A lot of times you love where your trees are, and you leave them there for the rest of their lives.

But sometimes you have to transplant a tree that is already established. Transplanting a mature shrub or tree can be done even though it’s not as easy as when you plant a new one. There are a few reasons why you may need to relocate a plant that is already established. Some of these reasons are:

  • Adding to your home or doing a hardscaping project which means your plant has to be moved
  • You’re moving to another address and you want to take a favorite shrub or tree
  • A foundation plant has outgrown its current space so it needs another home in order to stay healthy and flourish

Assessing Your Transplanting Project

Before you transplant your tree, you have to assess the project. You first have to decide if you’ll be able to handle this type of job. It’s not going to be easy. It will require pruning the roots the season before you transplant the bush or tree, digging it up, creating a new hole for planting, moving the heavy plant that still has its root ball, positioning your plant and then filling both holes back in. You’ll also need to care for your plant after it has been transplanted. Don’t think about transplanting if you’re not going to give the plant water for a minimum of a year after it’s transplanted.

Be sure your shrub or tree is a size that is manageable. A shrub as tall as three feet and a tree that is up to an inch around (measured six inches above your soil’s level) are able to be moved without digging out the whole root ball. These kinds of plants plus the majority of plants that are between 3 and 4 years of age are able to be moved as a bare root transplant. Older or larger plants have to be dug out and then transplanted with their intact root ball.

So that your transplant is successful, you have to make sure you’re bringing as much of its root system that is possible. Generally, you want to have a minimum of 10-12 inches of the diameter of root ball for each trunk diameter. For example, if you have a tree that is 3 inches around, the root ball has to be at least 30-36 inches around.

The root ball’s depth also will increase proportionally. As many of the plant’s lateral roots should be included as is possible. Because the roots are close to the line of the soil, a plant’s root ball that’s 12-24 inches deep is going to include the necessary roots.

When you extract a root ball, it’s going to be attached to the plant and soil. This is going to weigh around 100 pounds for each square foot. So you want to make sure you’re having the necessary manpower or machinery available so that it can be moved. When you have a bigger tree, you’re going to have a harder time to transplant it on your own.

Autumn, during the latter part of winter and early in the spring are the best times that you can choose for transplanting. Your move ought to be done after the leaves have fallen during the autumn if you’re doing it in the fall. If you’re doing it in the spring, it should be done before the new buds are breaking. If you’re not sure when you should be transplanting in the area in which you live, the office for Cooperative Extension will be a good choice to turn to, or even a nursery.

If you’re moving a tree that is very large, you can use hydraulic tree spades that are mounted on a truck. Based on the machine’s size, it’s possible to transplant a tree as tall as 50 feet successfully. This has to be done by a professional, however, for safety reasons.

Evaluating Your Plant and Location

Transplanting is going to be stressful for shrubs and tree. Ensure that the plant you are transplanting will be up to this task. If your plant’s doing well where it’s currently rooted, it’s best to find a location for its new home that has the same type of characteristics. Plant the shrub or tree in the way it was already growing. It should be facing the same way that it was previously and getting the same level of sunlight each day. Mark one of its branches using a string or ribbon so that it’s simple to reorient it facing West, East, South, or North.

If your plant is not healthy, transplanting it may kill it. If you’re still set on moving your plant, figure out the issue, treat it appropriately and then postpone moving it until it’s healthy. If your plant’s not healthy, there are a few possible reasons:

  • Disease or Pests – If your shrub or tree is seriously affected or damaged by one of these reasons, you may want to replace the plant instead of transplanting it.
  • Sunlight requirements – When the problem is its environment, if it’s getting too little or too much sun, figure out the amount that it will get where you’re transplanting it.
  • Type of Soil – If your plant is not growing well, it could be because of the type of soil. Transplanting it may not fit this situation. Do a test on your soil and determine if it’s suitable for the soil conditions that exist. Adjust your soil’s pH so it’s a better fit for your plant or choose another plant that is going to do well in the soil.
  • Soil type – Poor growth may be a result of the soil and moving the plant may not remedy the situation. Perform a soil test to determine whether the plant is suitable to your existing soil conditions. Adjust the soil pH to better fit the plant or find a new plant that will thrive in your soil.

Below are a few more considerations when you are transplanting:

  • Trees that have tap roots that are long and vertical, such as pecan, walnut, some pines and oaks are hard to transplant.
  • A lot of trees growing in soil that is sandy might have a lateral root system that is wider, and tap roots that are longer than a lot of other landscape plants that grow in soil that is clay-based. This is going to mean that you’ll have more digging to do before you transplant.
  • You may think it’s a good idea to move a native plant from a wooded area to your lawn but you won’t have a lot of success. It’s better to choose a native grown in a nursery to put on your landscape.
  • You will have an easier time transplanting a deciduous plant than a conifer. A shrub will normally relocate much easier than a tree.
  • If you’re moving a plant because of a problem with space, make sure you’re giving the plant enough room in its new home.
  • Remember that after you have transplanted your plant, there is still going to be a lot of its root system left in its original spot. So you’re going to have extra work to do so that you can prepare the area for turf grass or new plantings.
  • Check the property lines, underground, and overhead utilities and right-of-way before you dig. Before starting any type of excavation, you can call 811 to help you with checking for utilities underground.

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 a Palm Tree

A palm tree is an exception to the majority of the rules that are listed above. The new roots grow from their trunks instead of its lateral root ends like other tree. Because of this, you can transplant a big palm tree even with a little root ball. But you’ll also have to give a transplanted palm tree support bracing after its been transplanted because it doesn’t have the normal huge root ball.

In general, a mature palm is going to transplant much better when compared with a young one. A palm also will prefer being transplanted when it’s a warm temperature. But this isn’t true for all of the different types of palms. It’s a good idea to talk to an expert, such as an arborist, before you are trying to transplant a palm tree.

Shrub and Tree Care After a Transplant

You’ve done all of the tough work. Now you want to do a couple of finishing touches as well as remember a couple of things. Here are some tips for taking care of your tree or shrub once it’s been transplanted.

  • It’s important to water after you have done a transplant, but there isn’t an exact formula that tells you the amount and how often it should happen. Factors like temperature, soil texture, tree size, and winds will make the quantity of water a target that moves. Make sure that the roots are moist but aren’t soggy. If there isn’t any natural rainfall you should plan on watering deep every 12-14 days.
  • Putting a mulch layer of 2-3 inches around your new transplant’s base is going to help with retaining moisture and moderating the temperature of the soil and that will help with promoting growth of roots. The mulch should be kept 2-3 inches from your plant’s trunk.
  • You should stake larger trees. Three stakes should be used and ensure the rope or line’s not cutting into your trees bark. It’s a good idea to slide your line through a garden hose section to give a decent cushion between the bark and line. You should also ensure that you’re driving your stakes into ground that is solid. You can remove them after a year has passed.
  • Don’t fertilize a shrub or tree that is newly transplanted. It’s stressful enough for the plant to acclimate to its new site. When you fertilize it’s going to stimulate new growth that’s unwanted. You should wait a year before you fertilize your transplanted shrub or tree.
  • Expect that your transplanted shrub or tree is going to take a few years before it recovers from you moving it. Your plant might not produce any new type of growth or have any blooms until it’s adjusted to the new home that you have given it.

When you are going to transplant a shrub or tree, these are the steps that you should take to ensure that the transplant goes well. If you aren’t sure if you’re able to transplant it yourself, it’s always better to hire someone who can do it for you. That will help to ensure that the transplant goes well and that your tree is healthy.

Have more questions?

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