When to Transplant Plants and Other Spring Gardening Tips You Need

Welcome to the Gardening Super Bowl!

When spring comes, the garden is ready and so are we. There’s so much to do 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 precedes the foliage of deciduous plants, offers so many possibilities that it can be difficult to decide what to do first. There’s cleaning the bed that you couldn’t do last year. There’s the cleaning of the beds that results from those late winter storms…no matter how good a cleaning job you did last fall. There’s pruning, mulching, weeding, planting and more.

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But at the end of the day, many of these tasks can be done almost any time of the year. The list of things best done now is much shorter. Now is the time to focus on this shortlist.

Transplanting is always at the top of my list of spring chores. After all, I’ve just spent a winter staring out the window and wondering why I would awkwardly place that hydrangea in front of the one that was already there…and trying to figure out how a plant in my newly installed hedge is annoyingly out of line with the rest. The ground was too wet. The weather has been too cold. But now the time has come and it’s time to get to work.

Like many things in the garden, there are a few basic rules or precepts that apply to about 85% of the cases you will encounter. So here are some tips to help you head in the right direction.

Some plants die during transplanting and that’s okay

If you’re transplanting something because it won’t grow in its current home, it’s no surprise there’s a reasonable chance the plant won’t be successful. Transplanting is disruptive. By some estimates, even the best practices can result in the loss of 90% or more of the plant’s root system. So if he’s having a little trouble, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make it. But by trying, you gave him another chance – more than he would have had if you had left him where he was.

Some Plants Are Hardier Than You Think

No soil or mulch covers the root ball of this wax myrtle.

Especially if you’re dealing with small plants — let’s define “small” as a plant you can pick up with one hand — most plants are fairly easy to transplant. Of course, there are a few exceptions – the ones you plant and never move – but this group is in the minority. If you time it right and offer minimal follow-up, even a rank amateur can achieve high success rates.

Why having the right root ball size makes all the difference

Yes, there is actually a formula for this. Unfortunately, it applies best to larger trees that 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 and lift with a hand or two for that matter…) the formula is 10-12 inches in root ball diameter by 1 inch in trunk diameter.

If your tree is 4 inches in diameter at the base, calculate 40 to 48 inches from the root ball. Go ahead and try to lift that one…

Multi-stemmed shrubs are a challenge to calculate for root ball size, but luckily most are so hardy that it’s not much of a problem. And herbaceous perennials do a good job of letting you know where the roots are when you start digging, but in general the proper size of the root ball is usually less than the leaf spread.

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Why do you need to “pamper” the root ball when transplanting

When the top of the tree is dying, you know you have a root ball problem.  This is one of many signs that your tree is dying.

This one is a little obvious, but the integrity of the plant’s root ball is key. Again, for indestructible and bombproof plants, it might not be so bad. But for those with sparse root systems and those who are slow to recover from transplanting, root ball integrity is important.

Some people think that since the plants are sometimes sold bare-rooted (no soil on the roots), they can just remove the live tar when transplanting and you’ll be fine. But what these people often forget is that bare root plants produced in a nursery have been vigorously pruned throughout their production cycle so that the roots are better prepared for transplanting.

How to replant a transplanted plant

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

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How to take care of your plant after a transplant

Once planted in its new home, water, mulch lightly, and continue watering enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy.

But remember that the clock is ticking. So go out and do it.

Paul Cappiello is the executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.