Ferguson: Take proper steps when moving plants around landscapes

Published 12:51 pm Friday, November 5, 2021

It isn’t unusual for someone to plant something and then decide that they’d prefer to have it somewhere else in the landscape. Maybe the original location doesn’t get the right amount of sunlight for that plant, or maybe the mature size of the plant wasn’t considered at the time of planting, and it’s getting too large for its location. Maybe it just doesn’t look quite right.

Alternatively, there may be a plant growing in a natural area on your or a family member’s property that you want to move into your yard.

Moving a plant is somewhat like planting a balled and burlapped (B&B) or bare root plant, depending on how much soil is retained when it’s transplanted. To give the plant the best chance for survival, you must make sure that sufficient roots are retained when the plant is dug.

A plant’s root system can extend quite a distance from the base of the plant. Large structural roots are more visible, but small roots that take up water and nutrients are also important to the survival of the plant.

You can prepare to transplant an established tree or shrub by root pruning. It may sound counterintuitive, but doing this far enough in advance of moving the plant can help to increase the number of feeder roots that are retained when it’s moved and improve the chances that it will survive in its new location.

The Clemson University fact sheet titled “Transplanting Established Trees and Shrubs” provides guidelines for how wide and deep the root ball of a transplanted plant needs to be, based on the size and type of plant. These guidelines can be used to determine how far from the base of the plant to root prune.

For example, for a two-foot tall deciduous shrub (one that loses its leaves in the winter), it’s recommended that the root ball be at least 12 inches wide and nine inches deep. For a shade tree with a trunk diameter of one inch (at six inches from the base), it’s suggested that the root ball be at least 18 inches wide and 14 inches deep. Guidelines are also given for evergreen plants of different kinds.

When you root prune, use a sharp shovel to sever roots in a circle around the plant. Make a small trench outside of this circle. The trench can be refilled with the same soil that was removed or a combination of this with some type of organic matter. New feeder roots should grow within the refilled trench.

When you get ready to move the plant, dig outside of where the trench was dug so that you retain the new feeder roots.

If you want to move the plant in the late winter or early spring, you can wait until shortly after the plant drops its leaves in the fall (if it’s a deciduous plant) to root prune. If you’re not in a hurry, you can root prune in the late winter, before the plant puts out new growth, and then wait and move the plant the following fall.

If all of this sounds too time-consuming, you can try moving the plant during the dormant season — digging the root ball according to the mentioned size recommendations, or larger — and, assuming that it’s a plant available from nurseries, just buy a new one if it doesn’t survive.

Let me know if you have questions.

Dr. Mary Helen Ferguson is an Associate Extension Agent with the LSU AgCenter, with horticulture responsibilities in Washington and Tangipahoa Parishes. Contact Mary Helen at mhferguson@agcenter.lsu.edu, 985-839-7855 (Franklinton) or 985-277-1850 (Hammond).