Why You Might Have to Leave Behind Your Favorite Plants When Moving

updated Nov 16, 2022
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As an adult, you are probably more fond of your garden than you ever thought possible as a child. It brings color and energy to your backyard, shows guests that you’re capable of keeping something alive for a long period of time, and only needs to be watered regularly (and only if it doesn’t rain). However, if you’re moving to another state, you sadly might need to leave some of your favorite plants behind: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually bans certain plants from moving across state lines.

So before you pack up that lemon tree in the yard, you’ll have to make sure it’s not a “problem plant” that could get you a hefty fine.

Why Does the USDA Regulate Plants?

Outdoor plants get regulated for several reasons, but the most common are economic protection and pest control. On an economic level, some states depend deeply on a certain plant to stabilize their economy—think citrus fruit in Florida or potatoes in Idaho.

Does uprooting your four-foot Meyer lemon tree from your backyard in Orlando and moving it to Fort Lauderdale seem like it could cripple Florida’s citrus economy? You’d be surprised—that tree could actually spread certain pests or diseases that could accidentally infect an entire region. If your plant spreads a pest to a bigger farm, and a major crop is affected, the whole state’s economy is at risk of going under.

Thus, the USDA actually has quarantined areas in citrus-bearing states that don’t allow locally-grown fruits, plants, or items made with citrus out of the zone. Quarantine zones can be as small as a town or as big as an entire state, but size doesn’t matter here—what matters is preventing the accidental spread of disease to crops in other regions.

“You’ve heard the saying ‘move it or lose it,'” says Abby Yigzaw, public affairs specialist of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in a 2014 USDA update. “When it comes to citrus trees, it’s ‘Move It AND Lose It.’ When you move citrus trees, you risk losing America’s citrus altogether—think breakfast with no fresh oranges, grapefruit or even juice.”

Don’t have citrus plants? Your houseplants might be affected by state laws, too. Many states, such as California, have strict regulations on how houseplants must be moved from state to state. When transporting plants, you can expect to be stopped at the border by the Department of Agriculture, where your plants will be inspected by state officials for certain changes that signify pests or diseases.

Usually, houseplants will have to be grown in your home (meaning they’ve been inside and in a pot their entire lifespan), not for resale, and pest free.

While you may keep a clean home and take care of the plant as best you can, pests can hide in places you may not be looking. If you were to move these plants from home to home, the insects could spread and become a problem for the community overall.

Since many of the agricultural concerns begin in the soil, make sure you repot a plant with sterile commercially-packaged soil, says John Verdery, who runs City Plantz, an online guide to caring for plants as city dwellers. (He recommends doing this, too, when you receive plants you’ve ordered online, just to be safe).

Before leaving one of your plants behind, you can check to make sure it’s allowed in your new state. Check out the National Plant Board or your new state’s department of agriculture website to find out the restrictions for your state.

What to do If Your Plant Is (or Isn’t) Allowed to Move

Find your plant is ok to move the next state over? Hooray! But make sure you’re moving it properly. Verdery recommends removing as much soil as possible, wrapping the roots in a wet paper towel, putting them inside of a plastic bag then repotting once you get to your new locale.

This will prevent the spread of pests (and also, you won’t have to deal with accidental dirt all over the moving truck). This can be done for most plants for a couple of days, but if you’re transporting cacti or succulents, make sure you do this for a short period of time, otherwise, it can kill the plant.

Plant not allowed into the new state? So sorry for your loss. But parting with your plant doesn’t need to mean driving away from the curb like the “When She Loved Me” scene in Toy Story 2.

You can always try and give your plants to a friend with an apartment that needs sprucing up. To find other places that’ll take your plants, give your local nursing home, community college, library, school, or other local public service building a call. They may be open to taking them off your hands.

Updated June 28, 2019 — LS

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