Transplanting Trees and Shrubs

What You'll Need
Tree or Shrub
Sharp Edged Spade
Pruning Shears
Organic Mulch

Transplanting trees doesn’t have to be a difficult process, but there are some very important factors to consider and steps to follow. Simply prying up the plant and dumping it in a new hole is no way to transplant, and you will likely damage or even kill the tree or shrub. If you have trees or shrubs that need transplanted, take the time to follow these basic steps to do so without harming your plants.

Step 1 – Root Pruning

If at all possible, plan your transplanting at least 6 months to a year in advance to start your root pruning. Essentially, root pruning is cutting the roots down to a smaller root ball, roughly three or four feet in diameter. For smaller plants, such as shrubs, keep the root ball within the drip line, which is the outer line of foliage where rainwater drips to the ground.

There are two main reasons this is done so far in advance. First, it puts the tree into a defensive mode where it focuses less on new upper growth and more on re-growing the roots below, which is good for transplanting. Also, it forces the tree to grow denser root hairs, making the move easier and less stressful on the plant.

Step 2 – When to Move

Do your transplanting in cool weather, such as early spring, so that you minimize the shock to the plant’s system. The key is to time it so that the tree is still in its dormant state and hasn’t started new growth for the year. Research when your particular plant typically starts growing foliage each year so you know when to move it. Avoid summer planting, as the hot and dry season is even harder on the plant.

Step 3 – Prep the Site

When the time comes to move your tree, you need to prep the site. Start by digging a hole no deeper than your root ball, but 2 or 3 times as wide. It is crucial that you don’t dig too deep, as this will hurt growth. Some will say to cover the area with a few inches of organic mulch first, which will then mix into the soil when you cover the roots, but this isn’t necessary.

Step 4 – Dig it Up

To dig up your plant, go back in there with your spade or shovel, and start by clearing out the soil around the root ball you cut the year before, as well as that on top of your roots. Prune the roots into a root ball, if you haven’t already. Try to keep as many whole roots as possible, as this will help the tree survive, but if any become broken in the process, you’ll need to prune them off, making a clean cut with your spade or pruning shears.

Step 5 – Moving

Place the plant on a tarp for easy movement. If you are going farther than across the yard, be sure that you’re wrapping up the roots. It is crucial that they not be allowed to freeze or dry out. Cover with a material that you can easily keep moist.

Step 6 – Planting

When you plant it back in the ground, cover it with the excess soil from your hole, tamping it down firmly to eliminate any air pockets around your roots. Cover the whole area with 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch.

Step 7 – Continued Care

Don’t fertilize for at least the first year, as the plant’s roots won’t be able to properly absorb the fertilizer at this point. Getting your tree plenty of water, however, is crucial. You’ll want to water it thoroughly about every two weeks for the first two summers after transplantation.