Thursday, 9 September 2021

Why are gardeners told to move plants in autumn?

This is a question from one of my lovely Patrons (*waves cheerfully*) - not, not a unicorn, leaping to my protection against the Dementors, but a kind person who pays me a little bit each month, in order to encourage me to write more often. And who is therefore allowed to ask questions!!

The question is, why are we always told to move plants in autumn?

It's absolutely true: all the books, all over the internet, all the time, tell us that we must move them in autumn, lift and divide them in autumn: and the implication is that  autumn is the only time of year when we can carry out these operations.

So, does that mean that we are not allowed to move or divide plants at other times of the year?

Hell, no! (That's me saying that, not the internet) 

I've spent my entire professional gardening life moving plants, as and when, with no particular regard to the season, because - being a professional - I am paid to do the job, and if the Client says "move it!" then I will move it. I will - being a professional - warn the Client of any possible consequences, but at the end of the day, they pay me to work, and if they want it moved now, then I will do my best to carry out their wishes.

Even Roses - yes, mature, established Roses can be dug up and moved, and certainly not "only" in autumn: I have a couple of articles about moving Roses, in my holding file, so watch this space!

Right, so what's all this business about moving things in autumn? I think there are several issues, all combining to create this "rule", and now that we have the internet, well, 90% of it is cut-and-paste, so anything (right, or wrong!) gets copied and copied and copied until it is so pervasive that people believe it.

Firstly, I do believe than an awful lot of gardening "rules" date back to the days of posh houses and the team of gardeners. Before the invention of mowers, a lot of time was spent cutting the grass - by scythe - and cutting the hedges using shears, which took up a lot of time. Autumn, in those days, was a time when the grass stopped growing, so the under-gardeners were freed up to do other tasks.

Next there is the aspect of not wanting to ruin the flower display for the year. When the family were in residence, they didn't want to see gaps, or anything ugly, or in that half-dead state which plants often go through just after they are moved. This meant that rearranging the beds and borders would often have to wait until the family had gone off to their winter home, or at the very least, until the weather kept them indoors, and less likely to see what was going on outside.

And thirdly, I think there is an element of having put up with something, having looked at and grumbled about it, all summer long, and finally deciding that enough is enough, it's time to move it.

Oh, and fourthly, going back to the whole "posh houses" thing, there was every chance that the family would go away over the summer hols: in the well-to-do times, the senior staff would be taken down to the summer residence, while the junior staff and the poor old gardeners were left behind on what was called "board wages", ie barely enough to eat. But as time went on, and belts were tightened, staff would be laid off until they were needed again - the origin of the zero-hours contract, I suppose. The upshot of all that malarkey was that no-one would be around to water plants, so nothing could be moved until everyone returned: and by then, you can imagine, there would be a ton of weeding, tidying, staking, dead-heading and so on, to be done, so moving plants would be a long way down the list, and maybe they wouldn't get around to it until they were fairly into autumn.

These were all perfectly good reasons, and in fact the second and third ones are still valid in the modern garden: but personally I prefer to move plants in spring - you can quickly see if the plant is going to die or not. There's nothing worse that expending a lot of effort to move something in autumn, which sits there looking miserable all over the winter and into spring, then you wait and wait for new leaves to appear, giving it "just one more week", then "just one more..." and eventually you have to acknowledge that it has, indeed, shuffled off this mortal coil, and you have wasted all those weeks of time and effort on it. 

Far better to move it in spring, when you can quickly see what it's going to do - it either lives or dies. Which is pretty much my motto, when it comes to moving plants - "It will either live, or die." Ask any of my Trainees! For that matter, ask any of my Clients! They will all have heard me say it, cheerfully, when asked if it was safe, or a "good time", to move something. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth, and get on with the job.

The only possible genuine reason for autumn moving, in my opinion, is the one where they say "move plants in autumn to give them time to get their roots established before they go dormant over winter."

Now, I have to say that I am not totally convinced that any plant, moved in autumn, will bother to start putting out roots "while the soil is still warm" because personally, my definition of "the soil is still warm" involved me being able to kneel on it, in shorts and bare knees. If it feels cold to my knees, then I reason that it will feel cold to the plants and their roots.

But the theory seems to be that, if you move them in spring or summer, they immediately start trying to grow leaves, shoots, flowers etc, at the possible expense of growing roots. In the same way that propagation manuals all tell you to choose a non-flowering shoot, because you want the cutting to put the energy into making new roots, not into making flowers. 

Which makes sense... but there you have it, personally, I prefer to move plants in spring, so that I can see if they are going to live or die, sooner rather than later.

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