Issue: July 2, 2005

Moving plants in summer

Question:

We are moving to a new home about 100 miles away. Is it okay to dig up trees and shrubs to move them now?

Answer:

If it is possible to wait until winter to move trees and shrubs, that will be better. However, some plants can be moved now, especially if we will have a good monsoon season. Many of our shrubs (and small trees) used in xeriscapes (low water requiring landscapes) can tolerate being moved in the mid-summer if they are watered adequately to compensate for roots lost when they are dug from the ground. This does not mean you can over-water them, but the soil around their roots should be kept moist by weekly irrigation and a good layer of mulch to conserve moisture. If there is adequate rainfall, watering can be reduced.

Each time you irrigate the plants, irrigate to moisten the soil the same depth. If the rainfall is not adequate to moisten to the depth of the bottom of the rootball, then you will need to supplement with some irrigation. Soil moistened to a depth of 2-3 feet with each irrigation is sufficient for most trees and shrubs. Annual and herbaceous perennial plants may require soil moistened to only a foot.

A good layer of organic mulch around the base of plants will help conserve water, reduce soil compaction (to allow adequate water penetration and oxygen for the roots), and will help moderate soil temperatures. All these benefits will help as new roots form. Many of the plants native to our region produce new roots during the season of monsoon rains; therefore, this is a good time to move them.

As you move the plants the distance you mentioned, consider the damage done during transport in addition to the loss of roots during digging. The lost roots must be replaced, and the conditions mentioned above will help. To replace those roots, the plants must be in good condition. Transport can greatly weaken the plants.

Common wisdom advises that the plants be moved soon after digging and replanted as soon as possible to minimize drying of the roots. During the time of the transport, the roots should be kept moist. Moving plants down the highway in the back of an open truck can cause considerable damage to them from the wind.

Wind can break branches, rip leaves from the twigs and, perhaps worst of all, the wind can very quickly draw water from the leaves and branches. The plants are then debilitated when they are replanted. These plants will recover more slowly and produce fewer roots. This will delay or even prevent their establishment at the new landscape site. The bigger the plant, the hotter the day, and the faster the truck travels down the highway, the greater is this negative effect. If possible, carry the plants in an enclosed vehicle. If an enclosed vehicle is not possible, wrap the roots and the top of the plant with canvas or burlap to protect from drying.

If it is possible, wait until winter to move the most important plants and the largest plants, especially those not native to our climate. If it is not possible to wait, expect that some plants will not survive and will require replacement.

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Send your gardening questions to:
Yard and Garden, ATTN: Dr. Curtis Smith
NMSU Cooperative Extension Service
9301 Indian School Road, NE, Suite 112
Albuquerque, NM 87112

Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.