Susan Harris
All about gardening the eco-friendly way, by Susan Harris and 22 other garden writers and experts.

How to Move a #@!*%* Large Shrub

September 29, 2007 · 8 comments

Spireatobemoved375Why the cursing in the title?  Because to move
this full-grown spirea took many back-breaking hours, that’s why.   So DON’T do
what I did unless you really, really have to.

In this case, the rhododendron in back of this spirea died, a victim of our recent
drought, and the best solution clearly was to move the spirea back into
the corner to fill the empty spot. (The dead rhodo ready to be recycled is
captured in the photo below.)  All this work to move a plant less than 2 feet? 
Yeah, that’s gardening – when you’re persnickety about combining your plants so
they’ll look their best.

And yes, staging is what’s required.

  • For 3 days before the big dig I soaked the soil around both the dead rhodo and the spirea.Deadrh375odo
  • The rhodo is easily removed – mainly because I didn’t have to keep it alive. Death is liberating that way.
  • Next, to save the groundcover around the to-be-moved shrub. It’s vinca minor and I know it’s terribly invasive in some locations but for some reason in my neighborhood it’s actually hard to keep alive. So I carefully lifted the clumps that would be destroyed in the shub removal and placed them in my trusty cement-mixing pans for safekeeping in shady spots til they’re ready to be replanted.
  • I began the spirea dig by creating a trench outside the root zone of the spirea through which I can slice under the root ball to free it. But boy, what a surprise the sheer mass of the shrub’s root zone was – probably 5 feet across in every direction. So this baby wasn’t going to be loosened easily.
  • More soaking, waiting for the water to drain from the mostly clay soil and trying to dig again.  You realize what all this soaking means, right?  That it’s much easier to dig up the plant but you’re digging in MUD.  Getting your clogs stuck in it.  Getting filthy, in a wet way.  Try it – you may like it!
  • Panic set in as I began to wonder if I even CAN dig up a root mass this huge, no matter what clever tool I employ. I consulted (male) neighbors about the correct tool to use, none of whom were moved to volunteer to help me.
  • Finally, seemingly against all odds, the root ball was severed sufficiently from the clay beneath it that it can be rocked loose and lifted. Aha!
  • I dug the new planting hole, a mere 18 inches or so away from the original site, and slid the humongous shrub into it. With no help from neighbors, male or otherwise, I might add.
  • I replaced the periwinkle around the spirea in its new position.
  • I watered deeply once, then again in 2 days. Deeply in this case meant hand-watering with no nozzle, waiting while several gallons of water filled the whole root area.

Yes, I took a photo but honest-to-God, it looks just like the "Before" photo because the camera doesn’t really highlight the crucial 18 inches by which the plant has been moved back into the corner. Nevermind. At least I know that after several hours of back-breaking labor, the damn spirea is in a better place than it was before. The real "after" will come next spring when this beauty’s in full bloom, I suppose.

Late spring and summer are the riskiest times of the year to move anything because summer’s the big killer – not winter – and plants moved during or just before summer heat will have a hard time surviving til autumn. So fall is the best time to make the move, sometime after Labor Day but early enough for the transplant victim to have a month to settle in before the ground freezes. In my Zone 7 garden that means that September and October are the prime times to plant or move shrubs.



1 Heather September 29, 2007 at 7:43 pm

I’m thanking my lucky stars that I’m not persnickity… :)

But you’re a stud for getting it done without any help!

2 c September 29, 2007 at 10:13 pm

I just moved my 6′ wide 4′ tall rhody… yes, for 3 feet away from original location… Boy, I know every single steps you did for moving your spirea… ah!

I live in Seattle, WA. There are quite a bit people posting craigslist saying “10′ rhody for free!”. I wish I could warn people even not think about reply it…

3 Carol September 30, 2007 at 7:46 am

That’s a lot of work. I started to get kind of sore and tired just reading about all that you did. Good advice on moving shrubs…

4 Sue Swift October 1, 2007 at 8:26 am

Hi – this is an invitation to join the Garden Bloggers Retro carnival. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the concept of a Blog carnival – if not I’ve explained it in detail on my site today (Oct 1). But basically the idea is to revive an old post which you think is worth rereading, or which you think new readers might enjoy. Send me the link to the post, and in November I’ll publish a series of posts describing and linking to all the posts people have nominated.
I hope you’ll join in and we have a fun carnival!

5 layanee October 1, 2007 at 2:00 pm

Susan: Backbreaking and how many blisters? Good for you!

6 Ed Bruske October 5, 2007 at 9:59 am

Susan, where do you find time for all this heavy lifting? Are you hiding a twin somewhere?

7 Amy Stewart October 15, 2007 at 12:53 pm

Damn! I just dig and yank and stuff it in the ground. Works sometimes…

8 susan harriss October 23, 2007 at 9:02 am

Lord knows if it were yankable, it would have been yanked.

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