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Monday, June 5, 2023

Community Writer: Sara, Waste Not, Want Not – Transplanting Volunteers

Like Lili, and many of you, our family is currently working on some outdoor chores and improvements. Ours include both moving and improving some of the traffic patterns around our home, which have been the same since 1970. We also recently removed some large trees for fire/storm safety, which have left a full-shade part of the yard suddenly full-sun, as well as quite a bit trampled and squashed. All of this means that some currently nicely-naturalized areas must be disturbed, while some previously nicely-naturalized ones must be rehabilitated. 

To further complicate matters, part of the overall project is completing some deer fencing; so, although we're anxious to get new plants started during our short growing season, it's unwise to invest much in plants for parts of the yard that might be immediately decimated by our local deer. 

I have been trying to make the best of the situation by transplanting as many of the removed plants as possible into the barer areas. Some of these plants have major imperfections and idiosyncrasies from their original growing conditions, and I'm “late” in moving some of them, according to traditional gardening calendar wisdom. However, I figure that the possible benefits are worth the time and effort of transplanting, even if some don't survive. 

After all, these plants are already used to our soil and climate conditions, and the time between digging up and replanting is short, so hopefully any shock will be limited. They are plants I'm familiar with, so I already know the conditions they need and their eventual size/growth patterns. They have a number of year's growth already. They're free, which everyone here would agree is always good. Last, the alternative would be to discard them, which goes against my “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” Yankee upbringing, as well as a general preference not to kill a healthy living thing.

In the past, I have had good results with transplanting volunteer lilacs (with up to 1” thick trunks), and moving bulbs, even after they have leafed out, which I'm not sure is “recommended”. I have also divided and moved daylilies and iris anytime from early spring to late fall. Here is a volunteer grape hyacinth which I moved last year from the front yard to the raspberry bed in the back. 

This year, I've transplanted more lilacs, bulbs, and iris, as well as trying to move one very old rose, some trillium and violets, some native maples, an ornamental maple, Oregon grape, snowberry, and mixed yarrow/English daisy/grass “sod” pieces. It's too soon to evaluate all of them, but the trillium and violets both bloomed. One individual yarrow is budding up now, and the patches of yarrow/grass “sod” are also growing well in the background.

The native maple is leafing out, next to another small lilac.

The biggest lilac is looking fabulous, although we accidentally cut off a lot of its main root while digging it up.

We didn't do anything unusual to help any of these make the transition. As I said, my main goal was to keep the absolute minimum of time out of the ground. However, because our soil is very heavy clay, I did mix a little bit of compost we had on hand into the soil from the hole, and as you can see, I also dressed the top with a little mulch. As with all transplants, I have tried to keep them well-watered these first couple of weeks, to settle the soil, stimulate and support new growth, and compensate for recent hot weather. I'm excited and pleased by the positive results, especially because I'm not an especially gifted gardener. 

Moving irises 

There were a bunch of irises around the original shed/"cabin" the original owners lived in while they built. They were under the eaves, so didn't get a lot of natural water or enough sunlight. They grow every year, but even after we tore down the shed, they don't always bloom at all. This year some of them are going to bloom (two opened today), and it's great timing, because I was hoping I'd know what colors/heights they were before I transplanted them to the backyard, so I can plan/arrange them, rather than just doing a grab-bag. 

However, since I won't be able to move them for a while, I got the idea to loosely tie surveyor flagging around them, with Sharpie notations. Then if I move them when they're all so far past I can't tell what they were, I'll still know.

Last tip – If you don't have existing plants to move, we've also had good luck buying trees and shrubs (like the forsythia below) from other homeowners on Craigslist. The prices we've paid have been maybe 20% to 35% less than a box store nursery, and we've met (and put a few dollars in the pockets of) some nice local people.

Sara has enjoyed being a part of the creative savv community for many years . She lives with her husband and a grown son in rural Idaho, where they continually plan and work to improve their 1970 home and acreage. Sara enjoys a variety of activities, including cooking, photography, sewing, crochet, weaving, interior and landscape design, hiking, fishing, doing anything at all with her husband and sons, and taking long drives around the beautiful Inland Northwest.


  1. Great topic! We've done a lot of bulb moving the past couple years as we reconfigure the space outside our back door. And I dug a daffodil I had unwisely planted in a raised bed for veggies several years back and counted 96 bulbs it had produced. These were planted in several other spaces around the yard and some given away, and yet I must have missed a couple because there were still two daffodils in that spot this past spring. It's good to know that other plants such as the lilac can transplant well.

    1. Love the daffodil story! Sounds like your bulb shuffling/reconfiguration situation is similar to ours. I have additional daffodils that were naturalized by previous owners in an area that now gets mowed. I have probably 30 wire construction flags marking the foliage right now, and although they didn't bloom at all this year, I'm hoping that the bulbs will be healthier from having their leaves a full season. I don't think that there are 98 under any of them, unfortunately!!!!

      DO try the lilacs, if you have a situation to do so. At our last property, we had lilac bushes shared from a local 1800s pioneer property to the previous owner in the 1930, which had gone crazy over the years. I transplanted a number of lilacs to the back of the property when we built a new house, gave some to a neighbor when we moved, and also brought some to this property. They all survived, though I wasn't able to be picky about timing, etc. The lilacs I transplanted this spring were deep in the edge of the woods, so have never bloomed. It'll be a surprise to see what they look/smell like, if they ever DO bloom, now that they have sunlight. :) Sara

    2. There is a row of lilacs along the fence line of our house which are on our neighbor's property. We've had a few volunteers come up from that on our side of the property line. The other bushes are getting older and won't last forever (we have lost several due to their age in another part of our yard, even though my hubby kept them trimmed), so it's a good idea to keep some younger plants going when the older ones inevitably give up the ghost.

    3. Kris, this is, indeed, a very good idea, to encourage the lilac hedge to proliferate on your side, too, and be "covered" (literally and figuratively) if/when more age-out on their side. The lilacs flourish here, and it took me a while to realize that they were sprouting up in the lawn profusely, because DH was mowing them down along with the grass. Should we need more volunteers, we've discussed not mowing so close for a couple of years, and letting those (which must have pretty sturdy roots by now) flourish a little more, in preparation for a move to another area. :) Sara

  2. I think it's in the nature of gardeners to share plants. I remember my mom doing it, and we've shared plants back and forth with people from church. Thanks for sharing, Sara.

    1. Yes, Kris, a very fine and natural tradition, indeed! My local friends who garden are much better gardeners than me, especially when it comes to vegetables; but I do have some natives and lots of berry volunteers (and garlic chives LOL) that they don't have which I can share, and that's fun. A neighbor where we used to live used to swap irises with me, whenever our beds got cramped. I brought some here, and always think of her when they bloom. Sara

  3. I love volunteers. Most of tomatoes are volunteers this year. And I have several other plants that have outgrown their space and need to be moved. You have given some inspiration to maybe get that done.

  4. Ooooo, tomato volunteers sounds fun! Hope you have good luck moving those other plants. Just as an update to the article, the yarrow that was pictured maybe 6 inches tall is now over 18, and I think it's going to bloom tomorrow. Whoo-hoo! All the other yarrow "sod" is also flourishing on the bare hill we need to stabilize. That was definitely a win! Sara


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