How to transplant an established tree

I recently had a client email me asking for advice about how to move a relatively established tree. In moving any plant, there is always a risk that the plant won’t survive. So of course, the best advice is to plan ahead, before you plant.

Moving plants is always a matter of minimising risk – there are no foolproof ways of doing it. And every situation, species, and tree are different

Do some research. Find out how big, how wide, how messy, and how deep the roots will grow when fully grown. The ideal is that you would never have to move a tree once it’s planted…BUT that’s not always possible – circumstances change, and it’s not always possible to predict the future with any kind certainty.

Moving plants is always a matter of minimising risk – there are no foolproof ways of doing it. And every situation, species, and tree are different…sometimes, I think there is even an element of intuition involved.

But there are some things that you can do to reduce the risk of losing a plant that has been transplanted. Here is my reply to her, giving advice about how to move a particularly delicate tree:

  1. Dig the root ball out as deep as possible, and then slightly deeper still (basically a trench all around the tree – leaving as much soil around the roots as is possible that you can still physically move),
  2. Trim off about a third of the leaves.
  3. Leave the plant in place for about 2 weeks to let it get used to having less roots, but all the time giving the roots a little bit of extra water on the root ball as compensation.
  4. In about 2 weeks time, get your hole ready, measured and dug,
  5. Water the plant and the new location thoroughly.
  6. Trim off at least half the remaining leaves,
  7. Move the plant as quickly and carefully as possible keeping as much soil around the roots as possible.
  8. Try to position it in the same orientation that it was in its previous position.
  9. Firm the soil down around the roots and try to wash soil down into any gaps that may have inadvertently formed, (I’m not a big fan of using fertilizers when planting unless your soil is terrible, but even then I would rather use copious compost instead)
  10. And then leave it for a week or two…it doesn’t have much in the way of roots so don’t over water.
  11. Then wait – it may lose a few more leaves, or even a branch – losing leaves is not a big deal, but keep an eye on the stem. If you notice any rot, then you can trim off the dying branch/trunk and paint the cut section with a tree sealant.
  12. Then wait some more…sometimes I have given up hope on plants that look dead for a year or two, and then suddenly they come back…

Generally speaking, the smaller the tree the easier it will be to move. Also, if it was originally planted from a bag as opposed to self seeded, it will transplant easier. I’ve also found that trees transplant a lot easier in Autumn.

Weigh up the costs of losing a tree as opposed to keeping it in a place where it’s not ideal – Is it really worth it?


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