Transplanting Trees And Shrubs: How And When To Move Trees In Landscape

By: Jackie Carroll

Moving an established tree can be an intimidating project, but if it can transform your landscape or fix fundamental design problems, it’s worth the trouble. But how exactly does one go about moving trees? This article explains when and how to transplant a tree, so keep reading for some tree moving tips.

When to Move Trees

Move a deciduous tree in early spring before it begins to leaf out or early fall after the leaves begin to turn color. Don’t move evergreens during a growth flush or in the fall when it’s too late for them to become established before winter weather arrives. Late summer is usually a good time to move evergreens.

Tree and shrub roots extend well beyond the volume of soil that you will be able to move. Prune the roots to a manageable size well in advance so the cuts will have time to heal before transplanting trees and shrubs. If you plan to transplant in the spring, prune the roots in the fall, after the leaves drop. If you want to transplant in the fall, prune the roots in the spring before the leaf and flower buds begin to swell.

How to Transplant a Tree or Shrub

The volume of the root ball you’ll need to successfully transplant a tree or shrub depends on the diameter of the trunk for deciduous trees, the height of the shrub for deciduous shrubs, and the spread of the branches for evergreens. Here are the guidelines:

  • Give deciduous trees with a 1-inch (3 cm.) trunk diameter a minimum root ball size of 18 inches (46 cm.) wide and 14 inches (36 cm.) deep. For a 2-inch (5 cm.) diameter trunk, the root ball should be at least 28 inches (71 cm.) wide and 19 inches (48 cm.) deep.
  • Deciduous shrubs that are 18 inches (46 cm.) tall need a root ball 10 inches (25 cm.) wide and 8 inches (20 cm.) deep. At 3 feet (91 cm.), allow a root ball of 14 inches (36 cm.) wide and 11 inches (28 cm.) deep. A 5-foot (1.5 m.) deciduous shrub needs a root ball 18 inches (46 cm.) wide and 14 inches (36 cm.) deep.
  • Evergreens with a branch spread of about a foot (30 cm.) need a root ball 12 inches (30 cm.) wide and 9 inches (23 cm.) deep. Evergreens with a 3-foot (91 cm.) spread need a root mass 16 inches (41 cm.) wide and 12 inches (30 cm.) deep. A 5-foot (1.5 m.) spread means that the plant needs a 22-inch (56 cm.) diameter root ball that is at least 15 inches (38 cm.) deep.

The mass of soil for trees greater than two inches in diameter weighs several hundred pounds. Moving trees this size is best left to professionals.

Prune the roots by digging a trench around the tree or shrub at the proper distance for the size. Cut through the roots as you find them. Refill the trench when you are done, adding water and pressing down firmly a couple of times to remove air pockets.

Here are some tree moving tips to help transplanting go as smoothly as possible:

  • Prepare the planting hole before digging up a tree. It should be about three times as wide and the same depth as the root ball. Keep the subsoil and topsoil separate.
  • Tie up the branches with twine or strips of burlap to keep them out of the way while moving the tree.
  • Mark the north side of the tree to make it easier to orient it in the right direction in the new location.
  • Trees are lighter and easier to handle if you rinse off the soil before moving the tree. You should only remove the soil from trees and shrub roots when the trunk diameter is greater than an inch, and only when moving dormant trees.
  • Set the tree in the hole so that the soil line on the tree is even with the surrounding soil. Planting it too deep leads to rot.
  • Fill in the hole, replacing the subsoil to the proper depth and finishing the hole with topsoil. Firm the soil with your foot as you fill, and add water to fill the hole when it is half full of soil to remove air pockets.
  • For the first few weeks, water often enough to keep the soil moist but not saturated. Two to 3 inches of mulch helps the soil retain moisture. Don’t allow the mulch to come in contact with the trunk of the tree.

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A moving story: Alan Titchmarsh's tips on transplanting trees and shrubs

TRANSPLANT trees and shrubs now to reap rich rewards in spring.

Transplant trees and shrubs now to reap rich rewards in spring

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We’re just about to celebrate the gardener’s New Year. You might think me a little premature, but it starts at the beginning of November rather than January.

This is the time when deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves and can be moved with little check and transplanted to where they are to spend the rest of their lives.

Plants have a chance to establish their roots in earth

Sixty years ago this was the only time that leaf-shedding trees and shrubs were sold by nurseries – the trick of growing them in containers so that they could be transplanted at any time of year did not really come in until the 1960s.

When I was a nipper I would go round to Mr Mackenzie in his little nursery and watch as he puffed away in his waistcoat and trilby, wielding his spade and digging up a young apple, pear or plum for me to plant in my garden.

