Transplanting primer

It's like a game of dominos... thing leads to another. That's been the case where Steven's been working. Although it's the "wrong" time to transplant, soon he'll have moved most of the key features in a client's yard. And most will weather the change.

The design had been approved, materials were at hand, and the gardeners had the time. So despite heat and plants in a delicate condition -- pushing new growth -- Steven moved plants around.


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Here's the general procedure we follow, and several photo accounts in answer to:

I want to transplant some roses - when is the best time to do this and how to? I also have a Redbud and a Dogwood tree that are about 6 ft. tall that I want to move to a better location. When and how? - J.A. -


To quote that great gardener, designer, writer, Christopher Lloyd:

I am a great believer in doing a job when I want to do it,
and to hell with the consequences.

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Do it now.

If you put it on the calendar who knows if you will actually have the time, or if the conditions that normally make that time "perfect" will not then prevail?

We moved a Japanese maple (red leaves peeping out from behind a dogwood, below, left) at a tough time, sacrificing most of its roots to avoid hurting the dogwood we'd dubbed Most Important Plant. It survived and has been thriving ever since -- almost 17 years.

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In most cases, however,
the time of transplanting
is determined by
plant availability and
the schedule of
landscape installation.

- Richard W. Harris in Arboriculture: Care of Trees, Shrubs, and Vines in the Landscape -

As for how,

Here's the general procedure. (It can change a bit for every plant, so be sure to look at some of our transplant picture albums: peony, peach tree, arborvitae, redbud. They tell the tale better than any words.)


  • Water the plant the day before. (Best moved as a water-filled plant in dryish soil.)
  • Tie branches (right) to keep them out of your way and to avoid breaks. Stake and tie herbaceous plants.
  • Start digging at the dripline. Identify your plant's roots. Preserve as many as you can. What must be cut, cut clean.
  • Trench deeper, then undercut the root mass.
  • Make the new hole match what you left behind.



Take a look at moving an arborvitae, a peach tree, or a peony. All move the same as a rose.

Below: Here is the base and roots of a climbing rose we moved recently. Once you see the arborvitae, peach (right) and others, we think you'll see that this root mass is no different. (Sorry that it's grainy; we haven't taken photo series of any of our rose moves, but snatched this from the background of another photo. We've included a tracing to help your eye sort it out; the rose canes are in blue and the roots in orange.)



Are there "perfect times" to transplant?

Early spring and early fall are wonderful for almost all plants, roses included. When plants have cool tops but warm feet, their chemical mix shifts to encourage root growth over adding or extending leafy shoots. That's good, allowing a plant to keep photosynthesizing while putting the resulting fuel into grabbing hold of the new ground.

Some species have growing quirks that make one or another expert say "best to move that in fall/spring/after a blue moon, etc." However, some of those experts operate in fields of a thousand of one type of plant. They know what they're talking about, but they must track much more than the simple criteria we use -- plant survival. They also must give equal consideration to efficient use of workers, needs of buyers and best return for the dollar are major factors.

So our experience -- yours and ours -- is often the best guide for home gardeners. It has more to do with individual plants in gardens with diverse growing conditions, where there may be multiple sun/soil/water situations in a single bed.

Why you're likely to be more successful than a pro

Many gardeners do first, read later. In this way we have broken every rule, and know others who have. More to the point, we've succeeded. Perhaps the successes were simple luck, but consider this:

1) A gardener may handle a plant more gently and follow up with more care than a production work crew could, because it is only one plant, or their special prize or they could spend the time to devise a special tool or contrivance to help them. (Oh, the cool things we've seen ingenious gardeners do, especially those who bring other fields of expertise to their gardening -- the nurses, engineers, chefs, fabric cutters... you name it!)


A good example are the redbuds we moved, which will survive despite the fact that we made those moves during a dreadful combination of time and conditions. Why? Because they're seedlings of a special tree, nurtured for years by the gardener in honor of her dad who loved that tree. She, and we, won't allow them to fail.

2) Intra-garden moves often transfer a plant from a place that was not good for that species, into a better one. It might even be a then-or-nothing move to make way for a construction crew, road repair, utility work, etc.

3) A growth stall or partial loss after a transplant that might zero out a plant's resale value may be acceptable to the gardener who can wait.


So go ahead and move it, whenever.

You'll see and deal with consequences of a non-prime-time transplant.


Eliminate competition

No lawn grass or other flowers may be left in or just beyond the transplant's root zone. None.

Mulch well.

Place a shade screen or cloth to block the 3 pm sun, if it's midsummer or the plant wilted right away when dug.

Don't fertilize until new growth begins. Don't add fancy stuff to the soil unless it's a soilless mix. If it's natural soil, it already contains plenty of beneficial microorganisms which will be inspired to multiply because we loosened and  will keep the area moist.


When there's wilting

Well, duh! It has less root so it can't take up as much water. But don't despair. Water carefully, to keep the soil moist but never soggy. (Soggy soil kills roots; talk about counter-productive!)



Wait. If leaves drop (right, the peach complained within days) or if stems or branches die, only then should you clip them back. Until such time as the plant sacrifices them, let them be. Every growing tip is part of the chemical equation that results in a transplant making more root. Remove leafy tips and you may dull the plant's urge to root.


If there's serious leaf loss or tip dieback

We'd rather see a transplant keep every leaf. That plant can process more sun, make more fuel. However, if the loss involves primarily inner, older leaves we don't get overly concerned. Seems like the smarter plants (the peach tree!) do this, as if saying, "Whoa, what happened? Shoot, can't support this many leaves. I'll let some go."



If the plant loses mostly new tips, right away, we make a vow to be more careful with roots next time if we can, or do more to keep the plant moist between take off and landing (right, we're soaking this little bare root tree in a bucket of water; that brought it out of a wilt). However, we don't beat ourselves up over it. If the loss happens down the road during the resettlement period (which can be years for a big woody plant) we renew our effort to keep the root zone moist.

Other stress signals

Settling crooked.

We dig and re-set, taking care to work when it's drier rather than very wet so tender new roots won't have to bear so much soil weight.



Leaves scorch on the sunnier side.
Perhaps we moved it into a place that's too exposed? Or maybe it's just reacting to too great a change because it came from an overly shady place into the sun. We shade the sunny side. If it's a woody plant, we make a note to shade the sunny side during the next winter or two, since wood that was shaded and is now more exposed needs time to build thicker walls.


Dieback of limbs, main canes, main stems

Cut the losses. Be sure they are dead and not simply exhibiting early leaf fall. If there are buds set for the next year on a shrub or tree, that limb's not dead. If there are pink or white growth buds set below the soil at the base of a herbaceous plant's stem, we can cut the top away but know it will be replaced toot sweet.