GARDENING / Moving house and garden: Careful planning ensured that Mary Keen's removal included favourite plants

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THE BEST time for a gardener to move house is late winter. St Valentine's would be a good day. But countdown starts six months in advance, which means now. Officially, everything in the garden is classed as a fixture. Like the curtain rails and light fittings, you may not take your plants with you. The difference is that, unlike the fixtures and fittings indoors, most plants can be cloned for removal.

For our move last spring, we started planning and propagating in August 1991. Long before the house was sold, various named hellebores had been lifted and replaced with less rare plants. We thought it unlikely the buyer would know the difference between Helleborus nigericors and the ordinary corsicus. If anyone had come along with an appetite for the best forms of hellebore, I would have been delighted to leave them in good hands, and they could have been returned to their homes. But it did not happen and the rare hellebores left with us.

Moving plants with flashy or brittle roots is not difficult, if you can establish them in pots first. As well as the hellebores, we had plenty of self-seeded Mlokosewitchi peonies at the junior stage, and one or two pewter-leaved tender P. combessedessi, to put into pots.

We did this in late August and September, setting them in a sandpit, retained by railway sleepers, where they stayed out of doors all winter. We also sank pots of smaller things like primroses (named forms) that had been divided, as these would have dried out too much on the journey. Suckers of some favourite species of roses and cuttings of others were potted at this time, as were perennial wallflowers, Daphnes, pinks, Euphorbias and other plants that I wanted to keep or that were known to be

difficult movers.

There were also the plants with sentimental associations, the gifts from other gardeners. A particularly good form of pulmonaria, the hebe grown from a cutting taken from a bunch of church flowers long past their best, the rose first seen on an Italian holiday; none of these could be left behind. Associations are as much a part of gardening as flowers. The tricky, the rare, the sentimentally significant were, like the china in the house, properly packed.

Of course you can dig everything up the day before you leave and replant it in the new garden as soon as you arrive. But moving house is a complicated business and people's comforts tend to come before plants as moving day approaches. So putting favourite plants into pots gives them a good start in their new home. On arrival, our collection of pots was set out behind a shady wall, within reach of a hose. The plants were fed once a week as the weather warmed up and that gave us time to prepare places for them. A few are still in pots now.

A second group of plants did not rate pots. These were the herbaceous ones which are normally divided in autumn or spring - they were lined out in trenches in the kitchen garden. The Michaelmas daisy tribe, chrysanthemums, various herbs, catmint, irises, cranesbills, alchemilla, all the old standbys you rely on to fill gaps in new beds, were split and set out in rows. This, however, is not something to do if you have no clean place to receive them.

We had time to clear ground and make a nursery bed at the new house before we moved the plants. They can probably stand around for a fortnight covered in damp newspaper in a cool shed, but the quicker you can get them into the new temporary home the quicker they will settle. I regret to admit that we were panicked into buying peat in bulk, to condition the nursery bed. Mushroom compost, which we have since found locally, would have been ecologically sounder. I wish too that I had used those new water-retaining granules, Broadleaf P4 or Hydrostock, in the trenches. These turn into a gel when you wet them. The June drought which we suffered this year would have been much less life-threatening for the removed plants if we had thought of that.

As it was, we watered and mulched with lawn mowings. Not only did we have our own plants to succour, but we also had a quantity of yew hedging (bought at a bargain price) lined out in the nursery, as well as various other plants which had been given or bought for the new garden. The latter, however, was far from ready to receive them.

The nursery bed has also come in handy as a trial ground for plants already in the garden which had not yet flowered but seemed to be in the wrong place. The lupins and phlox occupying the best south wall border were moved into the reserve plot to make way for a myrtle and a bay. Magenta lupins were soon discarded but we have kept the pale yellow and brick red ones and will find a place for them this autumn. Meanwhile the unpotted plants are increasing and where we planted one or two of a variety, there are now large clumps which will be useful for filling the flower beds, until we are given or can acquire again the plants which were impossible to move or difficult to propagate.

Trees and large shrubs, which may seem immovable, can be taken if the new owner agrees to exclude them from the contract. We told our buyer from the outset that we would be taking a 12-ft high black mulberry tree with us. Tree specialists advised digging a circular trench about 7ft in diameter around the tree in late autumn. (This apparently reduces the area of root ball and prepares the tree for the shock of moving.) The mulberry and the open ground plants were not allowed on to a furniture van like the potted ones, but had to travel in a landscape gardener's truck.

A mechanical tree spade, which is expensive and needs room to operate, is the best way of moving trees, but the mulberry was in a tight corner and we had to rely on borrowed muscle to dig it up. The job was done in about an hour on a February afternoon, the root ball trussed in wet sacks with rope and the branches tied up with string to stop them breaking on the journey. I was not optimistic, but the tree was given every chance. A huge pit lined with peat and manure received it and it was prescribed daily watering until mid June. No leaves appeared, but the buds looked as though they might break if only they could summon the energy. Less than optimistic by this time, I consulted

all visitors on its health. The best gardener that I know said that crown irrigation three times a day might save the mulberry's life, but she too was doubtful.

Crown irrigation meant standing on a convenient pile of stones and pointing the hose high, with a thumb held over the end to make it mist, every morning, noon and night for three or four minutes each time. No one enjoyed doing this particular job, but in mid July, the mulberry finally put out all its leaves and now it looks as though it has been there for ever. Our instructions are to keep up the pressure until the autumn; on rainy days, however, we are allowed a break. I recommend taking the risk of transplanting a favourite tree to anyone about to move and wish them as much luck and help as we have had.-