This is the time when trees and shrubs can be transplanted to where they are to spend their lives

The roots would be wrapped in a lump of hessian sacking and I’d be instructed to soak them in a bucket of water before planting.

Nowadays, such experiences are a rarity and most of us plant container-grown stock rather than bothering with the bare-root kind, but I reckon that can be a mistake.For a start, bare-root plants are cheaper – they have not needed the watering, the care and attention demanded by container-grown plants which, inevitably, puts up their prices.

Plant well and wisely between now and next March and you’ll save yourself a small fortune

And although with certain specimen shrubs and trees buying a container-grown plant is a good idea, with other subjects such as young trees, fruit trees and hedging plants – bare-root stock is every bit as good as the more expensive option.

Tree Moving Tips - When And How To Transplant A Tree Or Shrub - garden

Spring News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

If you need to move a tree or shrub in the landscape, early spring before buds begin to swell is an ideal time. If you are planning to transplant trees from the wild, you should know that this is more difficult to have plants survive successfully.

Even though woody plants from the wild are less expensive than nursery-grown plants, they usually are less vigorous, with roots and shoots not grown for transplanting. Wild plants with root systems and tops that have not been pruned are usually wide spreading, and are often tangled with roots and branches of other plants. The main roots of wild plants may be so few and far apart, that it is impractical to excavate more than a small percentage when digging. Their trunks, too, may be adapted to shade only to burn when moved into sun.

On the other hand, a nursery-grown plant usually has been pruned several times during its development, resulting in better branching close to the trunk. Nursery plants are often "root-pruned", cutting roots with a spade around the drip line of the tree or shrub. This results in more roots close to the trunk, meaning more roots are retained when dug. More roots often means more successful establishment.

Ideally, and especially for large shrubs and trees, you should prune roots and tops from six months to a year before transplanting to increase your success. Remove the outermost tips of main branches back to the point where side branches arise. Avoid leaving stubs that won't heal.

Root prune by digging around the plant about six inches closer to the trunk than you will when transplanting. A number of new roots will arise near the end of the cut roots. These will better adapt the plant to its new environment when transplanted. Root pruning is best done in early spring. For larger plants, prune on one side early in the season, and on the other side later to reduce the shock to the plant.

Even before root pruning, consider the species tolerance to transplanting, the condition of the plant, and its size. Some species are more adapted to transplanting than others. Shrubs are generally better adapted to transplanting than trees, deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves in winter) better than evergreens, shallow-rooted plants better than ones with deep roots, and younger plants better than older ones. Deciduous trees that transplant well include green ash, elms, hackberry, common honeylocust, poplar, sumac, and willow. Those that transplant poorly include oaks.

If a plant is weak or under stress, it will usually transplant poorly. Large shrubs and trees may need special equipment and techniques in order to get sufficient soil and roots to transplant. Small deciduous shrubs, and trees with a diameter less than one inch, may be moved without soil on the roots (root ball). Larger plants should be moved with soil. Most shrubs need a root ball diameter about two-thirds of the branch spread. So if the shrub is 6 feet across, the root ball should be 4 feet across. The root ball for trees should be at least 12 inches for each one-inch of trunk diameter. A tree with a trunk two inches across should have a root ball two feet across.

If a plant seems too large to move yourself, contact a local landscaper. If it is small enough, healthy, a species likely to have success, and ideally has been pruned, then make the final planting hole before digging the plant. This ensures the plant is not out of the ground, especially if bare root, any longer than necessary. Make the hole no deeper than you are planning to dig, and two to three times as wide. Water the hole so the surrounding soil won't take water away from the root ball when moved, and to make sure the water will drain. If it doesn't drain in an hour or two, break up the surrounding soil with channels or holes from a rod. If digging a deep hole, make sure to check with utilities so not to disturb buried wires and pipes.

When digging the plant, make sure and cut all roots. If a larger tree, or shrub over four feet tall, trench around the plant to get under the root ball more easily. If a clay soil, and the sides of the root ball are "glazed" or compacted in digging, roughen them up before replanting. Make sure the plant is well watered a couple days prior to digging. Keep lower branches tied up so they wont be injured in digging and moving. Mark the side of tree trunks facing the sun, so they can be oriented the same way when replanting. Otherwise bark may be tender and sunscald. If not planting right away, keep roots and root ball covered with moist burlap or cloth.

Once planted, water well and then every couple of weeks if insufficient rainfall. Mulch will help to conserve moisture. Fertilizer is generally not needed for the first year or two, although you may water with a soluble complete fertilizer the next spring. Prune only as needed the first year to remove broken branches, or to balance the loss of roots if the plant wilts.

