Skip to main content
Japanese holly fern closeup showing glossy green fronds and pine straw mulch
From observing successful gardeners at work, I've learned that one key to joyful gardening is this: stick with what grows. It's about choosing the path of least resistance--encouraging plants that stay lovely with little or no care. Equally important, however: good gardeners don't hesitate to relocate plants that aren't thriving.

Now, I've made my share of mistakes when choosing plant sites. I'm also dealing with a few bad choices made by previous owners of this property. In either case, relocation was the only way to save the plants involved. For example, I recently transplanted a dozen Japanese Holly Ferns from a dry, sunny spot in my front yard to a moist and shady location in back.

Those poor ferns had been struggling for survival. These shade- and moisture-loving plants were in a hellishly unsuitable locale, dotted around the bases of two pine trees on an exposed and drought-prone slope. Last summer's severe drought nearly spelled the end for them. One thing was clear: they would never thrive in such an unsuitable spot.

I promised myself that if they made it through the winter, I'd transplant them in spring. And so I did! I'm confident that the move will transform them from surviving to thriving. Read on to see how my relocation project went. Don't forget to check out my photo gallery, too!

Transplanting Japanese Holly Ferns(click thumbnails to view gallery)

No place to put a fernBravely hanging on!Clear a pathLet the transplant begin!Keep the roots moist

About Japanese Holly Ferns
The Japanese Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is a beautiful evergreen that grows in zones 8 to 11, maybe a bit higher depending on the region. In cooler zones it is kept as a house plant. For a fern, its fronds are unusually large, leathery and shiny, giving it an almost holly-like appearance--hence its name. It typically grows to around two or three feet wide and high, but be patient as this plant is a fairly slow grower.

Live above zone 8? Your climate may not allow you to grow Japanese Holly Fern in your yard. However, the following tips are applicable to any fern or other small evergreen. Whatever the plant involved, the basic principle remains the same: if a plant is not thriving, try relocating it. Remember: a high-maintenance plant may become low-maintenance once it's in a more favorable spot.

Tools Needed
Gardening gloves
Secateurs (small hand-held pruners)
Garden hose with hand-held sprayer

Plant Relocation Steps

Step 1. Identify the new site to which you plan to introduce your plants. Remember, if you are transplanting ferns, the site should be nice and shady. Think about where the individual plants might look best. If the ground is unprepared, you should do some exploratory digging. You need to get a sense for how long it will take to dig planting holes. Chances are it will take longer than you think!

Step 2. Identify the plants you want to transplant. If the ground is very dry and if you have time, water the plants thoroughly. This will make the soil more pliable when digging time arrives.

Step 3. Preparation. Use a shovel or your hands to scoop away the mulch surrounding each plant. If you like, use your secateurs to snip off dead fronds.

Step 4. Digging time. Using your shovel, carefully slice into the ground all around the plant you want to transplant. Don't cut too close to the roots! Basically, your goal is to get the plant out of the ground, yet avoid disturbing the root ball.

Step 5. Water the roots and fronds. Once the fern is out of the ground, Give it a gentle, yet thorough, spraying with the hose. This will keep the roots nice and damp while they are above ground.

Step 6. Moving in. Bring your plant to its new location and choose a nice spot for it. If you have several plants, move them around and view them from every angle to ensure they are arranged attractively. As for spacing, holly ferns can be planted a little closer than some plants because they are such slow growers. I planted mine between about one and a half to two feet apart.

Step 7. Dig planting holes. Dig holes that are nice and wide, but fairly shallow. The root ball of your average holly fern will require a hole only about eight inches deep, but aim to make the hole about two feet or so in diameter. Loosening the soil in this way encourages healthy root growth. Break up clumps of soil as you go.

Step 8. Planting. Place each plant in its new hole and add a generous amount of water--enough to soak the root ball and the hole itself. Next, fill in with soil and tamp down firmly with your palms or fists. Ensure the crown of each plant is level with or slightly above the surface of the soil. Mulch well.

Step 9. Water your plants well and, of course, remember to keep them moist until they get established. Check the soil every few days and water if the surface feels like it's drying out. Again, a thick layer of mulch on top will do much to halt evaporation of precious water.

Tip 1: Cut off the fronds. Yes, ferns recover faster from a transplant if you shear off all the fronds a few inches above ground level. Doing so encourages the plant to focus its energies on root growth. Although I do this when moving irises, I just can't bring myself to do it with ferns. The foliage is so pretty!

Tip 2: Transplanting a bunch of plants can be very time-consuming. Dig your new holes in advance, since soil preparation is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the job. Alternatively, transplant in stages, digging and replanting, say, three or four plants at a time. Either way, your goal is to have the plants uprooted as briefly as possible.

Tip 3: Your transplants should not be allowed to dry out. If you need to take a break, water the roots. If you need to take a prolonged break, cover the plants with a layer of wet newspapers or a damp towel.

Tip 4: Plant in masses. You know how landscaping books always advise planting in masses, as opposed to in lines or dotted here and there? Well, this project perfectly illustrates that principle. My holly ferns are not only happier in this location, but they also pack a ton more visual impact massed in one group, rather than encircling a tree. In fact, I don't even miss them out in the front yard!


Add Your Comments

  • New Users
  • Returning

If you are posting a comment for the first time, please enter your name and email address in the fields above. Your name will be displayed with your comment. Your email address will never be displayed.

Add Your Comment

Please keep your comments relevant to this blog entry. Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments.

When you enter your name and email address, you'll be sent a link to confirm your comment, and a password. To leave another comment, just use that password.

To create a live link, simply type the URL (including http://) or email address and we will make it a live link for you. You can put up to 3 URLs in your comments. Line breaks and paragraphs are automatically converted — no need to use <p> or <br /> tags.


Follow Us

  • No features currently available.

  • More Hot Topics The Daily Fix  •  DIY Warrior  •  Home Ec  •  Handmade
    DIY Disaster Doctor  •  In the Workshop  •  Product Picks

    Home Improvement Videos