Shrub Transfer

A volunteer asked me this past week how best to deal with or transplant a large shrub which is outgrowing its space. It took me back to a classic interview I did once with world renowned shrub expert, Peter the Shrubber. Here is a little excerpt to answer this stellar question:

Interviewer: Thanks, Peter, for being willing to chat with me in the midst of your busy schedule.

PtS: Absolutely. I always have time for one such as yourself.

Interviewer: Peter, how would you go about dealing with an unruly shrub a home owner is concerned about?

PtS: Well, first I would ask myself how did I get here in the first place. Did I put the wrong plant in the wrong place, too big for the britches so to speak? Did I offer it regular maintenance to control and guide growth or is my shrub dysfunction a function of the lack of care received?

Interviewer: This will not help me in my present circumstance, but is useful for future considerations. So, what would my options be in dealing with my current circumstance?

PtS: Well, it all depends on type of shrub, age of said shrub and growing context. The first thing I might try is pruning. Can I simply cut the plant to the ground or back to next to nothing? Some plants, like lilac, respond well to rejuvenation pruning. This requires identifying the shrub and doing a little research on how it responds to different types of pruning. Spring is the time of year for such an action.

Interviewer: What happens if that is not an option for whatever reason? What else can I do?

PtS: Right, so another option to consider is just wholesale removal and composting, unless the shrub harbors a particular compost threatening disease or something. My third option might be to transplant the shrub to another place in my landscape, and this is where it gets a little trickier.

Interviewer: How is that?

PtS: There are a few tips to increase your likelihood of transplant success. It is a common misconception you only transplant in the spring and fall. You can transplant a shrub any time of the year the ground is not frozen, if you are willing to live with the risks and take the necessary steps to reduce those risks.

Interviewer: Why do they usually recommend spring or fall then?

PtS: That is the time when the best environmental and biological factors align. The first thing I do when I am going to transplant an oversized shrub is to give it a light hair cut if necessary. This allows for two things. One, I get easier access to the shrub, and two, it reduces potential water loss through the leaves. If I take too much, I am also removing the energy stored in the shrub’s stems needed to grow new roots and shoots. Next, I use either a broad fork or spading fork, rather than a shovel, to begin exhuming the plant.

Interviewer: Oh really, what is that?

PtS: My little theory: I keep more of the root system, especially the smaller roots, intact using a fork than cutting with a shovel. I might eventually need a shovel to sever some larger roots or during the final removal, but initially I start loosening the soil around the plant, working in a circle way out at the drip line. The drip line is where the front edge of root growth is happening and where the roots have the least hold. As I loosen, I go closer and closer to the stem and center, working deeper and under. Very often, by the time I get close to the center I am able to get right under the plant and pop it out.

Interviewer: What about those larger roots?

PtS: If I rock the plant, I can see by the way the soil moves where the plant is still attached. If I cannot work it loose with the fork, bring in the shovel. I find using a fork to work a shrub loose has offered me greater success, because how much of the root system I keep intact.

Interviewer: Well, thanks Peter, for your time.

PtS: Absolutely, always happy to help my fellow Shrubbers!

I hope you found Peter the Shrubber’s advice helpful. I know I did. Phew, just thinking about it leaves me bushed.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager (and Monty Python enthusiast)

3 thoughts on “Shrub Transfer

  1. Gads! Last year, we needed to move a small star magnolia in summer! I so did not want to do it, but we needed it out of the way for something else. It was not happy about it, but is recovering this year.

    1. hspaulding111

      Tony, you may have touched on what could have been a final interview question or comment: “keep an eye on the transplant!” No doubt ongoing care and observation is key to ensuring that a relocated shrub is doing well (or not) which gives you a headstart if its condition does start to go south.

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