Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)--a large shrub that tolerates transplantation well--attracts birds and butterflies. Photo: Carol Mack.
Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)–a large shrub that tolerates transplantation well–attracts birds and butterflies. Photo: Carol Mack.

If you are willing to take the time and effort needed to do a successful native plant salvage project, the result can be a locally-adapted, high quality planting stock of trees, shrubs, groundcovers, grasses, and fungi for your restoration and reforestation projects. There are lots of opportunities to salvage native plants, such as before you start moving dirt for roads, building and logging operations, or if you know that a major change in land use is planned in a forest near you.

Salvaging differs from ordinary native plant gathering in that the plants to be removed in a salvage operation would otherwise be destroyed by some activity conducted by the landowner. When plants are removed in a non-salvaging program, much more care must be given to protect the plant community that will remain after the gathering operations and to protect the soil from erosion or compaction.

Before you start the salvage project you need to have some basic knowledge of how to make your efforts as successful as possible. The first step is to do an inventory of the plants in the area that will be disturbed. Conduct a plant identification walk and mark the ones you want to move. Once you know what kinds of plants are available for salvaging you can develop a plan.

Root pruning

Large woody plants like trees and shrubs have spreading root systems. On a six-foot conifer tree, the roots feeding the tree can extend more than six feet away from the trunk of the tree. If you dig up the tree with just a two- foot root ball, the chances of it surviving are less than 15 percent. To ensure survival you must root-prune the plant during the dormant season.

Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum)
Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum) is a small, shade-tolerant tree that prefers moist, protected sites along streams. Photo: Carol Mack

Root pruning is where you go out from the trunk about half way to the drip line (the outermost length of the branches) and cut a circle in the soil around the tree with a shovel. By pushing the shovel into the ground around the tree you will cut the roots (prune them). Leave the plant for one growing season. This pruning will stimulate the tree to produce more fine roots closer to the plant, so it can better feed and water itself after you move it. It will also ensure that more soil is moved with the plant.

Moving and replanting

The next dormant season after the root pruning step is the time move the plants. Before you move the plant, do a light top pruning. On woody shrubs you can remove up to 40 percent of the total top of the plant. On trees, aim to maintain 50 percent of the tree’s height in green, growing limbs. Choosing small plants to move rather than large, older plants also will result in better survival rates.

After digging the plants, protect the roots right away. Cover them with wet burlap or place them in container where you can cover the roots with leaf mulch or soil. For the best chances of survival, keep these plants in a transplant bed for a year. Some land owners develop transplant beds under deciduous trees or in raised beds filled with a mixture of composted leaves and native soil. A transplant bed can be any place where the newly moved plants have light shade and protection from animal damage. Plan on watering plants in the transplant bed a couple of times during the dry season.

A good plant salvage program takes work, but it will reward you with thousands of healthy native plants that will improve the diversity and productivity of your family forest.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist, freedj@wsu.edu