Transplanting Established Perennial Flowers-or-How to Pack Up a Garden and Move

Shovel ready to dig up raspberry plant
Ready to dig up raspberry plant

Sometimes we have to move. Ideally we garden as though we’ll be in a place forever. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And if your garden is full of beautiful flowering perennials like mine is, you’ve been putting so much energy and effort and love—and money!— into your plants (and your soil!), so you just can’t leave them behind. You can move them! Yes, transplant your perennials into you new garden.

 While the ideal time to move plants is when they’re dormant, life doesn’t always work out that way. If you need help in taking the plunge and moving your plants, I’m in the middle of moving mine. Here I offer how I am doing it.

I have one more month before my move. In April most of my flower plants have been putting on a lot of growth—even pushing up flower stems and buds. Most of these plants have been in my garden for three years and it’s the biggest they’ve been. I’d been looking forward to this spring and summer to provide an abundance of flowers.

But instead I’m digging them up right when all their energy is going to flowering. I estimate I have about 100 plants to dig up. That’s a lot of pots and potting soil. I’m almost done with the job with all the most important and less replaceable plants now in pots. I’ve dug them, severed many roots, plopped them or squeezed them into pots of good soil, placed them in the shade, and watered them like crazy.

So far I’ve had a 100% success rate. All the plants have cringed at having their roots severed, but so far they have all recovered. Here’s how I transplanted my plants.

Scabiosa caucasica sending up buds
Scabiosa caucasica plants are sending up their flower buds

When to dig up your plants

Of course, the best time to dig up plants is when they’re dormant. If you’re not dealing with optimum timing, either in the evening when the sun is off the plants, or in the morning before the sun hits the plants are best.

My situation was that I ended up digging up many plants in the morning as the sun started to hit them. Once I had them potted I quickly put them under some shade. And once I had several done I carried them into deep shade and watered thoroughly.

Get your materials ready

Good quality moistened (but not wet) potting soil; point tip shovel; pots of various sizes—I used mostly 1 and 2 gallon sized pots; several 4 inch pots for any smaller plants, root, and tuber cuttings, and a few 5 gallon sized pots; a trowel; good quality clippers; shaded area; and water source.

Start with a big enough pot, but not too big

Bigger pots will take up more soil so try to use the smallest ones possible for each plant. There are two reasons for this. One is it gets expensive to buy a lot of soil. The other is you need to let the roots grow and fill in the pot before you can take it back out of the pot and into the new garden.

Judging the pot size depends on the size of the pot the plant was planted from and how much it’s grown. Choose the next size up from where you started or bigger if it’s an older plant.

If your plants will be in a pot for a long time, a bigger pot is a good idea. I plan to keep my plants in pots for as short a time as possible, probably up to 2 months. So I am sizing my pots as small as I can to let those roots fill in fastest.

I put several plants into 5 gallon pots but with only enough soil to allow the roots to grow a few inches. This way I get more width and a little more depth without using too much soil. It’s lighter to move that way, too.

You may end up dividing some plants into smaller plants as you go. This may be the case for plants like alstroemerias, bee balm, and perennial sunflowers. I tried to get a large part of these types of plants into one larger pot, but put back-up pieces of plant and roots into smaller pots. That way I’m propagating more plants. (Should my larger ones fail.)

Five Pyrethrum plants to be dug up
Pyrethrum plants to be dug up

Dig and sever the roots

Have potting soil in bottom of the pot, and an extra bucket of soil handy. Dig all around the base of the plant, to about the pot size it’s going into. Dig the shovel down and under the base as deeply as you can. Aim to cut the roots at about the new pot size. Listen for the root cutting as you go. (Painful, yes!!) Try to get them all cut. You may have to cut some of the bigger and deeper ones with your clippers.

When the plant is loosened and roots cut, lift with the shovel and hands. A lot of loose soil may fall off. Mine sure did because the soil was dry. Plunk that root mass into the new pot. Try to get the roots aiming down, but don’t worry if you can’t get it perfect. Quickly add potting soil to the pot. Use your fingers to be sure the soil is packed down and no air bubbles are hiding.

Work quickly and try not to expose the roots to sunlight.

Scabiosa ready for digging up
Digging in to move the Scabiosa

Place in shade and water thoroughly

Place the newly potted plants in a shady resting spot and water thoroughly. Check for spots in the pots that need more soil and add it. Keep the plants cool, shaded, and well-watered until the leaves have perked up.

If your potting mix has good nutrients you won’t need to fertilize for a few weeks. Let the plants ease into their new digs gently. Most will cringe, but keep them well-watered and they should perk up in a day or two. Sometimes more.

Fertilize after a few weeks

Use a liquid fertilizer, at a weaker concentration than recommended. I use half concentration until the plant is well along the way to recovery. This is just to start feeding them once their roots have started to grow, but a weak concentration is gentle to the new roots.

An advantage of a liquid fertilizer is that it can also be used as a foliar. This means that when you sprinkle it on the foliage, in addition to the soil surface, the foliage takes up the fertilizer, too. This is especially good for plants with a lot of growth on top that fills the pot surface.

Pyrethrum 2 weeks after digging up, in good shape
Pyrethrum, after digging up, is looking good and continuing on with its flowering!

Best time to fertilize

Fertilize plants that are well-watered. If using as a foliar have the foliage dry. Then with a watering can sprinkle the liquid fertilizer onto the soil and the foliage. Do this when the sun and the heat of day is not on them, early morning or the late afternoon or evening.

In my dry climate I have little worry that the foliage will attract fungal growth by being wet overnight. But if you are in a humid climate, or in a wet time of year, do this in the early morning.

Let the fertilizer stay on the foliage till dry for best nutrient uptake.

Some plants will need a little pruning

If not all the leaves of your plants are perking up, you can remove them. Just clip them off. Most likely the core of the plant is trying hard to keep going, so by removing the failing foliage the plants and roots don’t have to even think about trying to keep it all going, just the center of the plant. It will then be able to grow new leaves when it’s ready.

Wait a while before planting out

Let the roots fill grow and fill the pot before replanting. This will depend on how fast they grow, how much root mass was severed, and so on. Wait at least a month or two. If you pull the plant out too soon, you risk ripping all the new root growth that was made in the pot and you may miss a year of bloom. You want enough root mass to hold the soil together.

You most likely need to create new beds before you plant your plants, so they will wait happily.

Just keep them watered and increase the strength of fertilizer to according to manufacturer’s directions. Also, gradually increase the sun they get. Up to 6 hours a day would be enough for most or the plants while in pots.

My plants are now all in their pots. I have not lost a single one yet, and most have now been in for 2 weeks. So far, I consider this a success. Some are even continuing on to bloom!……

I can now look forward to planning the new garden!

Three weeks after digging and potting up, all plants are looking great!
Three weeks after digging and potting up, all plants are looking great!