Stake trees only if a sandy or windy site, as they generally become stronger if allowed to move with the wind. Put a stake on each side of the tree, and use a non-binding material such as cloth to loosely tie the tree to stakes. Wire or cord in pieces of garden hose around the trunk work well too. Remove stakes after a season or two when the tree can remain upright.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles

Symptoms of Tree Transplant Shock

Symptoms of tree transplanting shock are immediately obvious in trees that are moved in full leaf or when leaves form after the replanting. Deciduous tree leaves will wilt and if corrective steps are not immediately taken, may eventually turn brown and drop. Conifer needles turn a pale green or blue-green color before turning brittle, browning and dropping off. These browning symptoms begin first on the youngest (newest) leaves which are more delicate and sensitive to water loss.

The very first symptoms, in addition to leaf yellowing or browning, can be leaf rolling, curling, wilting and scorching around the leaf edges. Trees that are not immediately killed can show dieback of the branch tips.

Pruning Roots Before You Transplant

Nutrients and water will be absorbed by the roots of the plant, but those larger roots that are closest to the trunk of the tree don’t absorb very much. The little feeder roots extending beyond your plant are the ones that do that function. Pruning the roots will stimulate those feeder roots that are close to its trunk. Those types of new roots are going to get dug up since they’re part of its root ball when you transplant. Pruning roots is a very familiar practice when it comes to growing bonsai plants. It’s also very important if you are transplanting a mature plant.

A shrub or tree that is going to be transplanted during the fall should have its roots pruned during the spring prior to the new buds appearing. If you are transplanting a plant in the spring, the roots should be pruned the fall before leaves have dropped. These steps should be as followed:

  1. The day before you do the pruning, water your soil. This is going to soften up the ground so it’s easier to dig and will help with reducing the stress to the roots of the plant. It’s also going to help with keeping your soil clinging to the plant’s roots.
  2. Tie or wrap your plant’s lower branches to keep them up so they’re protected and they’re not in the way when you’re digging
  3. Mark your zone area that you’re going to prune. Remember that you should include 10-12 inches of your root ball’s diameter for each trunk diameter inch.
  4. Start cutting your trench with your flat spade. The face should be facing away from your plant. An edge that is sharp is going to make a cut that is cleaner and make your digging simpler. If you’re encountering roots that are large, you can use your loppers to cut them.
  5. Continue with digging your trench and cut as you’re going. You should go down approximately 2 feet so that you’re reaching as many of the lateral roots of your plant as you can. While you’re digging, separate the subsoil and top soil so that you can return it to your trench when you’re done pruning.
  6. Once you have finished trenching around your whole plant, your root pruning is done. Don’t dig beneath your plant. Replace your subsoil before replacing your topsoil.
  7. Water it thoroughly and then untie its branches.

Keep in Mind

Remember that there will be brand-new feeder roots that are going to grow from its cut ends. These feeder roots have to be included with your transplant, because this is the point of doing the root pruning. When you are transplanting, you’ll be cutting your root ball 4-6 inches from where those roots had been pruned.

Doing Your Transplant

When you’re going to do your transplant, the steps that you are going to take will be a lot like when you did the root pruning, but with some important differences.

  • Water your soil the day prior so that the ground is softer, so that you’re reducing stress to the roots of your plant and helping your root ball to stay intact.
  • Dig your new hole for planting, and make sure it’s ready before you transplant. This hole should be dug 2 to 3 times the width of your root ball, but the depth should be the same. The hole should be moistened before you install your root ball for helping to reduce shock from transplant.
  • Tie the plant’s lower branches so that they’re up and protected. They’ll also be out of the way while you’re digging.
  • Remove your topsoil gently from the root’s top near its trunk and then mark that area that you’ll be digging. So that you’re including the roots that are newly grown, mark 4-6 inches out from your trench in which you pruned your roots. Then start digging on the outside of that mark.
  • Standing in the circle you marked, start digging using your flat spade with the spade’s face turned from your plant. Keep digging around your plant. Go down deeper, shaping your root ball while you go. If you’re coming across later roots, use your loppers to cut them.
  • Once you’ve cut around your plant and you’re to the right level so you’re including its roots, start digging under its root ball.
  • Before you’ve completely cut its root ball, put a burlap sheet or a tarp inside your hole alongside the root ball. Dig beneath your ball, cutting any of the remaining roots beneath. Tilt your root ball so that it’s on the tarp to be wrapped and moved.
  • Always lift your plant from beneath rather than by its trunk.
  • You have to keep your roots moist or they’re going to die. If you’re unable to immediately install the plant into the new location right after its been dug up, you should place it in a shaded area and make sure the roots are always moist until its transplanted.
  • If you’re transplanting a large plant to another location by way of the highway, it shouldn’t be carried in a vehicle that is open. Use a van or enclosed truck, or make sure the plant is covered. The roots can be kept moist by wrapping them in burlap or wet newspaper.

