There can be many reasons why you might want to transplant garden plants. Sometimes you'll be planting purchased nursery seedlings or pot-grown specimens into your garden for the first time. Or you may want to move an established plant from one garden location to another—perhaps it's performing poorly in a given spot, and want to move it to a more favorable location. Finally, lifting, dividing, and transplanting root sections may be the best and easiest way to propagate new plants. Whatever your reasons, proper transplanting techniques will have a big effect on the survival of your plants and how well they grow after they're moved.
When to Transplant Garden Plants
For most garden plants, transplanting will be most successful if it is done early in the growing season, before active new growth is fully underway; or in the fall as growth is slowing down, but with enough time for the roots to get firmly established before frost sets in for winter.
Summer is generally a poor time to transplant garden plants—the sun is too intense and the heat can be relentless. Plant foliage is transpiring moisture rapidly during warm weather, and transplanting at this time can be very stressful. This is why most garden centers have their best supplies of plants during the spring and again in the fall. Where possible, it's also best to avoid transplanting while a plant is in its most intense flowering period. Plants are putting most of their energy into flower development at these times, with little left over for root development. If you are buying seedlings or potted plants from a nursery, it's actually better to choose specimens that are not yet in full bloom, as they often transplant more successfully.
However, sometimes you have no choice but to move your plants during the hot summer months. With a bit of extra care, you can successfully transplant garden plants at almost any time of the year. If you must move a plant during the summer months, try to do it on a cool, cloudy day—or at least late in the day while the sun is less intense and temperatures are cooler.
Before Getting Started
Different plant species vary greatly in their ability to tolerate transplanting, and the recommended times and techniques will vary from one species to another. Fibrous-rooted plants are transplanted somewhat differently than plants with tuberous roots, for example. A few minutes researching a particular species to learn its likes and dislikes can go along way toward ensuring it survives the move and thrives in its new location. And be aware that there are some plants that are very finicky and will need to be treated quite carefully if you want to transplant them successfully. If your research suggests that a plant needs to be moved in a particular way and at a particular time, don't tempt fate with sloppy technique.
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Equipment / Tools
- Bucket (if needed)
- Floating row cover or board (if needed)
- Shovel or trowel (or both)
- Garden hose
- Garden plants
Water the Plants
Water the garden plants to be dug and/or transplanted the day before you plan to lift them. This ensures that the whole plant will be thoroughly moist when it's time to transplant. Make it a good, deep soaking so the roots can take up as much water as possible. Moist soil will also make it easier for you to dig.
If you are planting a specimen you received as a bare-root plant (roses and some trees are often sold this way) allow the roots to soak in a bucket of water for a couple of hours before planting.
Choose the Right Time
It's best to dig up and transplant garden plants when it is overcast or during the cooler evening hours. This will give the plant the entire night to get adjusted in its new spot before being exposed to the heat and bright light of the day. This is especially important when transplanting small seedlings.
Water the Plant One More Time
Lightly water the plant again immediately before digging or removing it from its pot. You want the soil around the rootball to be well-saturated so that the soil will adhere to the roots when it is dug from the garden. This prevents the roots from being exposed to drying winds.
Dig and Water the Transplant Hole
Use a shovel or trowel to dig the hole your plant will occupy. Water the hole before you place the transplant into it. You want the soil so saturated that it turns to mud. This is sometimes referred to as puddling.
Lift the Plant
Carefully dig up the plant to be moved (or remove it from its nursery container) just before moving it into its new location. Except in instances where you are dividing the roots for propagation purposes, it's best to dig up the plant in a manner that keeps most of the soil clinging to t the roots.
Never leave the roots exposed to sun, heat, or wind. When planting nursery specimens, it's tempting to remove all plants from their pots and place them where you want them to go in the garden, but roots will desiccate quickly. Remove each plant just before planting it.
Place the Transplant
Place the transplant into the hole, fill the hole halfway with soil, and then water again. Allow the water to settle the soil around the roots and then finish filling the hole.
Backfill and Lightly Pack the Soil
Lightly firm the soil around the transplant. The goal is to close any air pockets but not to compact the soil too much. Let the water settle things rather than pressing with your hand or foot.
Once again, water the whole plant, leaves and all. This probably sounds like too much water, but you would be surprised how much water can evaporate during the planting process. If you are working on a cool, still, overcast day, you can get away with a little less water, but never skip the final watering once the plant is in the ground.
Shield the Plant
If possible, shield the new transplant from direct sunlight for three to five days. Use a floating row cover or lean a board in front of the transplant to block the direct sun. This technique is most necessary for container-grown plants or seedlings being transplanted from nursery packs. Mature, established plants that are being moved from one location to another in the garden are usually fully hardened and will survive the move pretty easily.
Care for the Transplant
Check the plant daily for the first couple of weeks. Transplants may need watering every day, and perhaps twice daily in hot weather. The larger the plant and/or the lower the root-to-top-growth ratio, the more water will be needed. Check the soil for dryness a few inches below the surface to determine if more water is needed. If the plant is wilting, water it immediately.