Moving giant rhododendrons

By Ron Knight

Large rhododendrons have shallow, fibrous roots and are quite happy to be moved.  The best time for transplanting is in late fall, which gives the plant time to establish new roots before the hot dry summer weather arrives. 

I have moved very large rhododendrons on two different occasions.  The first time was ten years ago when I decided to relocate a three metre tall R. Walloper from North Vancouver to Pender Harbour.  There was a major problem however; my van could only accommodate a one metre tall plant. 

The solution was drastic pruning.  A pair of loppers and fifteen minutes of work reduced the once magnificent rhododendron to a stick with two short side branches and a few leaves.  I then dug up a root-ball about one metre in diameter, pushed it onto its side, and placed a wheelbarrow, also turned on its side, against the bottom of the root-ball.  (Other gardeners have told me that a furniture-moving dolly works even better for this task.)  It was easy after that to push the rhododendron upright with the wheelbarrow, move both to the tail-gate of the van, and slide the plant inside. 

When the R. Walloper arrived at Pender Harbour, I wheelbarrowed it to a rocky hillside under some Douglas Fir trees.  Since there was only a thin layer of moss over the bedrock, I prepared a planting mix of equal parts of mulch, unscreened topsoil, and peat moss.  Amazingly, the rhododendron flowered again after two years, grew over the next decade to a height of three metres, and became even bushier than it had been in North Vancouver (Figure 1).

By that time, however, I had other Walloper rhododendrons in my garden and decided to give the plant from North Vancouver to a friend.  He wanted the rhododendron to be moved, without any reduction in height, to a spot in his garden where it would block out an unsightly view in a neighbour’s yard.  Since the R. Walloper was planted in a location that was inaccessible to a backhoe, my friend chose to hire three professional gardeners to assist him with the move.   That very wise decision allowed me to escape any heavy lifting and to take photographs of the entire operation.

The gardeners each arrived with a shiny new fiberglass-handled shovel.  (I’ve found that a flat spade, sharpened on a grinding wheel, is excellent for digging up rhododendrons.)  They first dug a trench about 1.5 metres in diameter around the R. Walloper.  Next they poked underneath the plant as far as possible to loosen a root-ball approximately twenty centimeters deep (Figure 2).  Then they pushed the rhododendron onto its side to release all roots from cracks in the bedrock below (Figure 3).  The next step involved pulling a large plastic tarp under the root-ball as it was rocked from one side to the other (Figure 4).

A new challenge now presented itself: how to drag the massive rhododendron over a perennial border without ruining the tiny plants in its path.  The solution was to create a “railway track” of wooden studs and slide the R. Walloper along it, above the perennials (Figure 5).  After that, it was a simple matter to repeatedly move studs from behind the rhododendron to new positions in the front and drag the tarp and plant across a lawn to the driveway (Figure 6).  Once the rhododendron arrived behind the gardeners’ truck, wooden studs were used to create a ramp, and the plant was pushed up into position on the flat-bed. 

From the time the gardeners arrived on site, the whole process took only fifty minutes.  No damage was done to the garden border, to the lawn, or to anyone’s back.  And now, with R. Walloper gone, I have space to plant an even more spectacular, tall-growing rhododendron.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6