Transplanting: Successful relocations begin with planning
Whether you are a person or a plant, a transplant can be unnerving. The day I moved into my new house unfortunately coincided with the day my GPS system quit working. Day after day, I would wander through the streets of my neighborhood hoping I would soon take the right turn and find my house. I could have used a map, but I had become so reliant on my GPS system that procuring a map never occurred to me. Trial and error eventually prevailed, but a little planning ahead could have saved a lot of fuel.
Growing things can likewise suffer trauma when moved, whether it’s from the nursery to your garden or from one spot in your yard to another. Let’s take a look at some helpful tips that can lead to successful relocations and begin with planning.
Careful and thoughtful planning can help you avoid the need to transplant in the first place. Choose plants that fit your landscape keeping in mind that they actually grow bigger. Although plants vying for soil nutrients, light and space can provide a lesson in survival of the fittest, it can also mean a very crowded look for your landscape. Soil types vary not only between regions but also between spots in your yard, so it can pay to have your soil tested at your local extension office to make certain it is right for your planting. Trees or shrubs will stand for decades so be sure you select a well-drained and well-aerated site. Subsurface drainage can be checked by digging a hole and filling it with water. If the water does not drain away within two hours you need to improve subsurface drainage. Also critical is sun exposure. Read the planting directions. Being an optimist is just not enough, and I have plenty of failed plants to prove it.
Timing can be critical to the successful transplant so plant at the time of year that gives the best chance for success following package directions or web research. As a general rule, plant most trees and shrubs early in the spring just before the buds swell and new growth starts; however, many can also be planted in fall after leaf drop but before the ground freezes. Trees and shrubs with roots balled and burlapped can usually be planted any time the soil can be worked as long as the packaged soil stays with the roots. Most perennials also prefer spring but can be planted in fall. The earlier the perennial is planted the better the root system will have developed to ensure winter survival. Native cultivars generally fare better for fall plantings.
Plants should be handled carefully at all times and should be purchased right before you put them in the ground. Many plants start life indoors, and then move outside to the garden. Leaving the plants outside for a few days will harden them off and get them ready for transplanting, “Hardening” is the process of lowering the temperature or withholding some water, or both, to thicken the cuticle, or the plant’s waxy outer layer. “The longer the flats of plants have been outside, especially overnight, the less shock the transplants will have to withstand,” according to George Boyhan, a UGA Cooperative Extension horticulturist.
Transplant on a cloudy, wind-free day or in the late afternoon when the sun has begun to set. Soak the plant thoroughly before removing from its container so the soil and roots stay as ‘glued’ together as much as possible. Cradle the root ball and keep as much soil intact as you can. Exposure to the air can dry out and kill root hairs. When planting, dig the hole two to three times wider than the soil ball, the container or the bare root. Always plant at the same depth at which the tree, shrub or plant was originally growing.
Post-planting care is critical to success. Many plants benefit from fertilizer so consider adding compost or manure to the planting soil. Be sure to “water in” the plant very well and keep it watered daily until established. Woody plants should be treated differently. They rarely need fertilizer for the first few years. In fact, fertilizer and manure mixed with the fill soil can cause root damage. Too much or too little water after transplanting is the major cause of tree or shrub loss. If unsure, dig down three or four inches next to the plant. If the soil is wet, don’t water. Mulch helps conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature and control weeds. Mulch should be 3 to 4 inches deep, but in the case of woody plants maintaining a 4 to 6 inch mulch free area adjacent to the wood stem is vital. This allows adequate moisture and air to move in and out of the soil.
Pruning depends on the size of the root ball, plant canopy and health of the plant. Remove any insect-infested or broken stems. Postpone other pruning for about a year.
If you follow these tips, you will hopefully enjoy greater success with your garden transplants. Successful human transplants will have to be the subject of a future article but first make sure your GPS is working.
Michelle Pearson is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.