How To: Transplant Trees

Whether you're moving trees with a tree spade or planting them balled-and-burlapped from the nursery, you can improve transplanting success by following these tips.

  1. Preparation is essential. Chose the right tree for the micro-environment you are planting into, considering drainage, sun exposure, overhead restrictions, final shape and size and the amount of maintenance you can afford the tree.

  2. The day before planting, thoroughly water the area where you will put the tree. You will find that the soil digs easier and you will be able to create a healthy environment for the tree to grow.

  3. If you're transplanting a tree from one location to another, consider the weight of the root ball and the type of equipment available for the job. You will need a minimum of 10 inches of root ball per 1 inch of trunk diameter. Water the tree the day prior to digging. The tree will be better equipped to handle the stress of moving if it is well hydrated. Also, mark the compass direction on the trunk for orientation later when you are situating the tree in the hole.

  4. Use sharp tools: sharp shovels for digging and sharp pruners to remove dead branches. This will make your work much easier. You will also need protective gear for the tree, including rope for tying up branches and soft padding and cover for protecting the crown during transport. Keep the tree protected until the operation is complete. Treat with anti-transpirants if there is foliage on the tree.

  5. If digging the tree, be sure to center the trunk in the root ball. This will make it easier to place and orient the tree. While preparing the tree, determine the real top of the root ball. Some nursery practices kick soil up onto the top of the root ball. Dig down to find where the first root flares off the trunk — this is the true top of the root ball. All depth measurements should take place from here. If you're planting a balled-and-burlapped tree from the nursery and you have to dig down more than an inch or so to find the top of the root ball, consider that the root ball is smaller than it should be and you should select a different tree.

  6. Because root development is primarily horizontal, the wider the hole, the more extensive a root system can grow before it encounters more compact native soil. It pays to spend more time getting the size of the hole just right because it will result in a shorter establishment period. If you are unable to dig the hole three to five times the diameter of the root ball, you can achieve some of the same effect by loosening the soil in a large diameter around the planting hole using a shovel or pitchfork. This technique also works with spaded trees. Because root balls can be very heavy and, therefore, compact loosened soil, do not dig the hole any deeper than the depth of the root ball. You want to set the root ball on undisturbed soil.

  7. Prior to setting the tree, roughen up the sides of the planting hole to enhance root movement into the native soil.

  8. Remember to remove the wire basket by the end of the planting process. In order to achieve this without damaging the root ball, try the following: While the root ball is out of the hole, snip off a small circle of the basket on the bottom of the root ball; handling the root ball with the remaining wire, set the tree into the hole and move it around to match compass direction and aesthetics; remove the remainder of the wire basket. Some nurseries will not guarantee the tree if the basket has been removed, but considering the long-term health of the tree, it may be worth it to forego the guarantee.

  9. Controversy still surrounds the issue of amending the backfill. Newest research supports the idea that it doesn't matter if the soil has been amended; rather, the most important element is having a wide planting hole. Fertilizer should not be needed for the next one to two years.

  10. For the next few months and few years, you should consistently supply water, even if the species is drought tolerant. The root ball can dry out much quicker than the surrounding soil, so you will need to water it even if the surrounding soil is moist. Help retain the moisture by applying a loose mulch, 4 to 6 inches deep, in a wide area around the tree.

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