Garden Corner – How to Move a Tree

Kelly Jackson
Christian County Extension Office

How to Move a Tree

An especially common mistake many gardeners make is realizing that a large shrub or tree was planted in exactly the wrong spot in your landscape. Maybe it was planted too close to the house and is growing under the eave. Or it might be blocking a view. A new addition to a home is another common reason for having to move a tree. Relocating a tree that has been in place for a few years is not an easy task but there are a few tips you can follow to give it better chance of survival.

The key component of successfully moving a tree is its roots. The more roots you can move with the tree, the greater its survivability. But that’s not so easily done. Roots extend 2 to 3 times beyond the crown of a tree. Digging a root ball to include all the roots would make it impossible to move without major commercial equipment. To make the root ball more manageable and to maximize the amount of roots you take with you, prepare the tree for transplanting several months before the planned move.

Three to six months before planning to dig, use a sharp spade to prune the roots 8 to 12 inches deep around the root ball of the plant.  The size of the root ball is determined by the stem caliper when measured at 6 inches above the ground. For every inch of stem caliper, the root ball should be at least 10 to 12 inches. In other words, a 2-inch caliper tree would have a 24-inch diameter root ball; a 3-inch caliper tree would need a 36-inch root ball, and so on. New feeder roots will form where you pruned with the spade. When it is time to remove the tree, dig 4 to 6 inches outside the original root pruning cut to capture the newly formed feeder roots. The depth of the root ball should be a bit over half as deep as the diameter.

Now through April (the dormant season) is the best time for moving most trees and shrubs. Root pruning in November, should give you sufficient feeder roots for transplanting in early April. Prior to moving the plant in the spring, prepare and dig the hole for the new location. Be sure to select a site based on its suitability for the tree including light levels, soil pH, drainage, and exposure. As you prepare to dig up the tree, soak the root ball so the soil will remain intact better. Digging a root ball is less about digging up the tree and more about removing the soil outside the root ball.  If the distance between sites is close, you may be able to roll the root ball onto a plastic tarp and drag it to the new site. But if you have to move it further, you will need to wrap the root ball in untreated natural burlap. Tie the burlap together to keep the roots firmly in place. Remember, root balls on larger plants could weigh several hundred pounds. With a helper, lift the tree from under the root ball, never by the trunk. Your goal is to keep the root ball together. If the soil ball breaks apart, it will break roots inside stressing trees potentially to the point of death.

Once the tree is in the new planting hole, make sure it is set at the same depth and backfill with the existing topsoil. Water immediately following planting, even if it is raining, to reduce air pockets in the soil and apply a three-inch layer of mulch and be sure to provide adequate water for the entire growing season.

Be patient with your transplanted tree or shrub. It can take over a year before you start to see new vigorous growth. But by following these steps, you will at least know you did all you could to correct your mistake.

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