Bonus Tip

Tarps work well for moving transplanted plants to another lawn section. If you have to move a plant somewhere that’s further or you have to store it for any amount of time, burlap is better to use. Burlap is breathable and it’s porous, so you can water your root ball anytime while you’re waiting to plant it. It will also help your soil to stay intact.

Transplanting Trees and Shrubs

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
October 13, 2018

When I sold my home on a small city lot the new owners did not want any gardens. So I potted up my plants and we all moved outside the city where I had more space and sunshine. I heeled in the plants and started developing garden beds. Many of the plants were stressed from the move, remained heeled in too long and I was not sure they would survive. Most survived and quite a few surpassed my expectations and now need more space to flourish and grow to their mature size.

This fall I will be making a few changes in my landscape including moving a few shrubs. Since landscapes are dynamic – changing with the season, over time and as our gardening goals evolve, many of you may be planning some small and large changes to your gardens.

You can save those special shrubs and trees by transplanting them into a better space that will accommodate their mature size, growing needs and your landscape design. First, decide if the plant can successfully be moved and is worth saving. Larger specimens, disfigured and struggling plants may need to head to the chipper and be replaced with a more suitable plant. I know its hard but think of it as moving your plant into the garden in a different form, woodchip mulch.

Consider hiring a professional for larger plants. They have the equipment and staff to dig and maneuver the larger rootball needed to successfully move larger plants.

Transplant shrubs and trees in fall as the plants go dormant. The soil is warm and the air is cool perfect for recovering from the move and establishing roots. Early spring before growth begins is also prime time to make the move. Plants have a chance to adjust before the stress of summer heat.

Safety First

Check for underground utilities before you begin moving plants. Make a free call to 811 at least three business days in advance. They will contact the appropriate companies who will mark the location of their underground utilities in your work area. This helps eliminate the danger and inconvenience of accidentally knocking out power, cable or other utilities while you create a beautiful landscape.

Be sure to check for any conflicts with overhead utilities when selecting a new spot for your plants. Keep trees and tall shrubs away from overhead utilities to eliminate regular and unnatural pruning needed to keep large plants away from the lines.

Keep yourself safe, as well, throughout the process. Wear safety glasses to avoid a stick in the eye. Leather gloves, long sleeves, and pants will reduce the number of cuts and scratches received while moving these large plants.

Root Pruning

Increase your transplanting success with root pruning several months prior to moving trees and shrubs. This stimulates root growth closer to the trunk and stems of the plant helping to compensate for the roots lost during transplanting.

Prune the roots as plants begin to go dormant in fall when transplanting in spring or in spring when transplanting in fall. These are two the times these plants are growing lots of roots.

Start by tying branches of low branched and bushy plants up and out of your way to reduce the risk of damage. Use sturdy twine or cloth strips for this task.

Mark the circle of the desired rootball for transplanting (see the charts below). The larger the plant, the bigger the rootball you’ll need. Just be sure you can manage the size and weight of the plant, soil, and roots. Bigger is only better if the rootball stays intact.

Use a sharp spade to cut through the roots just outside this circle. New roots will form within this area, giving your transplanted trees and shrubs more roots to get them started in their new locations.

Transplanting Shrubs

Let’s start with shrubs. Loosely tie the branches to prevent damage and keep them out of your way. Maintaining as much of the top growth as possible helps plants recover more quickly. The more leaf covered branches, the more energy the plant can produce and direct that energy to root growth and recovery.

Dig a trench around the shrub slightly larger and deeper than the desired rootball. Undercut the rootball with a shovel. A sharp spade, hand pruner or lopper will help you cut through larger roots.

Make the rootball appropriate for the size of the plant and possible for you to manage. Avoid damaging the heavy rootball, the plant and your back by asking for help.

Slide a piece of burlap or canvas under the rootball to make transporting easier. Everyone grabs a side or corner when lifting and moving is needed. This is easier on your back and reduces the risk of dropping the shrub and damaging the rootball.

