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?

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, chillie 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 has admired this on several visits to Joyce’s place and tried to strike it from cuttings she gave me,  with no luck.

Burro’s tail in bloom

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.

Joyce’s burro tail also known as donkey’s tail

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.

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.

Camellia double-flowered cultivar

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.


Some months back I gasped when I saw the  coral vine (antignon)) threatening to throttle  what I had been told was a parrot tree, sweeping its choking tendrils all over  and through the branches and trunk.

Thankfully, it survived the ordeal and has bloomed again for what has been for us here, the 23rd time. And for the first time, I am calling it by its correct name.

Cockspur coral tree blooms

I have just learned it is called in fact the cockspur coral tree ( erythrina crista-galli) .  It is deciduous, native to Argentina  ( it is the national flower of Argentina and Uruguay) and its  gnarly old trunk and branches give no hint of the splendour of the velvety string of  bright red flowers that spring forth . And they make a stunning cut arrangement. Because it is located in a corner of the garden that has infrequent visits, I tend to forget about it. All the more pleasure when it rewards me with such a spray.

Now I have to rethink what I took to be parrot beak -shaped flower sprays on its limbs. Funny how you can be swayed by a name.

Isn’t that a reminder that  your gardening ideas can be shaken, dumped and abandoned?

Stay open to them.

The azaleas’ new home alongside the hippeastrums 

Azalea blooms


10 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    I just loved the story. Great storytelling.

  2. 2

    Brooke said,

    When my husband and I bought our first house in Western NSW, I nurtured a lovely cottage style garden, complete with a gorgeous lavender-lined path to the front door. We sold the house before going overseas and when we came back, we drove past to see how it all looked. I was devastated to see all my lavenders had been pulled up and some beautiful daisies around the front verandah had been taken out and the ground concreted over! Some people just have no taste!! Ironically, before we left town so many of my friends begged me to let them have one or two of my lavender plants, but I said no, they belonged with the house. I wish now I had dug them up and given them to people who would have appreciated their beauty.

    • 3

      Ah yes Brooke. Always a mistake to return to a previous home to discover what “improvements” have been made. If you move on from where you are now, do be sure to farm out your fave plants to deserving friends.

  3. 4

    I’ve moved many times and have never gone back, except once, to see my previous gardens. I just drove by and wasn’t able to see what had been done to the main garden in the back, which was probably wise. I just had to let them go and look forward to my next garden. But I’ve been in this house for 9 yrs and leaving this garden would be excruciating. Fortunately, I have no plans on moving. 17 times is plenty!

  4. 5

    Yes, living in the moment means loving where you are at and what you are doing and not hanging on to the past. Good for you, and hope you get to stay where you garden now as it sounds like you have put down considerable roots. Thanks for your comment.

  5. 6

    Never go back, I couldn’t bear to look at our earlier garden, replaced with a McMansion, pool and deck. But I brought many plants with me. And I will take many with me to the next garden. Especially succulents and pelargoniums which will travel happily as cuttings and root when they reach their new home.

  6. 8

    Entering this comment on behalf of Heather who says:

    “What a lovely story and so well written. I know what she means when she says she inherited plants from friends. We have several plants in our garden which we remember with love.
    All the pine trees in our side and back garden came from Mum and Dad’s home. They grew them from seed from their own trees. Also, we have two rose bushes in pots. One of them Brian grew from a cutting which he took off Dick’s plant at the bottom of their front steps. The other we inherited from a good friend who has subsequently passed away. They live on our front patio and every time I pick a rose I remember them.”

  7. 9

    John said,

    A wonderful heart-warming story, Julie … so good I have reblogged it here http://eatdrinksleepshopaustralia.com/ and hope this is OK. john

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