Gardening Houseplants

How to Move … Without Losing Your Plants

I’ve been writing a weekly horticulture column for the French-language newspaper Le Soleil de Québec for 37 years. My son, Mathieu Hodgson, thought you might like to check out some of these articles from way back in time. I haven’t read them in all these years, so this will be a discovery for both you and for me! Then, since gardening techniques and information have evolved over time, let’s see if the advice I gave way back then as a novice garden writer was right on target or completely off-base!

Larry Hodgson

Moving boxes and houseplants.
Moving is always difficult and when you have to transport plants, it’s even more complicated. Photo: evgenyataman,  depositphotos

Moving Day*, July 1st, is at hand. Many people have already put aside dozens of cardboard boxes and everything is ready for (another) move. About one out of three Quebecers will be moving this year. That means millions of boxes to move… and surely almost as many houseplants!

Strange Fact

It’s important to understand that, due to some rather unique laws still active when I wrote this piece 37 years ago, virtually all apartment leases came due on July 1st and ended on June 30th across entire province of Québec. That left 2 million people scrambling for moving vans, pickups, cars, poney carts and even skateboards to move their possessions from one apartment to another, all over the same long weekend (July 1st is Canada Day, a federal holiday.) This situation of urban mass migration is so unique that Moving Day even has its own page on Wikipedia! And though that law is no longer on the books, July 1st still remains the traditional moving day throughout the Belle Province.


Moving is always difficult and when you have to transport plants too, it’s even more complicated. You never know how to pack them, or how to maintain them before, during and after the trip. Yet, you’d never consider leaving them behind, obviously!

Thankfully, I won’t be among those who’ll moving this year. However, I believe that having changed apartments five times over the last ten years—including bringing along my collections of houseplants ranging in number from a minimum of 100 and a maximum of 600—, I’m beginning to be able to give you some tried-and-true advice. Especially since I haven’t lost one yet… at least, not due to moving!

Watering a houseplant before a move.
The day before departure, water all your plants copiously. Photo: Dan Jones, flickr.com

If possible, plan your move a few weeks ahead of time. Some cleanup and light pruning would be worthwhile. That way, your plants will be healthier for the move. Stop fertilizing them at about the same time and put them in a somewhat shadier spot. That will slow down their growth and induce a rest period. If the move is to last more than a day, also take the time to pinch off any flower buds as well, because a plant in bloom is more fragile than one that isn’t.

Finally, the day before your departure, water all your plants well and let them drain.

Packing

Moving companies rarely accept to pack plants and won’t guarantee their survival even if you can get them to do that for you! So, whether you hire professionals or move yourself, it’ll be up to you to make sure your plants are ready for the trip. Your raw material for this whole process will be paper: newspaper, packing paper, etc. Crush up pieces of paper and stuff them onto the soil around the stem of each plant to help prevent its soil and root ball from popping out of the pot at the slightest bump.

Box of houseplants for shipping.
Photo: stephen boisvert, flickr.com

For medium and tall plants, make a sleeve out of newspaper that you can slide the pots into, just like the florist does when he sells you a plant. This will push the leaves up without breaking them. Then you can fold the top of the sleeve down and staple the top to enclose the plant. That will protect it from sudden changes in temperature.

Place the plants thus packed in cardboard boxes, stuffing them in as tightly as possible and filling the spaces between the pots with scrunched paper so that the plants are firmly anchored. Small plants don’t need to be wrapped individually. You can just place them at the bottom of a low box and pack them against each other. Closing the box will keep them safe.

Pleased man hold tray of houseplants.
It is best to transport the plants yourself, if possible. Photo: artitwpd, depositphotos

Plants should be the last items in the car or truck so they don’t get crushed under other boxes. Also, it guarantees that they’ll be the first things out upon arrival! It’s best to transport the plants yourself, if possible. Fill the trunk and the back seat of the car with them, get your family, your dog, the goldfish and … off you go!

Dont place any plant where it could possibly fall on the driver, especially if it’s a cactus! (Ouch!) If the journey is going to be long and you have to stop on the way in hot weather, park in the shade and open the windows and the trunk to let the air circulate. Even better, travel at night, as heat is the worst enemy of plants sealed inside in a vehicle. If you stop for the night, store the boxes in your motel room, as nights can sometimes be chilly.

Cat in a box marked fragile.
Write in large letters “Fragile” and “This side up” on all boxes. Photo: Rick Cameron, flickr.com

If the plants are traveling by truck, make sure their boxes are securely stowed. Mark in large letters “Fragile” and “This side up” on all boxes. If they have to spend two or three days in the truck in hot weather (although you should avoid that if at all possible), place a piece of dry ice inside the box of the truck. Not right next to the plants, though. Dry ice will help reduce temperatures that otherwise could easily exceed 122 °C (50 °C)! (Editor’s note: Today, it would be possible to rent a refrigerated truck.) If the forecast calls for cool, gray weather, cancel your dry ice order: you won’t want your plants to get too cold. Of course, don’t even think about transporting your plants by truck if you’re moving in the middle of winter! (Editor’s Note: You could read more about that possibility in the article Moving Houseplants in Winter.)

