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by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

March 30, 2003

One day, out of the blue, I was contacted by a stranger from a nearby city who posed me an intriguing proposition. Her mother had passed away not long before and the old family home was to be sold off. Would I, she asked, be interested in transplanting from that garden to our own whatever plants we'd like?

Naturally, I was very interested. At the basest level, the prospect of acquiring mature plants without having to fork over vast sums of cash is virtually irresistible to the average gardener, for whom parsimony is more precious than primroses. On a more elevated plane, there is considerable metaphysical appeal to the notion of rescuing plants from gardens slated for demolition and perpetuating in a new location both the plants themselves and some thread of memory connecting them to their former gardeners and gardens. Last but far from least, there is the sweet compulsion, familiar to many gardeners, of transplanting for transplanting's sake.

So off we roared, my companion and I, with work boots and spades, on a rare dry day between storms. We were met at the property by Christine, the person who'd contacted me, and her diminutive poodle, Toby. She gave us a tour of the place, a two-acre property dotted with big Douglas firs. Her parents had settled there thirty-five years ago, when the busy street below had been a dirt road. The fruit trees and gardens they'd planted, and the cedar-sided house they'd built, retained that distinctive charm that comes only from a place being tended and cared for over many years.

So it was with special care that we lifted clumps of flowering snowdrops and early crocuses and tiny Iris reticulata, hoping to get them home relatively undisturbed. A row of astilbe, not yet sprouting, and a cluster of lenten roses just beginning to flower had originally been brought here from the gardens of Christine's grandparents, extending the theme of continuity through three generations.

We unearthed bagsful of dahlia tubers too, half-a-dozen large heaths and heathers, a butterfly bush, several small forsythia, and an evergreen azalea. Among the "keep your fingers crossed" candidates was a little native arbutus tree - arbutus being notoriously difficult to transplant - and a February daphne whose flower buds were just beginning to break. None of the daphnes care much for being manhandled - remember how the nymph Daphne fled from the panting Apollo who "saw her lips, and was not satisfied with only seeing them."

That was the small stuff. Next we tackled several rhododendrons and a big camelia at least twenty-five years old. It was down among these enormous root balls, with the scent of fresh dirt in our faces, that the true transplanter's frenzy began to kick in. We plunged our spades deep around each plant and gradually worked the blades underneath, severing thick roots as we went. With three spades on one side we'd lever the huge root ball over, feeling the remaining roots pop, one by one, until the moment of climax when the plant at last surrendered its final toehold in earth. Brutal as this treatment might seem, rhodos will tolerate this rough stuff and happily settle into a new home.

To the novice gardener, the business of moving plants from one location to another may seem a difficult thing, to be undertaken only for the most pressing reasons and with great trepidation, but pretty soon one gets the hang of moving plants around. Over time one becomes increasingly nonchalant about deciding to lift a certain shrub or vine and relocate it for the greater good of the whole garden.

Gradually, imperceptibly, the moving of plants begins to take on a life of its own. Unaware of any danger, the gardener starts prowling the grounds less to take delight in the beauty of what's growing there and more in search of something that might need moving. So you'll find people digging up perfectly well situated plants, the bigger the better, and replanting them several centimetres away, for the pure joy of being able to move something. Anything.

Flushed with this sense of transplanter's well-being, along with the satisfaction of having rescued some venerable plants from the bulldozers of blind progress, with our van fully jammed, we bid Christine and Toby farewell and made our way home.


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