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Moving plants around

Getting more for nothing

You may have heard of “fast fashion” - buying cheap clothes on a whim which look good for a moment or two and then are cast away and languish at the back of a wardrobe.

The parallel in gardening can be the temptation to buy a plant from a glossy gardening magazine, idle a while at the enticing garden stands outside the supermarket, or pop into a nursery and buy one plant in flower right now.

Of course, buying new plants absolutely has a time and a place. We should be proud to support the local horticulturalists, nurseries and suppliers who have overcome incredibly hard trading conditions the last couple of years. Use them or lose them!

But before the first frosts set in, it’s the perfect time to take stock and see what you have already got in your garden and see if you can get more from what you already have…by simply moving them around.

Lifting, dividing, and moving

In essence, “lifting and dividing” means digging up a plant, chopping it into bits and then replanting the smaller bits in the same or new locations. There may be plants a couple of years old that have outgrown their original planting space. This is a cheap and easy way to get more plants for free, simply from something already happy in your garden.

If a plant is just in the wrong place - for instance, you want to move it further back in a border, because it’s taller than anticipated - it’s also a good time to get the removal van in. If a plant has failed to thrive, check whether it’s in the right place. Is it getting enough sun? Or is it too waterlogged? Is there a better location for it? If a plant is unhappy in where it is right now, what do you have to lose by trying? Give it a go!

What to move and when

Autumn and spring are the perfect time for lifting and dividing herbaceous perennial plants. These plants die back in winter to almost nothing before reviving themselves in spring.

If your perennials are still in flower this autumn, stop. Wait until spring before you disturb them. It’s exactly the same technique as described below, just done 6 months later.

Some plants are harder to move than others. Plants - such as peonies or Chinese balloon flowers (platycodons), for instance - will sulk for a while after being moved. Others will simply accept their new environment and romp away. The easiest and most forgiving plants to try this with are hardy geraniums and sedums (hylotelephiums) who have clump forming roots near the surface. If you are not sure what type of roots a plant has, dig a bit of soil away and see what lies beneath.

How to dig up a plant to move it

Dig further round and below the plant than you think you want to. This will ensure you maintain as much of the precious root network as possible. Dig a similarly large, if not larger hole, in the new location. Wiggle a fork in the base of the pit to make sure the soil is aerated. Add in any compost the plant needs, and put it back in. Check that you are getting the best “view” by rotating it a couple of times, then put the soil and any compost mix back in around it. Make sure the roots get a firm grip on the new soil by walking round the plant in a pair of boots. Then give it a big drink.

Moving a plant - an example

This sea thistle did well for a couple of years, but with increasing shade from a growing tree, it's not had a good year. It’s time to move it on to a better place.

Don't dig up too close to the rootball - you can always shake off soil, but you can't stick roots back on. Watch out for ladybirds!

Ready to be dug underneath and lifted up.

Moving plants causes stress and shock, so give transplanted plants plenty to drink.

The thistle looks a bit crispy in its new home a week later - but this is perfectly ok. It’s the end of season and there are healthy roots that will establish in the sunnier, drier location ready for next year.

How to divide plants

If you want to divide a big plant, then start by digging up your plant as before. Give the plant a good shake to get rid of excess soil. Depending on how tough the roots are, either divide from the base of the plant downwards using your hands, hand forks or large forks back to back. Sometimes you might even need a knife! What you are aiming for is to chop up the plant into plantlets that each have foliage and roots attached to it. You’ll want to get some even-sized clumps if you want to spread them around. If you want a larger mothership specimen and some smaller daughter plants, chop accordingly.

This leucanthemum (ox-eye daisy) was getting too big and splurgy for its current position. I dug it up, and then used a hand fork and my own mitts to separate it out (it was an easy one!). The three new smaller plants will be spread further out.

Digging up the motherplant

Using a fork and my hands to tease the roots into chunks

New smaller plants for replanting

Contact me if you want an expert eye cast over your current patch to see what you can move, lift or divide. I bring fresh ideas, enthusiasm and a creative approach to problem solving - all without costing the earth.

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