A gardening friend once told me that her plants had been moved so many times they shuddered when they saw her with the spade in her hand. If you are planning to move a plant, winter is the best time of the year to do it because growth has slowed or become dormant, and conditions are mild reducing the stress on the plant caused by the disturbance.

Why transplant?

There are many reasons why plants are transplanted. Some have outgrown their allocated space while others may have been planted in unsuitable conditions (too shaded for example). Often building and construction work puts plants under threat of destruction so the move is done to save them.

Some gardeners decide to move plants when they themselves move. They may have a sentimental attachment to the plant or feel unwilling to leave it for the new owners.

Think before you move

Whatever the reason for the planned transplant, think it through very carefully. Small plants such as perennials and shrubs under a metre high are usually easy to move and relocate well. Larger plants however need to be assessed before the spade comes out.

The larger the plant, the bigger and heavier its root system will be. The root system spreads at least as far as the canopy and may be 30cm or more deep.

For plants more than a metre high, the weight of the root ball, the difficulty of transportation and the size of the hole needed for replanting all need to be considered. The transplant may require assistance to lift and transport.

Also consider whether you can rehouse the plant. If you have a new location picked out it may be practical to undertake the move, but if the uprooted plant needs to be stored, repotted or transported over a long distance, consider carefully whether you can manage the plant before it is rehomed as well as in its new location.

If the desire to transplant is triggered by a complete house move, also consider whether the plant is suited to the new garden (especially if it is a move to a new climate zone). If you are moving interstate also check quarantine restrictions to ensure that it is permitted to move the plant. Tasmania and Western Australia in particular have strict quarantine laws. Some plant families including Myrtaceae are also subject to restrictions. As well, some removalists will not transport plants.

Before undertaking a challenging move, also consider other options including propagating the plant by cutting, division or layering. If the plant is a known cultivar it may still be available to buy.

How to move a plant

If you’ve considered every option and still want to transplant, these steps should ensure success. Arm yourself with the right tools and materials including a sharp spade, a mattock, secateurs, a tarpaulin, rope and plant ties and a wheelbarrow or trolley. If the plant is very large and heavy consider using a mechanical digger or employing the services of a landscape contractor to under take the move.

  1. Plan ahead Preparing the plant for the move can make it easier to re-establish. To do this, use a spade to slice down around the edge of the root system (usually under the drip line at the edge of the plant’s canopy of leaves). This is done to encourage new root growth in preparation for the move. Pruning is usually only necessary to make the plant more compact for the move or to remove broken branches.
  2. Dig and slide When the time for the move arrives, dig down and under the plant’s root system trying to retain as much of the root system as possible. Lift the root ball onto a tarpaulin or into a wheelbarrow. If the root ball is large, lift part of the root system, slide the tarpaulin in and then partially lift the root system pulling it under the rest of the roots. Cut any roots that can’t be dug up or that are broken.
  3. Wrap Unless the plant is going straight into its new home, wrap the root system in the tarpaulin, heavy-duty plastic or hessian to keep it from drying out. Alternatively, put it into a container. Before placing a garden plant into a pot, wash away the soil and replant it using potting mix. If the plant is being transported or has thorny or wayward branches, also wrap the branches to keep them from being damaged (or doing damage).
  4. Replant Dig the new planting hole a little wider and as deep as the root ball so the plant is replanted at the same depth that is was in its original location. Also orient the plant as it was in its original position so the part that was receiving the most sunlight still does. Cover the roots with soil and firm the plant into place ensuring there are no air pockets around the roots. If the plant is tall or exposed to winds, stake it until it has re-established in the new location. Water well using a seaweed solution to reduce plant shock.

Ongoing care Continue to water the plant regularly, treating it as you would a new plant, and apply seaweed solution at the rate recommended for a transplant. Check that plant is firm in the soil. Only apply fertiliser when there is evidence of new growth. Cover plants with shadecloth if they are wilting or if sudden hot weather occurs. An anti-transpirant product can be applied to protect the foliage from moisture loss. Most transplanted plants require extra care for at least six to 12 months from transplantation.