The Zen of Moving Plants

Friday, September 9, 2011
It was a huge project, and wholly satisfying emotionally to inherit my father’s plants, so I was happy to get a call to rescue some old camellias from a yard about to be paved by a business relocating to the house. I jumped at the chance and rallied the troops to dig and move them. It was a huge project, and only slightly successful – of six, two survived the first year, and one of those is now a very attractive bottle tree in my front garden. The other is in my friend’s garden. Ideally, the process of moving an established tree or shrub starts weeks or months before the actual digging. If you want to move the plants between November and February, which is best, do what I had time to do the first time. Right now, use a sharp shovel to cut a circle around each trunk about as big as the rootball you intend to move. That sends the roots inward and helps prepare them for what’s coming. You can choose when to prune, but newbies will need pruning. Do it as soon as the leaves Prep the new site now, too, by digging and amending the soil to suit the plants’ needs for drainage and nutrition. When you’re ready to go, dig and replant in rapid sequence. Use a root stimulator or compost tea on the new transplants and don’t let a dry winter dehydrate them. Much sweating and swearing accompanied digging, pruning, and moving these shrubs with trunks 4-6 inches in diameter. By the end of the morning we were ready to load them up when one intrepid guy grabbed an axe. In about eight strokes, he chopped a square foot root mass around each of six huge Reeve’s Spireas (S. cantoniensis or reevesiana, also known as Double Bridal Wreath), then grabbed a sharpshooter and forced them out. “They’re in the way, too, do you want them?” To be kind, I said sure and silently figured they’d recover in about three years if I treated them right after the mauling. Today, these huge and graceful plants line a definitive curve in my back garden where they bloom for weeks each spring. Spireas are native to the Orient and may be the best overall import of plant families for our gardens. There’s one (or three) for every taste and space, they’re easy to grow, reliable bloomers, and nearly pest free. Not all can be transplanted by force as my Reeve’s, but container-grown plants suffer little shock, either, and so require little, if any pruning at planting. All spireas deliver more flowers and best form in full sun, but will grow in partial shade sites and bloom rather sporadically. Spireas’ fine texture can be appreciated even without plentiful flowers and their range of green and yellow leaves will be even more pronounced in less sun. Amend native soils as you would for azaleas to grow the classic spireas. The two are traditional bed partners in older gardens and do well in fertile, well-drained garden soils. The compact varieties just need great drainage and moderate fertility to bloom up a storm; most will tolerate less moisture than the older forms. Till a bed or dig a hole twice as wide and half again as deep as the container. Add 3 inches of organic matter (manure, compost, and leaf mold work well, plus a bit ground bark if you have very dense clay) to 2-3 inches of native soil. Refill the hole, and make a mound about two inches above ground level, then plant, water well, and mulch. Install a soaker hose underneath spireas and use it weekly for the first season to encourage deep rooting. Fertilize with a shrub formula once in spring and again at midsummer. Classic Spireas (besides Reeves) Van Houtte Spirea (S. x vanhouttei) is a cross between S. cantoniensis and S. triloba noted for its graceful arching shape and yellow fall color. Clusters of single white flowers appear all along the stems in mid to late spring. Bridal Wreath (S. prunifolia) blooms before it puts on leaves with small, rose-shaped white flowers. The cultivar ‘Plena’ fills space rapidly, spreads by suckers and displays excellent fall color. Baby’s Breath (S. thunbergii) loses its fall yellow-amber leaf color late in the year, just about the time the tiny white flowers begin to pop along each branch. A bit smaller overall than other classics, BB is breathtaking in bloom. Compact Spireas S. x burmalda ‘Anthony Waterer’ may be the best introduction of the 20th century for every landscape that needs hardy flowering shrubs. Leaves on the 3 foot plants are dark green with reddish tints and topped with flat clusters of vivid rose-pink flowers. S. x b ‘Goldflame’ open its leaves bronze, then changes to yellow and finally chartreuse green by midseason with pink flowers. Keep the colorful foliage coming by cutting out any green leaved stems. S. x b ‘Limemound’ may be the most dramatic of all the small – tougher than others with pinky purple flowers and more responsive to pruning for dense form. Leaves are wildly bright green, then turn reddish orange in fall. The ‘plant rescue’ (or ‘torture of the damned’, as it is known to the participants) had another mind-numbing twist. One camellia was growing out from under the house adjacent to the approaching parking lot. We declined not to tackle it, and advised the owners to cut it down and grind out the stump before paving the area. The paving project scheduled for the week following our expedition got postponed by rain, and again by budget constraints. In fact, it’s never been done. And the camellia we left to the axe now stands truly grand, at least six feet tall and full of flowers in January. Go figure. The whole experience humbled me for several reasons, but it’s the Reeve’s spireas that brought redemption. Parts of this blog first appeared in an article for MS Gardener magazine in 2002.
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