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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
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Moving? Don't Pack Your Landscape!
Q. We're in the process of building a new house but will not be able to move in until February. We have not put our current house on the market yet. I have some plants I'd like to move to the new place, but the outside work isn't finished and the 'top soil' is still in a pile at the back of the lot. Can I move the plants into large pots and winter them over in an unheated garage? I've been waiting for the weather to get cold to make sure the plants are dormant. The plants I want to move are peonies that originally belonged to my grandparents, old fashioned double-petal daylilies, Asiatic lilies and a rose bush, which is also from my grandparents.
---Sue in Fargo North Dakota
A. I know; I know. You all think I only picked this question because it's from "Fargo". No, I did not! OK, maybe I did. Okay, yes I did—but there's no wood chipper involved. You have to give me that.
Now—I also have to say 'no' to her plan. And this is where you all shout: "But these are her grandparents' plants, you meanie!"
To which I must reply: Dining room tables, jewelry, artwork, that special chair you sat in every Thanksgiving, family photos—these are all things that YOU own and can take with you when you move. But you don't own your own landscaping during and after the sale of a home.
…which is neither right nor wrong. It is, as Dickens wisely noted, The Law. When you sell a house, you can't take the doors and windows; but you can take the curtains. You can take stand-alone lighting fixtures like a table lamp, but you can't take a ceiling fan. And you can't take the trees and shrubs for the same reason—they're not furniture; they're embedded structures.
So, boom—just like that, you wipe out generations of horticultural history?!
No. There is a way for her to preserve these plants; it's just going to take some 'finessing'. As a dear friend of mine once said, "These things must be done…carefully…"
And just as winter in Fargo would freeze the wings right off of her flying monkeys, the same thing would happen to plants in an unheated garage.
Although summers are perfect for agriculture, winter in Fargo means zero degrees Fahrenheit (or lower) 43 nights of the year on average. Plants are lucky to survive in the ground, much less in pots—where they would be expected to perish shortly after receiving blankets, chocolate and a lawyer from The Red Cross.
And, as we have mentioned in the past, having a bunch of big holes in the front yard can greatly decrease the selling price of a house. (Unless it's in the winter, when prospective buyers won't even see the ground under Fargo's average 52 inches of snow!)
Anyway, let's make a plan that works for everyone here.
It's going to be hard enough to get a new house finished as they move into a Dakota winter, so concentrate on that new construction for now. My gut also tells me that most house-hunters aren't out looking in Fargo in February, so plan to go all out on selling the old place in the Spring (when most houses are sold nationwide), and the nice landscape plants that will then be visible will add as much as 20 percent to the sale price. That's a nice chunk a change.
'But no', you shout: "They can't sell these plants!"
They will both sell them and share them.
The roses are the easiest. Take fresh cuttings in the Spring, root them in a soil-free medium and install the new plants at the new place in say, August, when the cuttings will have achieved a good size. (See our 'rooting roses' article for lots of details.)
You can even request permission to come back and take repeated cuttings to make sure you get good new plants (or just get to propagate lots of new plants). Those plants will still be your grandparents' exact roses, but you'll avoid the risk of killing a really old rose by trying to move the whole thing. And leaving the mature established plant in place will make the house look much more attractive. (And you can keep coming back for cuttings; no one would ever object to that.)
What about the peonies? Two possibilities here. I personally would allow them to flower and then collect the dried seed pods after the flowers fade. Those seeds should grow the same plant. And the new owners have no reason to object; collecting seed won't negatively affect the look of the landscape.
The other option is to craft a rider to the sale agreement that gives you permission to dig up the peonies and day lilies after the sale and replace them with mature plants of equal or greater value. The most important thing is to NOT do 'a panic dig' now. It would take amazing expertise—and luck—to overwinter the plants successfully. And if they die, you're double out of luck—no heirloom plants to treasure, and lots of money lost because of an ugly yard instead of great curb appeal.
Now, about the wood chipper….