Landcare: Transplant this winter

As you look around your garden you might sometimes think you have placed a plant in the wrong spot. It may look unwell, not be thriving, or may be just crowding out other plants.

June, July or August is the time to move that plant to a better position, before any spring growth begins to rise.

Plants tend to be dormant in winter when they lose less moisture and are not exposed to harsh sunlight.

Preparation for moving a plant is important. Water the plants to be transplanted the day before you plan to lift them, making sure that they will be very moist when it’s time to transplant. A good, deep soaking will encourage the roots to take up as much water as possible.

Moist soil also makes it easier for you to dig. If it is a shrub or tree, which tend to be larger, the width and depth of the root ball size is important. The rule of thumb is to dig a root ball about half as wide as the plant is tall. A two metre tall shrub, for example needs a one metre diameter root ball. When digging it out, dig down and under to a depth of about 30cm and cut any vertical roots as you go – it feels cruel, but with care the plant will recover. The hard part is getting under the roots themselves, so only try this is you have a good back!


Cutting roots like this when transplanting is good practice because when roots are cut the plant immediately goes to work replacing them.  The new roots are called lateral roots because they are not growing out away from the tree but they are growing pretty much perpendicular to the root that was severed. This creates roots that are even more fibrous, and these are good because they are quicker to pick up water and nutrition than old established roots.

Once you have moved the plant to its new hole, it is important to remember to give it a good drink. Water the hole itself well before you put the plant in – a process sometimes called puddling – then water it again once it is transplanted. This can be the most important watering you will do because it will reduce the stress of the transplantation and renew the plant’s moisture.

Plants, like people, find major operations stressful, so don’t transplant when they are ‘awake’, and give them a good drink after!

Before watering, lightly firm the soil around the transplant to close any air pockets but not to compact the soil too much. Let the water settle things rather than pressing with your hand or foot.

The times for transplanting mentioned above only apply to deciduous plants. Evergreens, such as crepe myrtles or eucalypts have different timing.  They cannot be dug during the spring or the early summer because they are loaded with soft new growth and they are actively growing.  But evergreens stop growing toward the end of summer and the new growth hardens off. Towards the end of summer it is safe to dig them, so you may have missed the boat until the end of next summer with evergreens.

Where possible, with all garden plants you are thinking of moving, big or small, avoid transplanting while a plant is in its strongest flowering period. Plants put most of their energy into flower development, with little left over for root development. In fact, it’s often a good idea to pinch off any existing buds and flowers immediately after transplanting, as this allows the plant to direct its energy into root development. With some species, it’s also a good idea to trim back the green growth to lessen the demands on the plant as it is becoming established.

After transplanting, check the plant daily for the first couple of weeks. The plants may need watering every day. The larger the plant and/or the lower the root-to-top-growth ratio, the more water will be needed. Push your finger into the soil up to about the second knuckle and check the soil for dryness below the surface. If the plant is wilting, water it immediately.

If you are unsure about the best way to transplant a particular plant, go to the internet – there is a YouTube video or information site for any type of transplanting. Follow any directions for your plant carefully – success is in the attention to detail. But if you are considering ‘redecorating’ in your garden this winter, now is the time to make those changes!

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