When and how to transplant small plants and other spring gardening tips you need

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

Welcome to the Super Bowl of gardening! When spring hits, the garden is ready and so are we. There’s so much to be done and we have so much pent up energy that it’s easy to find the motivation to tackle the first 1000 of the 1001 things on your garden chore list. The bad news . . . The Super Bowl doesn’t last forever.

Spring, at least the part of spring that comes before the deciduous plants leaf out, offers so many possibilities that it can be hard to decide what to do first. There’s the bed clean-up that you didn’t get to last year. There’s bed clean-up that results from those late winter storms . . . no matter how good a clean-up job you did last fall. There’s pruning, mulching, weeding, planting and more. 

But when it comes right down to it, many of those tasks can be done almost anytime during the year. The list of things that are best done now is much shorter. This is the time to focus on that short list.

Always high on my spring garden chore list is transplanting. After all, I’ve just come through a winter spent looking out the window and wondering why in the world I would have placed that hydrangea awkwardly in front of one that was already there . . . and trying to figure out how one plant in my newly installed hedge is annoyingly out of line from the rest. The soil’s been too wet. The weather’s been too cold. But now the time is right and it’s time to get to work.

Like many things in the garden, there are a few basic rules or precepts that hold for about 85% of the cases you’ll encounter. So here are a few pointers to help get you going in the right direction.

1- Some plants die . . . and that’s ok -

 If you’re transplanting something because it isn’t thriving in its current home, it’s not surprising that there’s a reasonable chance the plant may not make it. Transplanting is disruptive. By some estimates even the best of practices can result in loss of 90% or more of the plant’s root system. So if it’s struggling a bit, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t make it. But by trying, you’ve given it another shot . . . more than it would have had if you left it where it was.

2- Plants are tougher than you think -

Particularly if you’re dealing with small plants – let’s define “small” as a plant you can pick up with one hand – most plants are quite easy to transplant. Of course there are a few exceptions – those that you plant and never move – but that group is in the minority. If you time it right and offer a modicum of aftercare, even a rank amateur can achieve high success rates. 

3- Get the root ball size right -

Yes, there is actually a formula for this. Unfortunately, it applies best to trees larger than the average homeowner would try to transplant . . . but you can use it as a general guide for most plants. For large trees (again, trees you probably don’t want to try to lift with 1 hand . . . or 2 for that matter . . . ) the formula is 10-12 inches of root ball diameter per 1 inch of trunk diameter. If your tree is 4 inches in diameter at the base, figure on 40-48 inches of root ball. Go ahead . . . try to lift that one . . .

Multi-stemmed shrubs are a challenge to calculate for root ball size but fortunately most are so tough it isn’t a much of a problem. And herbaceous perennials do a good job of letting you know where the roots are when you start digging but generally, adequate root ball size is usually less than spread of the leaves.

4- Baby the root ball –

This one is a bit of a no-brainer but the integrity of the plant’s root ball is key. Again, for the indestructible, bombproof plants it may not be that big a deal. But for those with sparse root systems and those that are slow to recover from transplanting, root ball integrity is important. Some people think that since plants are sometimes sold in a bare root condition (no soil on the roots) they can just beat the livin’ tar out of them when transplanting and all will be fine. But what those folks often forget is that bare root plants produced in a nursery have been vigorously root pruned through their production cycle so the roots are better prepared for transplanting. 

5- Replanting –

Always remember to plant so that the root flair – that swollen part at the base of the trunk  – is at ground level. That will keep you from planting too deep and will give your plants a good start in their new homes.

Once planted in its new home, water in, lightly mulch and continue to water sufficiently to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. 

But remember . . . the clock’s ticking . . .  so get out there and get it done.

This article was originally published by the Courier Journal on April 5, 2022.

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