I remember talking to a gardener a few years ago who, when I mentioned that his tall pines were interrupting the view, waved his hand and said, dismissively, “Oh, yeah, I’ll ask someone to move them.” I nearly choked. Moving shrubs isn’t difficult, but tall trees? Although it is theoretically possible to use a large machine called a tree spade, it is a very expensive proposition.
I have moved several shrubs over the years. I bought an allspice or a Carolina shrub (Calycanthus floridus) which, according to the literature, can be planted in full sun or partial shade. I planted it in full sun in rich, moist soil. The first year, the leaves were scorched by the sun and developed brown edges. Well, I thought, maybe it was grown in deep shade. If so, he will recover and next year he will be fine. But the following year it burned down again.
So this fall, I moved my shrub to a shady spot that only got a little dappled sun. It didn’t burn, but it didn’t bloom much the year or the year after. “Eh?” I thought maybe it needed more sun. I waited a few more years and never had many flowers.
Finally, like Goldilocks of Three Bears, I found the right place. I moved it to dappled shade under a tall pear tree. It has been flowering beautifully ever since. Which I guess shows that perseverance is important in the gardening world. I was tempted to let him get confused, but I was rewarded for my efforts to move him.
It is much easier to move a shrub in the first year or two of its life in your garden. It takes a few years for the roots to grow and move away from the root ball. Early in its life in your garden, you will be able to see its original root ball when you dig it up.
When I plant a tree or shrub, I generally facilitate root expansion in two ways. First, I dig a wide hole for the root ball – at least three times wider than the root ball. If the soil is very compact, I dig an even larger hole. All of this digging is meant to leave the soil softer and easier for small roots to penetrate.
Second, I loosen the roots by pushing them away from the root ball. I pull out all the surrounding roots. I use my CobraHead weeder to pull larger roots that are tightly tangled to loosen them and prepare them to spread through the ground. What if I break smaller roots? I do not worry. This will stimulate root growth.
The hole should be as deep as the root ball, not deeper. Your tree should be on unexcavated ground so that it does not take hold. If dirt or mulch covers the splay in the trunk, the trunk will rot. It’s a slow process, but soil and bark mulch contain fungi that break down a tree’s bark, killing it slowly – it takes six to 10 years.
What is trunk flare? It is the area at the base of the tree that flares out and often sends aerial roots that gently descend into the ground. This is most evident in large trees, but some swelling in small trees should be evident at the base of the tree. This area is often buried with soil when you buy a tree and you have to expose it.
If the flare is buried after planting, you may notice tip dieback at the top of the tree and discoloration in early fall. Both are signs of trouble. Check the trees you have planted and remove any mulch or soil covering the flare. Do it now and your tree can recover (depending on how long the flare was buried).
If you are planting trees this summer, remove the tree from its pot or burlap. Expose the flare of the trunk before digging the hole so you know how deep to dig. I put a rake handle or a wooden stake over the hole to help me measure its depth before placing the tree in the hole. It is better to have the hole a little shallow than a little too deep. You can always mount the floor to bring it to the right amount of coverage.
To move shrubs, the best tool to use is a long, narrow shovel called a drain shovel. The blade of mine is about 6 inches wide and 15 inches long. I drive the blade into the ground in four places around the shrub. Each time, the blade enters the ground at an angle of approximately 45 degrees, with the idea of passing under the center of the shrub itself. I press the handle, and it raises the shrub a little. After loosening the shrub, I press the shovel hard and the shrub is ready to be lifted.
The best time to move a shrub is in the afternoon of a rainy or cloudy day, not on a hot, sunny day. Move the shrub directly into a prepared hole for its new home. I usually don’t add fertilizer to the new hole because I don’t want to force rapid new growth. Slow-release organic fertilizer is safe to use, but not too much, and a little compost is also good.
Be sure to push the shrub firmly into the hole after filling the space around the root ball with soil, and firmly tamp the soil around it with your hands. Water well when planting and at least every other day during hot, sunny periods.
Finally, I recommend looking where other people have planted shrubs of the same species as yours that are doing better. What if you need to move yours to a better location? Dark!
Henry is the author of four gardening books. Contact him at [email protected] or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Henry Homeyer writes a weekly gardening column. The author is not a staff member of Le Moniteur.