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A moving story

Julie Thomson

Julie Thomson

November 4, 2012

WHERE do gardens go when their owners die or move house? Where does the love and energy that went into planning, building and nurturing it all end up? Does it stay in the soil or live on in the plants themselves? Is it “our” garden by geographic location, or by the trees, shrubs and flowers that thrive under our prudent watch – so when we depart, stewardship transfers completely, obliterating what went before?

I ponder this when I return to the neighbourhood of my childhood and look at places where I remember elderly owners on their shaky knees weeding and tilling, pruning and hosing. I recall as a child walking past, exchanging greetings over the front fence, sometimes sniffing a rose or squeezing a snapdragon or admiring a neat clipped lawn or hedge. Now their properties house plants and lawn arrangements of a completely different style. Some look equally well loved, some sadly neglected. I think I can still “feel” the presence of the people I knew there more than 40 years ago, but perhaps that’s sentimentality.

I gaze across at the place next door to my childhood home and can still hear the tuneful whistle of our blind neighbour, a former Rat of Tobruk whose sight was taken by disease from his wartime desert duty. Yet this man could garden exquisitely just by feel and had memorised his plot so accurately, he could mow the whole yard and empty the catcher into his compost heap, weave his way around the beds without one misstep. Do the hydrangea that still flourish there carry the imprint of his years of care and the soundwaves of  his perfectly-pitched “Dixie” (his favourite number)? Long dead and buried, is he now atomised into a raindrop that has fallen here and nurtured new growth?

Sedum morganianum Photo by KIG (aka Er.We)

I mused again on this recently when a dear friend offered me some of her late mother’s plants when she was finalising the estate and selling her house. With help from a brawny brother, she dug up a number of azaleas and camellias that had followed her mother to this property from two previous homes, as well as potted crotons, begonias, chilli bushes, scented geranium, devil’s spine and a quirky little hanging plant called a burro tail or donkey’s tail (Sedum morganianum) which is native to Mexico. It has fleshy little buds that hang in strips and, every year, produces a delicate little red flower at the tip. I have admired this on several visits to Joyce’s place and tried to strike it from cuttings she gave me, with no luck.

Burro basket from Joyce

And now it and the other plants are mine to love and help keep a part of her mother in our hearts. I was delighted to be given the task, passed the baton, so to speak, of maintaining Joyce’s lovely keepsakes.

So within all this whimsy, some practical tips on moving azaleas and camelias.

It might be you also inherit someone’s beautiful legacy or you need to move an established tree or plant to make way for renovations.

I had prepared some holes in advance in appropriate spots in my garden for the azaleas. I bit the bullet and picked front fence positions so I could brag their flowering beauty to passers-by. It might be a tad sunny, but I suspect these are the hardier variety. Conversely, any failure will be also on prime show.


I dug the holes about 25cm deep and put in a combination of compost and wetting agent and a handful of vermiculite. This is a hydrous, silicate material that promotes faster root growth and gives quick anchorage to young roots. The mixture helps retain air, plant food and moisture, releasing them as the plant requires them.

Ideally, azaleas are better transplanted in winter. Woody plants like azaleas  and rhododendrons can develop deeper and stronger root systems over winter. This root growth gives a transplanted azalea a better chance for survival during the heat of summer. But alas, the timing was not of our choosing.

To begin, use a sharp shovel and slice into the ground in single movements. Do this at the  drip line, the point where the canopy of outer branches reaches so you get the majority of the roots. Most azalea roots are near the surface so if you go around the plant in a neat circle, you will get under it easily. Use the shovel to lift the plant on each side and, as you do, prune the remaining roots under the plant.

Once free, get a tarpaulin or plastic sheet to place under and around so you can wrap the root ball. Before you wrap it, water it and prune the roots slightly to remove any shredded ends, as ragged roots do not regenerate well. Really healthy plants can have their branches pruned, but azaleas which are struggling a bit should not be. Once watered and wrapped, cradle the plant to transport. Do not carry it by its trunk with the root ball freely hanging or drag it by its branches.

Azaleas Photo Lee Coursey

You can keep it for while in this state, in a shaded spot, until you are ready to plant, watering it now and then. Prepare a hole wider than the root ball of the shrub, but at the same depth as the original site, just covering the root system with soil. Don’t pile soil up around the trunk. Gently tamp down the soil with your hands around the roots, pressing out any air pockets. Don’t stomp on the root ball with your shoes as this will compact it too much. Water in the shrub slowly and thoroughly, allowing the water to percolate through the soil. This will settle the soil around the roots and reveal any deficiencies where more soil may be needed.

Water once a week for a few weeks following the transplant. Mulch over the root ball to about 5cm depth. The roots will be looking for water and air to survive.  Water deeply once a week if you move it in a dry spell, especially in the first three years. Don’t fertilise at planting time. Just use a wetting agent and some seaweed tonic like Seasol. Azaleas like acidic soil, so a pH 5.5 to 6 suits them best.

I followed the same procedure for the camellias, adding organic matter and a sprinkle of blood and bone to the prepared hole.

Plant camellias so the top roots just barely show above the ground. They need good air circulation around the roots. Mulch the camellia tree well with pine bark mulch mixed with sand to hold in moisture. Use a time release fertilizer that will last for six months. Some gardeners put a rock underneath the roots to support them.

Now it’s in, I am watering my new camellia thoroughly (but not on the leaves). Some advise  pruning about a third of the foliage to compensate for root loss. I know how long they take to grow, so have resisted doing that. I will pinch the tips of new leaf growth it to thicken it up.

Mine is only about a 1.5m tall, but if it’s a taller specimen, staking is also essential for at least 6-12 months after moving. The best method is placing three stakes in a triangle shape and tie with hessian.

Treat the root ball area with Seasol at weekly intervals for at least 4-6 weeks after transplanting. If it’s flowering when you move it, trim off all the blooms and the buds to reduce the energy strain on the plant. Some advise doing this in the first season after the move as well. Camellias also like an acidic soil.

I think the new girls are settling in well here and hope they like their new bedmates.  They certainly won’t lack love and attention – and admirers here. And the memories they bring will take root and flourish as well.

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Alison S
Alison S
10 years ago

Thanks, Julie, for those detailed tips about how to move and plant azaleas and camellias. You’ve given me the confidence to have a go at moving some azaleas that are struggling in their current locations.

Moya Smith
Moya Smith
10 years ago

Thank you so much,Julie, I felt moved by your memories and musings of times past and the continuity of the energy of love and passion for people and the things that they loved and cared for. I wish you much joy as you nurture the plants you have inherited and share their beauty with others.

Julie Thomson
10 years ago

So far so good with the transplanted ones … just wish we could get some decent rain to help them along the way. Also moved some gardenias with similar process and they seem to be doing well, too. Fingers crossed.

Phileppa Doyle
Phileppa Doyle
10 years ago

I purchased a 1890s house 6 years ago. The garden, front and back, hadn’t received any attention for many, many years so I’ve spent many hours recreating it. It was going to be all native but a scrappy rambling rose, with just a little attention, became a glorious, highly perfumed rambler (named Heidelburger Phoenix 1954 Germany by a local rose judge) across the front porch ensured that the front garden is English. I’ve had to till the soil frequently to remove onion weed and last year a beautiful gladioli appeared, joined this year by a number of tall lillies and more gladioli; as I haven’t planted them I have to presume that the dried corms have lain low and my disturbing the soil has rejuvenated them? The back garden is becoming native.. hard work due to dirty heavy clay soil but .. it’s taking shape.