or later; usually sooner. You realize you’ve planted something in the wrong spot. Maybe it refuses to thrive. Maybe it’s thriving too well, outgrowing its spot. Maybe you just don’t like where you planted it. It happens.

So what do you do? You move it.

I had two currant bushes and a jostaberry in a bad location — a northern exposure in deep shade. In Zone 6, currants appreciate some shade, but not that much. They bore fruit this year, but not like they could have; the amounts were low, and poorly colored. They had to move.

Timing is important when you move a perennial, bush or tree. Spring seems like the best time; after all, everything is starting to grow, right? Not when you consider that the roots take a major hit when you dig them up. You want the roots to grow, not the top. That’s why fall is better than spring. Early winter also works well, when the plant is fully dormant, but I like fall planting better. Roots continue growing until the soil temperatures drop to about 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

I used the following procedure for moving my currants and jostaberry to the fence line beside our mini orchard. The location provides far better sun exposure, along with good airflow, and it helps consolidate some of our fruit plantings.

Wait until mid fall, when the fall rains have begun, and top growth has slowed to a stop, but soil temperatures are still warm.

Dig the planting hole before you dig the plant to be moved. This minimizes the amount of time the roots are exposed to the air, at risk of drying out. There’s a bit of country wisdom, “dig a twenty dollar hole for a five dollar tree.” I confess, that one had me puzzled for a long time, but simply put, it means you should focus your efforts on the planting hole to get the best results.

Dig it big — but shallow. You want to be able to spread the roots out easily inside the hole. If you have to wrap them around to make them fit, the hole isn’t big enough, and your plant will eventually strangle itself with its own roots. On the other hand, if you plant it too deeply, you risk rotting it off at the soil line. You need to be able to see the root flare at ground level when you’re finished planting it.

When you dig the hole, you may notice that the shovel creates nice, smooth cuts in the soil, especially in clay soils. Those smooth faces are bad for your plant, creating a barrier the roots may not be able to pierce. Use the edge of the shovel to scratch and rough up this boundary line. As you remove the soil from the hole, load it into a wheelbarrow, or onto a tarp. When you’re finished, you’ll be glad you did.

Now, you’re ready to dig the plant. Dig big. Starting at the drip-line cut a shovel blade depth all the way around the plant. As you cut, rock it back and forth to work it out of the soil. Take your time, and keep digging deeper as you go. Remember, you can always trim the root ball down, but you can’t trim it up.

Once you have it out, take a moment to strip away any weeds or groundcover plants from the root mass. You can also inspect the top growth, looking at structure and form. If necessary, trim it down to balance the root mass, and to remove any damaged, diseased or troublesome areas.

Set the plant into the hole, checking it for sufficient root spread and planting depth; widen the hole, or backfill it as necessary. When you’re satisfied, backfill around the roots with loosened soil you removed from the hole earlier. Yes, it’s lousy soil, full of clay, or sand, bony or dense — whatever. Everyone has lousy soil, one way or another. Don’t be tempted to amend it with compost or topsoil, or anything else; use only native soil. You want the roots to go hunting for nutrients. Enrich the soil, and they’ll never grow out of the hole, leaving the plant weakly anchored, and shortening its life.

As you backfill, rock and bounce the root mass to sift and settle soil down around the roots. Don’t be gentle. Roughhouse it around so it anchors better. Water it in well as you go. This washes soil around the roots, and helps to fill any cavities in the root mass.

If the season is unusually dry, you may need to water a few more times, until winter sets in. Otherwise, the job is done. That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?

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