Do you have an "oops" tree in your yard? An oops in this case means the tree needs to be transplanted. Maybe it was planted in the wrong place. Maybe it’s in the way of your long-awaited new addition.
Or, maybe "all of a sudden you have a news flash and you think ‘Oh my goodness, this thing is going to eat my house, and I need to move it before I have a problem,’” says Sheri Dorn, Extension horticulturalist and the Georgia Master Gardener Coordinator in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia in Griffin.
Whatever the reason, the tree needs to be transplanted. Worse, as you look at it and contemplate where you should move it, how you’re going to safely dig it up, carry it to its new home and re-plant it, you may have a sudden sinking feeling that you don’t have a clue about how to transplant it without doing harm.
If you’re in that predicament, you’re in luck. Here’s Dorn’s step-by-step suggestions for transplanting a tree and how to determine if your efforts were successful.
Do some homework
Research the tree‘s cultural needs to know how much sun or shade it needs and its size at maturity based on the type of tree you are transplanting. Be sure the new site is compatible with all of these requirements. Importantly, once you’ve selected a new site but before digging a new hole, call the utility companies (or a master number for all of the utilities) and ask them to mark their lines and pipes. Their flags will ensure that you don’t drive a shovel through an underground gas, electrical or water line.
Some other items for your pre-dig checklist:
- Assemble your tools. You’ll need a sturdy shovel and/or spade that’s heavy enough to slice cleanly through roots and a plastic tarp or piece of burlap.
- Line up a few friends. The root ball of even a small tree can be heavy.
- Choose the right time of year. By far and away the best time to transplant a tree is in the late fall or winter when the tree is either going dormant or already dormant.
Pre-dig a new hole
Dig a new planting hole for the tree’s new home before digging up the tree. The goal is to have the new home ready as soon as the tree is out of the ground. “When you prepare a new planting hole, you want to dig wider and not necessarily deeper,” says Dorn. Mound the “native” soil from the new hole next to the hole. Break apart any clods that you dig up, but do not amend the native soil.
There’s a reason for not amending the native soil you will plant back around the tree with rich compost or other soil amendments, advises Dorn. That’s because “amending the native soil will change the way water moves in that site and will cause problems for the tree later on,” Dorn says. “You either amend an entire planting area or you don’t amend at all. “
Dig up the tree
“The smaller the tree and the sooner you do this the better,” says Dorn of the chances of successfully transplanting a tree. “If you have planted a tree in your yard or garden, it’s in soil. To get enough of the root system to keep the tree viable, you are going to be picking up soil and it’s going to be heavy. So you have a logistics issue.”
To get an idea of the size root ball you will need to dig up, she recommends the chart on this PennState Extension post about transplanting a tree. The term caliper in the chart refers to a tree’s diameter. For example, a tree with a two-inch caliper would have a trunk two inches across.
Once you’ve determined the distance from the trunk to dig out a root ball, use a heavy shovel or spade with a sharp blade to begin digging. “With heft and sharpness you can get clean cuts through root systems and do as little damage as possible to the roots,” Dorn says. If your shovel is bouncing around on the surface roots, you can skin them up pretty good. The jarring to the root system can break the finer root hairs that are more important for water transfer than the larger roots. Working in a circle around the tree, dig down at an angle so you can get underneath the main root system so that you capture as much of the root system as possible.
You next challenge will be to keep the root ball intact while moving the tree from its planting site to its new home. This is where the friends you lined up in advance and the burlap or plastic tarp will help if the tree has any size to it at all. With the tree and root ball now loose in the hole, use your shovel or spade to lift up the root ball so your friends can work the burlap or tarp under the root ball. Once they’ve done that, gently lift the tree out of the ground by the burlap or tarp. “You don’t ever want to pull on the trunk of the tree to lift the tree and root ball out of the ground,” cautions Dorn. Doing that will increase the chance of the root ball breaking apart, which will will decrease your tree’s chances of surviving the transplanting process.