Dried out plant in July.
July’s not the best month from transporting outdoor plants. Photo: Ivan Radic, flickr.com

You Can Move Garden Plants Too, But …

Most people are happy enough just to bring their houseplants along with them when moving house, but some are likely to want to bring a favorite garden plant too … hey, maybe even a small tree! It that possible?

Tree being transported by bobcat tractor.
Some people will like to bring along a favorite garden plant along… even a small tree! Photo: Gregory Garnich, flickr.com.

As a general rule, unless the outdoor plant in question is already growing in a container (you can easily pick up and move a flower box, for example), it’s best to leave the plant where it is. The month of July, with its hot days, is essentially the worst time of the year to try experimenting with transplantation. If you still want to try, make sure you water the plant thoroughly beforehand and dig it up it with the largest possible root ball. Put the root ball in a pot or plastic bag and keep the plant moist, cool and in the shade until you can transplant it into its new home soil.

Bottle of starter fertilizer
In the past, we used to believe that fertilizers high in phosphorus (P) stimulate rooting following transplanting or division. That theory has since been debunked.

Put the plant into the ground as quickly as possible. Set its planting hole with the root ball at the same depth as before and water it with water containing a transplant fertilizer, such as 10-52-10, for example (Editor’s note: Oh dear! I really put my foot into my mouth there, didn’t I! I clearly still believed in transplant fertilizers 35 years ago. However, studies now clearly show that they actually hinder root recovery. Serious horticultural advisers now advise against using them. And be forewarned, anyone still recommending them is probably out to make a fast buck on sales, not to help you save your plant! Read the following much more recent article for more Info: The Myth of Starter Fertilizers on what we know now about transplant fertilizers). During the month following transplanting, your plant will need more water than normal.

Finally, it’s best to take only smaller garden plants and “forget” the larger ones. After all, they’re difficult to transplant. Of course, another possibility is to take only seeds or cuttings with you. This may surprise you, but you can grow most plants from seeds or cuttings. And that even applies to some trees!

However, here’s a technique that does work with all outdoor plants. Just wait until the fall (or the following spring) to rebuild your garden with good, healthy plants purchased in pots and ready to plant from your favorite plant nursery! And, unless you’re moving in the fall or early spring, that’s the best way to go!

Arriving at Your New Home

The first things to bring into your new home should be plants and pets! Photo: Andrew Lozovyi,  depositphotos

When you get to your new home, quickly bring indoor plants indoors and put them in a cool room. And open sealed boxes immediately. But you can leave the plants in their packaging for a few more day, as you finish painting and placing your furniture.

If you can, avoid putting plants in a room where you have just applied strong-scented oil-based paints until the fumes have all dissipated. (Editor’s note: I had my doubts about this information, as most of the information I found was very dated, but a few more recent article tend to confirm that, yes, some paints do give off enough toxic gases to harm certain plants.) Then put them in a semi-shaded place for two or three days, so that they can gradually get used to the light again.

Finally, put the plants in their new permanent location and start applying your usual houseplant care routine. Expect to see your plants recover from the change and perform well for many more years.

How Did I Do?

So, what do you think with the information I gave out so long ago? I’m generously giving myself at 7 out of 10 for this article, on the grounds that the basic information is useful and up-to-date. However, I got that one point—about the usefulness of transplant fertilizers—ever so wrong. It’s always worthwhile updating your knowledge about the plants you grow. Gardeners have learned so much about plants over the last decades that dusting off what you’ve long considered common knowledge can really be a necessity!

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

4 comments on “How to Move … Without Losing Your Plants

  1. marianwhit

    I tend to start over from scratch or take only seeds, having studied invasion biology for too long, lol.

  2. I would not know how to critique this. I never put so much effort into relocation of my houseplants. I would have not grown any houseplants, but some of what I grew in Southern California prefered to be inside here.

  3. Most of this information has stood the test of time and is certainly helpful to anyone moving. Our last move (and I do mean LAST) was on Halloween in the middle of an early blizzard. We had booked a moving van which the company generously sent to a different city the day before we moved. Hence, all of our plants had to be wrapped in blankets, sheets, etc. and moved in our car. However, we only lost a few so the moral is we should have been better prepared.

  4. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing some health problems. I will keep you in my prayers. Thanks for being such a great resource. Sorry that I just discovered your blog and look forward to reading the older posts. Take care!

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