Early spring is a great time to transplant your plants, trees, and shrubs.
However, you must do so before they awaken for the season. Transplanting is a traumatic experience for the plant if it is awake. It’s like doing surgery on a person while they are awake.
Dormancy starts in the fall as soon as you have a good hard freeze. The plants remain dormant until the weather warms up in the spring. This is an optimal time to transplant.
You can transplant your plants in the spring up until the plants leaf out. When the buds are green and swollen you are usually safe to still transplant, but once the leaf develops, you should wait until fall.
When transplanting, you can dig the shrubs out bare root, just make sure they are out of the ground for as short a time as possible, and keep the roots damp while out of the ground.
How to Lessen the Shock of Transplanting
Water the garden plants to be transplanted the day before you plan to move them. This ensures that the whole plant will be well hydrated–roots, leaves and all when it’s actually time. Make sure to do a good, deep soaking so the roots can soak up as much water as possible. (This also makes it easier to dig. A nice bonus.)
If you are planting something you received bare root, allow the roots to soak in a bucket of water for a couple of hours. The Arbor Day Foundation (from my hometown of Lincoln NE) has good instructions on bare root planting.
Dig and/or transplant when it is overcast or better yet, during the cooler evening hours. This gives the entire night to get adjusted in its new spot before being exposed to the heat and bright light of day. This is especially important with smaller seedlings.
Water the plant again immediately before digging or removing from its pot. You want the soil around the root ball to be well saturated so that the soil will adhere to the roots when it is dug from the garden. This also prevents the roots from being exposed to drying winds.
Never leave the roots exposed to sun, heat or wind. 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 dry out quickly. Remove each plant only just prior to planting.
Water the hole before you place the transplant into it. You want the soil so saturated it turns to mud. This is sometimes referred to as puddling. Some recommend place a small amount of plant food in at this point.
Place the transplant into the hole, fill it halfway with soil and then water again. Allow the water to settle the soil around the roots and then finish filling the hole.
Lightly firm the soil around the transplant. You want to close any air pockets in the soil, but you don’t need to press so hard that you compact the soil. Let the water settle things rather than stomping with your 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.
If possible, shield the new transplant from direct sunlight for 3 to 5 days. Use a floating row cover or lean a board in front of the transplant to block direct sun.
How to Care for the Plant After Transplanting
Check the plant daily for the first couple of weeks. Transplants may need watering every day, if not more. Depending on the weather and the plant, you may need to water twice a day until it becomes established. The larger the plant and/or the fewer roots 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.
All of this may seem extreme, but the shock of being uprooted is stressful to plants any time of the year. In the heat of summer, this extra precaution is important to easing the transition for your transplants.
Make sure there are no air pockets around the roots when you replant them. When possible, it is always better to dig a ball of earth with the plants when you transplant them. The rule of thumb is 12″ of root ball for every 1″ of stem thickness. For example, if the diameter of the stem of a tree is 3″, then you should dig a root ball 36″ in diameter.
Don’t be afraid of cutting a few roots when you transplant. Just try not to cut them any shorter than the above guidelines allow. Cutting a small amount of the roots actually helps to encourage the plant to grow. It’s a process simply known as root pruning.
When the roots are severed, the plant then develops lateral roots to make up for what is lost. These lateral roots are more fibrous in nature, and have more ability to pick up water and nutrients.
Some nurseries drive tractors over the plants in the field with a device that undercuts the roots of the plant just to force the plant to develop more fibrous roots. This makes transplanting the plant the following year much more successful, and makes for a stronger and healthier plant.
The old timers root pruned by hand by forcing a spade in the ground around their plants. If you have a plant in your landscape that is doing poorly, a little root pruning while the plant is dormant could bring it around. It’s worth the effort.