Once the tree is out of the original hole, use your shovel handle to measure from the bottom of the root ball to the top of the root ball, and then go drop your shovel “measuring stick” into your new planting hole to know if you’ve dug that hole at the right depth, advises Dorn. This will let you know if you need to add more dirt to the new hole or dig it a little deeper. You want to do this before moving the tree because you don’t want to handle the transplant too much and risk compromising the root ball and it falling apart and damaging the plant, she says.
Re-planting the tree
With your friends, carry the tree by the burlap or plastic tarp to the new location and set it gently down in the hole. Once it’s in place, carefully work the burlap or tarp out from underneath the root ball. This is where the wider rather than deeper guideline on the new planting hole will begin coming into play. Chances are great that the root ball you dug up is going to be an irregular size that will be much different from the perfect cylindrical shape of a tree bought in a container from a nursery.
To verify you’ve positioned and settled the root ball correctly into the new site, place your shovel handle across the hole. The top of the root ball should be level with the top of the ground around the new planting site.
Now it’s time to begin backfilling the hole with the native soil you set aside earlier in the process. Work that soil around the root ball ensuring that the tree remains straight. “Tamp the dirt around the tree, but don’t stomp to the point that its compacted,” says Dorn.
It’s helpful to also make what Dorn calls a donut ring around the base of the tree. Basically, she says, that involves mounding the soil in a ring around the planting hole so that when you water the tree the water will stay there and goes down into the soil to the roots rather than rolling down the hill or to another part of the garden. Be sure to rake out that ring away from the tree trunk three or four months after planting to avoid it ending up on top of the root ball.
Next water the transplanted tree. As you do this, check the tree to make sure the tree hasn’t settled deeper into the hole than when you set it there. “You don’t want the tree to go too deep into the hole once you water it in because that will also compromise it,” Dorn says. After that, “you want to keep an eye on it” she says to make sure the planting site stays moist. “Once or twice a week put a soaker hose or slow drip hose to it, water slowly and let the water soak in.
Staking is generally not necessary in this situation because homeowners are typically moving small trees. However, if you feel that your tree needs to be staked to ensure it stays straight in the hole, Dorn suggests visiting this site for staking, and other guidelines, such as whether you should add fertilizer.
How do you know if it will live?
“Transplanted trees really need about three years before we say they are truly re-established,” says Dorn. “That’s on the larger size, like a two-inch caliper tree. Even in the second year, keep an eye on it. In the second year if you have a hot and dry summer keeping moisture on it is critical. That’s because that transplanted tree is not going to have the root system on it that an established tree would have.” You may need to continue providing supplemental moisture into even the third year if your area is getting less than normal rainfall, she added.
What if I have an older, larger tree?
But what if there is an older, larger tree that has to be moved? Perhaps one that’s in the way of city road construction, for example. What does a homeowner do then?
“Hope for a little Disney magic!” exclaims Dorn, referring to a 100-year-old Southern Live Oak ( Quercus virginiana) that Walt Disney World resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, moved to Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom before the park opened in 1971. Known as “The Liberty Tree,” it is a reminder of the Liberty Tree in Boston where patriots calling themselves “the Sons Of Liberty” gathered to protest in colonial days. At the time, the Disney tree was the largest tree to ever be transplanted.
As commercials sometimes are fond of saying: Don’t try this at home. “It can be done, but it’s extremely difficult,” says Dorn. It will require professional movers and will be very expensive. Not only that, it will be many years before you can be sure a really large tree will survive being transplanted. “We’re not talking three years,” she says. “We’re talking 10 or 15 years before you really catch up on a root system on something like that. It’s just not practical for homeowners.”
Besides, there are easier ways to preserve an old tree that has a sentimental value, she says.. Those include collecting seed, taking cuttings and propagating them, or to dig up suckers, volunteers that come up from the roots.
The other thing, she adds, is if you have a diseased plant and are losing it, you can try to save it by vegetatively propagating it. If you have any healthy part of the plant available, take the cutting from the healthy part and try to save it that way.
Master Gardener volunteers in your area can give you information about how to do this. Someone in your area will know your climate and soil and be the best source of this sort of specialized information, she emphasizes. Simply contact your county’s Extension office for more information.