Transplanting: Tips for Relocating Plants

Fear not about moving a plant that you realize is in a wrong or struggling location. Most plants transplant better than you might think.

Some of the most experienced gardeners move plants several times before they find an ideal spot. They’ve learned that with a few precautions, more good than harm usually results.

Beginners, on the other hand, tend to be reluctant because they’re concerned they’ll kill a plant by digging it and moving it.

Transplanting a wilted catmint plant.

Transplanting a wilted catmint plant. George Weigel

Why move a plant?

Sometimes plants are moved for purely cosmetic reasons, such as when the gardener realizes the plant would look better in some other location or takes a new direction in a particular area.

But most of the time, the reasons are 1.) the plant is outgrowing the space or 2.) it’s struggling in the current location.

A move to roomier quarters gives a too-big plant a chance to spread out without the need for ongoing pruning.

Moving a struggler can correct the reasons behind the struggling, such as a sun-lover planted in the shade, a shade-preferrer planted in the sun, a plant rotting in too-wet conditions, or a plant stunted because it’s planted in compacted or otherwise poor soil.

When to transplant

The sooner you move a plant, the better. Transplant success is highest when you recognize a deficit early and correct it within the first year or two.

It’s possible to move even a large mature plant, but the odds are iffier. The main reason: you’ll do more root damage when digging a plant with a wide, established root system. With younger plants, you’ll be able to remove most of the root system intact.

September and October are two good months to transplant because temperatures are cooling, moisture loss through the leaves is slowing, and rain is often more regular than in summer.

Early fall is also a time when the soil is still warm enough to promote good root growth, which is highly important for any new or moved plant in a region where the soil freezes in winter.

Late winter into early spring is a second good transplanting window. That time frame gives moved plants at least a few weeks to “re-root” before facing the challenge of a hot, dry summer.

As with all things gardening, there are exceptions:

  1. Plants are best not moved when they’re in the midst of blooming. It’s best to transplant fall bloomers in spring and spring and summer bloomers in late summer or early fall.
  2. Borderline-winter-hardy plants have lower survival rates when they’re planted or transplanted in fall – just before the possible challenge of a sudden October deep freeze or a cold winter. Those are better transplanted at the end of winter or early spring.
  3. Plants that have suffered dieback or severe wilting or leaf-scorching in summer are best left to recover in place in fall. Better to keep the ground damp and move them next spring.

Maximize your transplant success

Five other ways to increase your transplanting odds:

  1. Test the soil in the new site ahead of time to determine if any nutrients or adjustments are needed. This is also the time to be sure the new site is a good match for your plant.
  2. Make sure the plants are well hydrated before any move. If the soil isn’t already damp, give the area a thorough soaking the day before digging.
  3. If possible, wait until later in the day to transplant so the moved plant has several hours to adapt overnight. A transplant is more stressful heading into (or during) the day’s peak sunlight and heat.
  4. If you’re transplanting in summer or moving a plant into a brighter location, consider installing temporary shade for at least the first few days afterward. Shade reduces the stress and wilting that bright light can cause. Shade cloth, row cover, or burlap stapled to stakes are quick and inexpensive options. So is moving an object between the afternoon sun and the transplanted plant.
  5. Once the plants are in their new home, water well about two to three times a week for the first six weeks (less if rain cooperates) and then once a week for the first full year. In other words, water as if the plant is a new one.

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