The Gardener Within: Tips on digging up and relocating trees and bushes from Master Gardener Joe Lamp'l.
“The right plant for the right place” is a gardening maxim. For that reason and many others, trees and shrubs sometimes need to be moved. These cool fall days are the time to do it. Plants won’t be stressed by heat, and they’ll have all winter to develop a new root system and get ready for spring.
Moving a tree or shrub isn’t that hard to do, and we don’t do it often enough in my opinion. Many plants survive but don’t thrive in less-than-ideal conditions. And just like people, they’ll never reach their full potential until they’re placed in an environment to which they’re better suited.
Young and generally healthy shrubs and trees are the best candidates for a successful move. The smaller the shrub or tree, the quicker it will recover, and the easier it will be to handle. Anything more than roughly 8 feet tall or with a trunk diameter over 2 inches becomes unmanageable without special equipment.
You’ll have the most success transplanting trees with compact, fibrous root systems, such as maple, pin oak, ash and shrubs such as azalea and hydrangea. Small feeder root systems recover much faster than, say, the coarse roots of the magnolia or hawthorn. If you have the time, pruning the roots a year before the move will reduce the overall root zone and give young feeder roots a chance to develop and grow inside the root ball zone. That also makes it easier to dig up and easier on the plant to recover.
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With chalk or spray paint, draw a circle around the plant 12 inches in diameter for every inch of tree trunk diameter. Dig along the outer edge with a sharp spade, slicing through the roots. If you’re encountering a lot of tough, heavy roots, you’re too close to the trunk — move your trench out a bit. Alternatively, try and plan your root pruning for the dripline. That’s the area on the ground under the tips of the branches. And if all else fails, remember: The more roots you can dig up during the removal process, the better the chance of a successful transplant to the new location, assuming all other conditions are good.
Prune the roots. Dig the ball. When it’s time to move your plant, cut a trench along the root ball line, working progressively deeper as you go. Shave away excess soil as you work, but don’t remove any more roots. Have a helper tip the plant back while you undercut the final roots holding it in place.
Wrap up and move out. Cut a piece of untreated burlap four times the diameter of the root ball, tip the plant over and slide the burlap under the ball as far as possible. Tip the plant the other way and pull the burlap through so the root ball rests on the burlap, then fold and wrap the material around the root ball and pin in place with 2-inch-long flathead nails. To safely remove the root ball from the hole, slip a wooden 2-by-12 underneath it and slide the plant up and out onto a heavy plastic tarp. Using the tarp, pull or carry the plant to its new location. Avoid lifting by the trunk or stems; that will break off roots and knock soil loose.
Replant. Dig the new planting hole no deeper than the root ball is high and three times wider. Set the plant in place with the top of the ball slightly higher than the surrounding soil level (to account for settling). Open the burlap and tuck it into the hole so it won’t wick water away from the roots. It will eventually decompose. Backfill the hole halfway with soil, tamp firm and fill with water. Let the water drain, finish backfilling and build a “saucer” of soil around the tree to direct water down to the roots. Water again.
Post-Op recovery. Spread a 3- to 4-inch-deep layer of mulch over the area in the saucer. Don’t fertilize or prune for the first couple of years to allow the plant to settle in gradually to its new home. But keep up with watering, especially through the first summer. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation to let the water sink slowly to the roots. Once the plant has made it through the first summer after relocation, it should be fine on its own after that.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.