People often ask me how to transplant trees and shrubs without killing them. You can move any plant, any time, as long as you get a big enough hunk of roots that the plant never knows you dug it up. As a practical matter this is quite difficult, since the plant’s root zone extends out at least as far as the tips of its branches. The root ball you dig up has to be small enough that you can physically handle it, so you’re going to have to cut some roots off.
You can get away with quite a bit in the dormant season, when the tree has no leaves and the sap isn’t flowing. This means October through March. Since the tree has less roots to sustain it, it will automatically compensate by putting our fewer and smaller leaves and blooms the following spring. The stored energy of the plant will be focused on rebuilding the root system back to what it was. Until the root system is restored the tree will not grow, or at least its growth will be stunted. If you do your transplant properly, the tree will eventually recover and start to grow again.
Nurseries make their living by digging up and selling their trees, and there’s a time-tested method for doing this. The first thing to remember is that if you plan your transplant for the dormant season, you can move less dirt with the plant without harming it. Late spring and early summer are the worst times to transplant. Nurseries do most of their digging in late winter and early spring, but as soon as buds start to open they stop digging.
Here’s how to dig woody plants properly: First, dig a trench the width of your shovel around the plant, far enough away that you’re not cutting through major roots. With shrubs, it’s helpful to tie the branches up in a tight bundle to keep them out of the way.
Using a sharp spade, start shaving around the root ball to make it lighter. Most importantly, AVOID PRYING or loosening the root ball just yet. Dig your trench wider and deeper so that you can undercut the roots deep down. You’ll be cutting through roots, but you need to trim the root ball in order to lighten it. Working your way around and around, keep cutting further and further underneath the roots until the ball is tapered into a “pencil point” shape.
Don’t pry until you’ve cut underneath the roots all the way around. Then, gently pry a little at a time, working your way around and prying a little more each time until the root ball comes free. To get the tree out of the hole without getting a hernia, lean it on its side and start refilling under the roots. Rocking the tree first one way and then the other, filling underneath the root ball, you can gradually refill the hole until the tree is up above the ground where you can get under and lift it. Handle it by the roots, not the top.
The planting tips at this link will guide you in making a good home for the tree in its new location: https://goodseedfarm.com/ArticleTrees—Professional-Planting-Tips.htm
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.