Japanese Maple – Moving

I recently received an urgent e-mail from Joe: “I need to immediately move an eight foot tall Japanese maple this week or lose it forever. How do I go about digging it up? What precautions should be taken?”

I could sense his desperation to save what was probably a specimen tree in the way of imminent construction or earth moving. Although mid-summer is the worst time of the year to move a large woody plant, I gave Joe my best advice for his attempt.

REDUCE LEAF AREA I know that digging any plant will inevitably result in root loss. Japanese maples are very sensitive to low soil moisture. The leaves show their displeasure by scorching around the leaf edges. If the dry soil condition continues, the leaves turn as crisp as a potato chip within ten days. My first advice to Joe was to shorten the longest limbs by half to reduce leaf area. With fewer leaves demanding water, his plant will be less stressed and there will be better balance between the root system and leaf system.

DON’T PRUNE ALL LIMBS I also know that the buds at the ends of branches are the “brains” of a plant. They produce hormones that direct the growth of lower twigs and the expansion of roots. If all of the limbs on a plant are shortened, a flush of tender, water-demanding leafy growth results. By leaving the shorter limbs alone and pruning the long limbs back to an existing smaller branch, plant roots will get some hormonal direction and plenty of leaves will be spared to make food for the tree.

PRESERVE THE ROOTS When balled and burlapped trees are planted in fall, the severed roots have several months to sprout feeder roots and to elongate them through the soil. The tiny root hairs at the tip absorb the moisture and nutrients a plant needs. Joe’s tree, though, would have hardly any feeder roots if he tried to dig a root ball closely surrounding the trunk of the tree. I advised him to use a spading fork to loosen the soil several feet from the tree and find all of the roots he could. I knew he could, with a firm tug, pull long roots still attached to the tree out of the soil. By spraying them with water as he works, the roots would be kept alive until they could be covered with soil at their new home. Covering the roots with plastic sheeting is a good way to protect them if the tree has to be moved a long distance.

PLANT IMMEDIATELY Joe’s new planting spot should be prepared and waiting for the new arrival once he excavates his prized Japanese maple. By matching the hole dimensions to the roots that come along with the tree he can quickly cover the roots with well-pulverized native soil. A layer of pine straw or wood chips over the root zone keeps the soil cool while the roots recover from damage.

ATTENTIVE CARE A newly-planted tree does not need fertilizer. It can get the nutrients it needs immediately from the surrounding soil. What it needs is water, applied regularly enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Fertilizer can come next year, once we’re sure the tree has survived its trauma.

Garden planting “rules” are not absolute law. If you are faced with a garden emergency like Joe’s, consider your options carefully, minimize the shock to the plant and forge ahead. Many times you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to flout the law and avoid punishment.

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