University City

December 28, 2012

Moving shrubs in winter; remember these key steps

What do you do with that holly or azalea growing in the wrong place? Maybe it’s so wide it has taken over the sidewalk, or so tall it is totally out-of-balance with your house. Typically, there are just two answers:

What do you do with that holly or azalea growing in the wrong place? Maybe it’s so wide it has taken over the sidewalk, or so tall it is totally out-of-balance with your house. Typically, there are just two answers:

Aunt Esther says: “Leave it alone. No need to kill a healthy plant?”

Uncle Frank says: “Just cut the thing down.”

But this absolutist debate neglects an idea that might be the best option of all. You can instead simply move a misplaced shrub to a new location, where it may enjoy a wildly successful second life.

When we first moved into in our home in Autumnwood, for instance, the nice view from our front windows was blocked by an assertive hedge of Burford hollies. They were so massive that trying to prune them back was an exercise in futility. On the other hand, they were strong plants, covered with red berries this time of year. It seemed a shame to simply cut them down.

The Burford holly is a Dixie success story with a global twist. The mother plant for the countless Burford hollies decorating Charlotte landscapes, from Myers Park mansions to the bleakest urban parking lots, was first discovered about a century ago growing in an Atlanta graveyard. It’s a Chinese holly that found the South to its liking, just like such fellow Asian immigrants as crepe myrtle and kudzu. Burfords come in two sizes – “dwarf”, which is huge, and “standard,” which is even bigger.

We decided to try moving them. We first cut them back severely, then dug them up and transplanted them to a barren slope between our back yard and our neighbor’s driveway. We didn’t know what would happen – at first, they looked pretty pitiful. Within a year, they had bounced back with leaf and berry in time for the holidays.

Now, more than a decade later, the relocated hollies have grown into a lovely hedgerow.

Moving vigorous plants such as hollies is relatively easy to do, especially if you relocate them during the winter. If you can, jumpstart the process by digging around the base of the plant, about 1 or 2 feet from the stem. For this first “pre-dig,” just push your shovel or spade straight down to cut a circle in the soil. No need to turn the soil at this point. Then let them sit awhile, if you can, for up to six or eight weeks.

Meanwhile, prepare their new home. Work the soil over a large area to a depth of about 8 inches, digging in up to an inch of compost as you do. Don’t simply dig a deep hole in our clay soil and fill it with compost or potting soil. That’s a sure way to kill a plant by creating a virtual “pot” where roots will become trapped and strangled.

When moving time comes, as time and weather permit between December and February, lift the plant up as carefully as you can, saving as much of the root ball as possible. Leave the dirt attached – that’s better for the roots, even if it is heavier. I use two shovels to work the root ball up and out of the ground. To make it more convenient, feel free to cut back the tops quite a lot. Our hollies looked like hat racks when they moved.

Then, simply transport the shrubs to their new homes with a wheelbarrow, and drop them in holes dug to hold the root ball. Set the plants so they are at the same level in the soil as they were before, or an inch or so higher. Fill the hole halfway with loose soil and compost mix, then water. When the water has soaked in, add the rest of the soil, pat it down firmly, and water again. That’s all there is to it.

A couple of fine points:

When moving shallow-rooted plants such as azaleas and blueberries, set them “higher” in the soil, so their growing point at the old soil line is 2 to 3 inches above their new soil level, then mound up soil to make up the difference. You can cover soil underneath any shrub with a light (1- to 3- inch) mulch of autumn leaves (they are free!) or straw, or an inch of pine bark or wood mulch. Importantly, remember transplanting is just the first step. You’ll need to watch your plant carefully during the next year, and keep the roots moist with regular watering, especially during hot, dry periods.

If you decide to move shrubs, you are in good company. At his fabled gardens at Giverny featured in so many of his masterpiece paintings, Monet was constantly moving plants around to fit his changing artistic vision. If he could do it, so can we.

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