Transplanting Late into Fall

Is it still safe to transplant late in the year?

By: Sandy Feather ©2007
Penn State Extension

We're installing a new wall and sidewalk in the near future, and we have to move several shrubs and a small tree to accommodate the new layout. Will they survive if we transplant them to another part of our yard?

A. It is getting late to move plants this year (November 18th in Pennsylvania) but if the plants have to be moved now, it is worth the effort. Some plants tolerate transplanting better than others, so the kind of plants you are moving and their current state of health are important factors in their survival rate. Plants that are under stress – from drought, insect or disease damage, or improper siting – may not survive as well as those that are healthy and growing well.

Soil temperatures

Root development ceases when soil temperatures drop below 40 degrees, so you may have to water them through the winter if we do not have adequate rain or if the soil remains frozen for long periods. Plants cannot absorb water from frozen soil to replace what they lose through transpiration. This is especially true with broad-leaved evergreens such as hollies or rhododendrons because of their relatively large leaf surface. Needled evergreens such as pines or spruces also continue to lose moisture, but their needles expose a much smaller leaf surface and generally have a waxy cuticle that minimizes moisture loss. Deciduous plants such as hydrangeas or weigelas truly minimize moisture loss by dropping their leaves altogether for the winter. It is ideal to transplant them when they are dormant.


Try to move the plants to areas of your yard that fulfill their cultural requirements. All plants have preferred environments: the amount of sun or shade; soil texture (clay, loam or sand); soil pH and fertility; available soil moisture; and exposure or protection from wind.


Other factors include tolerance for road salt, reflected heat from buildings and paved surfaces, and soil compaction. The short bibliography that follows this article provides resources where you can look up this type of information about specific plants in your garden.

Dig onto a tarp to ease clean-up and neaten the job
Digging onto a heavy tarp will make
post-planting clean-up much easier!

Check the soil drainage in the parts of your yard where you intend to move the plants by digging a hole 12 inches deep. Fill it with water and allow it to drain completely. Refill the hole, and measure the depth of the water with a ruler. Wait 15 minutes and measure it again. Multiply the result by four to calculate how much water drains in an hour. If it drains between one and six inches per hour, the site should be fine for most plants. Less than an inch per hour indicates poor drainage, and you will have to find a way to drain excess water from the site or find another location unless some of your plants are known to tolerate poor drainage. If you have the time, it would also be a good idea to have the soil in these areas tested for pH and nutrient content. Information on obtaining soil test kits from Penn State Cooperative Extension follows this article. A single kit should be fine if the areas are close together. If not, and if the environment of the sites is very different, take a separate test for each.

Rootball size matters

When you move them, dig as large a rootball on each as you possibly can handle. These will have to sustain the plants until root growth resumes in the spring. If the soil around them is dry, water them well about 48 hours before trying to dig them. Replant them in their new locations at the same level as they were growing before, no deeper. Water them well, and check the soil moisture in the rootball through the winter. Water as needed to keep the soil slightly moist (think well wrung-out sponge), but do not kill them with kindness, either. You can apply a two inch layer of organic mulch around them after the ground freezes. Check them periodically to make sure that freeze-and-thaw cycles have not heaved the new transplants out of the soil. Roots exposed to freezing air temperatures do not survive.

Read More About It

Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0875638007.

Dirr, Michael A., Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, Timber Press, 1997, ISBN 0881924040.


Planting & transplanting

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How to prune a Butterfly Bush


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