Recommended Root Ball Size when Transplanting Shrubs

Minimum Rootball Diameter

Transport your shrub in a wheelbarrow, snow saucer or garden cart. Dig the planting hole the same depth as the rootball and 2 to 3 times wider. The wider hole allows the roots to easily move through the disturbed soil. Set the plant into the planting hole, remove the burlap or canvas sling from under the rootball and out of the planting hole. Roughen up the sides of the planting hole to avoid a glazed surface the roots can’t penetrate.

Make sure the crown of the plant, that’s the area where the roots meet the stem, is even with the soil surface. Fill in the hole with the existing soil. Amending the soil creates more ideal growing conditions that discourage root development beyond the initial planting hole.

Water thoroughly to remove any air pockets. Mulch the soil with a 2-inch layer of shredded bark, woodchips or other organic matter to conserve moisture and discourage weeds.

Continue to water thoroughly when the top four to six inches of soil are crumbly and slightly moist throughout the season or until the ground freezes. It takes shrubs several years to become established. Proper watering and mulch will help reduce transplant shock and encourage healthy growth.

Use Milorganite fertilizer at the rate recommended for the size of the plant you moved. The low nitrogen slow release fertilizer won’t harm developing roots or encourage excessive top growth at the expense of root development. Plus the non-leaching phosphorous promotes root development and the 85% organic matter in Milorganite helps feed the soil.

Wait a year after planting if you decide to use other fertilizers. High nitrogen fast release fertilizer can injure tender roots and encourage excessive top growth that can impede establishment.

Transplanting Trees

Moving trees, especially large ones can be a bit intimidating and heavy work as you can see by the chart below.

Start by loosely tying the lower branches to reduce damage and keep them out of your way. Dig a trench around the tree and slightly deeper than the desired rootball. Undercut the rootball with a sharp spade. Use bypass hand pruners and loppers for larger roots.

Recommended Root Ball Size when Transplanting Trees

Tree Diameter at 4 1/2' feet

Minimum Rootball Diameter

Slide a piece of burlap or canvas under the rootball. Here’s where you want to call in a few favors and ask friends to lend a hand. Sharing the load reduces the risk of dropping and damaging the rootball - undoing all your hard work.

Always move the tree by the rootball, not the trunk. Using the trunk as a handle or lever damages the roots and impacts the short term and long term health of the tree.

Use a garden cart, snow saucer or wheelbarrow to move the tree to its new location. Set the tree in the properly dug planting hole.

Make the planting hole the same depth as the distance between the rootflare and the bottom of the root ball. The rootflare is the place where the roots curve away from the tree trunk. Digging a deeper hole can result in the soil settling and creating a water collecting depression around your tree. Make the hole at least 3 to 5 times wider than the root ball.

Roughen the sides of the planting hole to avoid glazed soil that can prevent roots from growing into the surrounding soil. Remove the burlap or canvas sling from under the rootball and out of the planting hole..

Water thoroughly at planting and whenever the top 4 to 6 inches of soil are crumbly and slightly moist.

Apply Milorganite fertilizer over the soil surface. Follow the recommendations on the bag for the size of the tree you just moved. The low nitrogen slow release fertilizer won’t harm developing roots or encourage excessive top growth at the expense of root development. Plus the non-leaching phosphorous promotes root development and the 85% organic matter in Milorganite helps feed the soil.

Wait a year after planting if you decide to use another type of fertilizer. High nitrogen fast release fertilizer can injure tender roots and encourage excessive top growth limiting root development.

Spread a 2 to 3-inch layer of wood chips over the surrounding soil. And pull the mulch away from the trunk of the tree to prevent rot and disease.

Post-Transplant Care

Do minimal pruning on newly transplanted trees and shrubs. Remove only broken, dead and diseased branches the first few years after transplanting. Late winter or early spring before growth begins is also a good time to prune trees and shrubs. You can remove winter damage, control plant size and shape the plants during one pruning session.

Wait to prune forsythia, lilacs, viburnums and other spring flowering shrubs if you want blossoms. Prune your crabapples and other spring flowering trees in late winter to avoid disease problems. Although they are spring bloomers, these trees usually have plenty of flowers for you to enjoy.

Continue to water thoroughly as needed and maintain a 2 to 3-inch layer of woodchips, shredded bark or other organic mulch on the soil around the plants. Organic mulches help conserve moisture, suppress weeds, prevent soil erosion and improve the soil as they decompose. Create as wide a mulch bed or planting bed as possible. Keeping weeds and lawn grass away from new plantings reduces competition for water and nutrients and speeds recovery and encourage healthy growth and longevity.

Invest time and effort before, during and after moving your favorite trees and shrubs. You will be rewarded with years of beauty and the satisfaction knowing you did this yourself.

Watch the video: How To Plant A Tree. Step-by-Step Guide

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