How to Transplant Trees and Shrubs

Best Way to Move Them, Best Time for the Job

Image of a balled-and-burlapped tree.
Nurseries often sell trees and shrubs as "balled and burlapped" plants. The burlap preserves the plant's root-ball when it is being transported. David Beaulieu

Transplanting trees and shrubs appears an easy task -- deceptively so. Many transplants die due to improper removal or installation. But if you are about to give a face-lift 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.

Learn the best way to move plants, as well as the best time to do so.

How to Transplant Trees and Shrubs: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Keep in mind the maxim, "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, do not 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 will be.
  3. Measure or estimate the width and depth of the root-ball (by doing a bit of exploratory digging around the plant). The width of the new hole should be twice that of the root-ball. The depth should be kept a bit shallower, to avoid puddling and consequent rotting (especially if your soil has a lot of clay in it).
  1. 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.
  2. Dig out the plant selected for transplanting. But do not start digging right at the base of a mature tree or shrub. Rather, start digging about 3 feet 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 the plant plus the roots plus the soil clinging to roots. You may need someone to help you lift it.
  1. The idea is to keep as much of the root-ball (roots plus soil) intact as possible. But the larger the plant is, the chances of getting anything close to the entire root-ball will diminish -- and you would not 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). Be sure to make a good, clean cut.
  2. Once you have removed enough soil from around the sides of the plant, you will eventually be able to slip your shovel under it and begin to loosen the plant's grip on the soil below it. After it is loose, spread a tarp on the ground nearby and gently move the tree or shrub onto the tarp.
  3. Using the tarp as a transporting medium, drag the plant 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.
  1. 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.
  2. Spread a 3-inch 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 (the pests known as "voles," for example) become emboldened by the cover that the mulch provides.
  3. Then water, water, water. The first summer will 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.

Best Time to Transplant and Other Tips

  1. When should you do your transplanting? For most trees and shrubs, late winter or early spring are the best times for transplanting; fall would be the second best time (for further information, please see When to Plant Trees). In summer, it is not advisable (too hot). In the dead of winter, it is almost impossible (in the North) -- unless you have done all of your digging ahead of time (before the ground freezes).
  2. How long will this transplanting project take? 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 are willing to push yourself.
  3. The foregoing instructions pertain to shrub and tree transplanting that involves digging, moving, and re-planting a root-ball. This is how you would normally transplant stock growing 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. Others are sold bare-root, the proper transplanting method for which is discussed in this article on growing roses. Still others are sold in containers; for these, be sure to tease the root-ball upon removal from the pot if there is any sign it has become root-bound.
  4. One technique sometimes used to facilitate transplanting trees or shrubs of significant size is root pruning.

Supplies That You Will Need

  • Pointed shovel
  • Tarps
  • Measuring tape
  • Pruners
  • Garden hose
  • Mulch

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