One of the best pieces of gardening advice I ever received came from a book and an author I’ve long ago forgotten, though I repeated the guidance in one of my own collections (The Icarus Glitch, Brave Ulysses Books, 2001): “Never be afraid to move any plant you can lift.” (Note that this is lift as in “pick up,” not “steal.”) And this wet summer has provided ample opportunity to follow that principle.
Naturally, there are better and worse times to move plants. Bulbs, for example, are easiest to relocate after the foliage dies back, and most trees and shrubs are happier with cold-season migration (about which more in a moment). Truth be told, however, most plants are tenacious survivors, and as long as you respect their needs, you can have your way with them whenever your shovel is sharp and your back feels strong.
To most gardeners, this is good news, because we’re likely to notice the need to move a flowering plant precisely when it’s least propitious to do so — while it’s in full bloom. The irises are in their glory, and we note that they aren’t doing as well as last year because of crowding. Or we want their rich, purple hue over by the evergreens. The melon-colored lilies are exquisite but would bloom more if they got more sun. The normally stalwart echinacea is struggling under an overstory of four-o’clocks that we don’t want to eliminate.
No time like the present! It’s true that with many plants, you’re apt to disrupt or terminate the bloom cycle — but at least you will have gotten it done. And whereas gardeners with more patience will simply add such tasks to end-of-season chores, for better or worse, that ain’t me. Whatever one wants to say about it, I have only rarely lost a plant moved at even the worst possible time (mid-August in a dry year).
When transplanting anything other than dormant bulbs, corms or rhizomes, always take as large a root ball as possible. Get help if the root ball is bigger than you can hoist — don’t cut back more roots to make the job easier. And prune the plant top severely. My rule of thumb is that a shrub should be cut back to the root ball’s dimensions.
Notwithstanding my rashness, I can appreciate the grace and purpose of those who take the long view. Juergen Dahl, perhaps the most poetic of garden writers, described his approach to transplanting in a book recently translated from his native German. Writing about his late-fall chores in The Curious Gardener (Timber Press, 2004), Dahl observed: “Woody plants and perennials are both quite insensitive to relocating right now, and if, when there is no frost, we work our way down last summer’s list of necessary relocations, we will have gained some valuable time for the spring. The plants will not notice; they will simply reawaken in another place and will feel even less disturbed since their future place suits them better.”
It’s enough to make you want to be a plant in Dahl’s care: Don’t we all want to reawaken in such a future place? Of course, that’s the whole point of transplanting — we want our future garden to be better than today’s. So get busy.
Dig the volunteer coreopsis out of the sedum bed, and put the plants against the stone wall. Lift that whole bed of day lilies, give a bushel-basketful to your best friend, and replant the rest along the driveway. Go ahead and dig up the azaleas you planted way too close together because they looked so tiny in their 8-inch pots, and spread them out.
But don’t bother trying to move corn — I’ve tried it.