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How to Transplant Trees and Shrubs

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Picture of Japanese maple balled and burlapped.

When transplanting nursery stock, you'll often be dealing with plants that have been balled and burlapped.

David Beaulieu
Transplanting trees and shrubs appears an easy task -- deceptively so. Many transplants die due to improper removal or installation. But if you're about to give a facelift to a landscape design that has been neglected for years, then you will need to move existing plant matter, whether for relocation or for disposal. To do it successfully, you must take steps to improve the likelihood of survival.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: 2 Hours

Here's How:

  1. Location, location, location! Prior to transplanting, determine whether the tree or shrub likes sun or shade, and what its spacing and watering requirements are. For instance, don't locate a plant that craves water next to one that prefers dry conditions: their needs will be incompatible. And to be safe, always make use of the Call Before You Dig number.
  2. Dig the new hole before you dig up the tree or shrub. Once you dig up the plant, the longer its roots go without a home, the lower your chances for successful transplanting.
  3. Estimate the width and depth of the rootball by doing a bit of exploratory digging around the plant. The width of the new hole should be twice that of the rootball. The depth should be kept a bit shallower, to avoid puddling and consequent rotting.
  4. When you reach the bottom of the new hole, resist the temptation to break up the soil beneath. You would think that this would help the tree or shrub, allowing its roots to penetrate deeper. Instead, it could cause the tree or shrub to sink, inviting rot.
  5. Dig out the tree or shrub selected for transplanting. But don't start digging right at the base of a mature tree or shrub. Rather, start digging about 3' out from the base, all along the perimeter. Get a feel for where the main mass of roots lies. Also begin to judge what the weight will be of plant + roots + soil clinging to roots. You may need someone to help lift it!
  6. The idea is to keep as much of the rootball (roots + soil) intact as possible. But the larger the plant is, the chances of getting anything close to the entire rootball will diminish -- and you wouldn't be able to carry it anyhow! Usually you will have to cut through some roots on a mature plant (either with a sharp shovel or with pruners -- make a good, clean cut).
  7. Once you've removed enough soil from around the sides of the plant, you'll eventually be able to slip your shovel under it and begin to loosen the plant's grip on the soil below it. After it's loose, spread a tarp on the ground nearby and gently move the tree or shrub onto the tarp.
  8. Using the tarp as a transporting medium, drag the tree or shrub over to the new hole (dug in steps 1-4). Gently slide it into the hole, and get it straight. Shovel the excavated soil back into the hole. Tamp this soil down firmly and water it as you go, to eliminate air pockets. The formation of air pockets could cause the tree or shrub to shift after transplanting.
  9. Mound up the soil in a ring around the newly transplanted tree or shrub, forming a berm that will catch water like a basin. This will help you achieve your main objective from here on out -- keeping the new transplant's roots well watered, until it becomes established.
  10. Spread a 3" layer of landscape mulch around the new transplant. But keep it a few inches away from the base of the tree or shrub, to promote air circulation and so as not to invite rodents from nibbling on the trunk. Rodents become emboldened by the cover mulch provides.
  11. Then water, water, water. The first summer would be a difficult one for the plant to weather, unless it gets plenty of water. Watering is as essential as anything to success in shrub and tree transplanting.

Tips:

  1. When should you do your shrub and tree transplanting? For most trees and shrubs late winter or early spring are the best times for transplanting; fall would be the second best time (I explain in When to Plant Trees). In summer it's not advisable (too hot). In the dead of winter it's almost impossible (in the North) -- unless you've done all your digging ahead of time (before the ground freezes).
  2. The time given for this transplanting project is 2 hours. However, that will depend greatly on the circumstances. To dig a mature tree or shrub out of rocky soil (especially in cramped quarters) is back-breaking work. How long it takes you will largely depend on your health and on how much you're willing to push yourself.
  3. Above, I have discussed shrub and tree transplanting that involves digging, moving and re-planting a rootball. This is how you would normally perform shrub and tree transplanting using stock on your own property. However, when you buy plants from nurseries to plant in your yard, there will be some differences in the operation. Some nursery plants are balled and burlapped (see picture above). Others are sold bare-root, the transplanting of which I discuss in my article on growing roses.
  4. One technique sometimes used to facilitate transplanting trees or shrubs of significant size is root pruning.

What You Need

  • Pointed Shovel
  • Tarps
  • Measuring Tape
  • Pruners
  • Garden Hose
  • Mulch

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