When moving any tree, there are some basics that apply. Depending on the size of the tree, much more can be involved than just a shovel and a strong back. It is quite a bit easier to transplant a sapling than it is to move a large oak. Both can be done, but the bigger the tree, the more work, expense, manpower and tools are involved. A small tree can be moved with a couple of shovels, some burlap and rope, and the muscles of a couple of strong people. That large oak will take a crew and heavy equipment to get the job done. Before digging up a tree it is vitally important to know what is already in the ground around the tree. Tree transplanting requires a lot of digging and it is possible to accidentally damage water, sewer or gas lines or a buried electrical or phone cable.
What Type of Tree is It?
There are two types of trees. There are the evergreens of which the familiar Christmas tree is an example. Then there are deciduous trees which are most of the trees that leaf out in the spring and shed their leaves in the fall. Most trees can be transplanted in the early spring before new growth begins to occur, and in the fall after the leaves are shed from deciduous trees and before the ground freezes. It is important to have a few weeks before the ground will freeze to promote new root growth to protect the tree.
How Big is the Tree?
The trunk diameter and height of the tree need to be taken into consideration before moving the tree. For every inch of the diameter of a tree’s trunk there should be a foot of root ball left intact when digging. That means that if a tree trunk measures 12 inches across its widest point, the shovel should go on the ground six feet out from the trunk and maintained at a distance of six feet all around the tree. That way when the tree comes out of the ground it will have a 12 foot diameter root ball. It is easy to now imagine how moving a tree only 12 inches in diameter can turn into a huge job. Furthermore the depth of the amount to be dug out should equal about a half foot for every inch of tree diameter. For that 12 inch diameter tree it would mean digging down six feet. That would be a huge root ball that only heavy equipment would be able to successfully move.
Dig the Hole the Tree will be put in First
It is not good to leave the root ball of a freshly dug up tree exposed to the air. Fine root hairs that pull in water and nutrients will be damaged. The best thing to do is dig the hole where the tree will go before digging up the tree that will be transplanted. The hole that the new tree will go into should be twice as wide as the root ball that will be dug up. For that tree that is 12 inches in diameter it would mean digging a hole 24 feet wide by 12 feet deep. That type of hole would require heavy equipment to dig thus making it feasible to only be able to successfully transplant by hand trees that are no more than 6 inches in diameter.
Remove big rocks from soil that will be put back in the hole so that roots can grow unencumbered. Do not add fertilizer to the hole since it can burn roots that is comes in direct contact with. Acid loving evergreens such as Arborvitae will do well to have some manure and peat added to poor soils to help jumpstart new growth. However, trees will need to survive mostly in the soils that they are moved to without needing constant care after they get reestablished in their new environment.
Be sure to consider the new location. If moving a tree that is used to partial shade into an area where it will get full sun, it may not survive in its new location. Also moving a sun loving tree to a shady area may meet with failure. Soil conditions need to be considered as well. Some trees need well drained soil while others prefer very moist soil. Is the tree going to be moved to an area where soil drainage is different?
Wrapping the Root Ball
No matter if the tree is moving across the yard or across the country, the dug up root ball needs to be kept moist. Do not allow the exposed roots to dry out. Wrapping small root balls in newspaper that is soaked with water will help retain moisture. Larger root balls should be wrapped in burlap and tied in place with rope. The burlap needs to be kept wet. Evaporation on hot days can dry out a root ball and the method for keeping it moist in minutes. Do not soak the root ball to the point that soil is coming off. It is important to retain the soil along with the roots—keeping the root ball intact.
Larger trees should have their root balls wrapped and the material well-moistened plus they will need to be wrapped with plastic tarps or sheeting to help hold in the moisture. This is especially important if the tree is going to be transported by truck to a distant location.
Replanting the Tree
Be sure to get the tree plumb in its new home. It is about impossible to straighten a tree that has already had its root ball backfilled with dirt. Using sight to check if the tree is upright is okay if the person doing the job is careful. Be sure to look at the tree from all sides, comparing it with existing vertically straight landmarks. Once the tree is positioned properly, use ropes and stakes to keep it from moving during the backfill process.
Before backfilling thoroughly wet the hole that the tree is in. It is not necessary to remove all of the burlap covering the root ball of large trees, but all rope and plastic sheeting should be removed as well as newspapers protecting small tree root balls. Wet the root ball one more time, still being careful not to create a muddy mess. Then slowly begin the backfilling process, being diligent to get the new soil in contact with exposed roots. Roots need to be in contact with soil. Continue to moisten soil as needed to accomplish the job. Do not allow air pockets to form, nor allow large rocks to be backfilled. Use soil and get it to be in contact with the roots.
Establishing the Transplanted Tree
Be faithful in keeping the transplanted tree watered for at least one growing season. The roots of the tree have been cut thus diminishing its capacity to take up water and nutrients. In order to take up the slack of the missing roots it is necessary to almost over water the tree for a period of time. Fertilize according to product recommendations. Do not over fertilize. Watering is the key. The tree may have done fine in its old location because it had a well developed root system to get what it needs to survive. In this new location with a partially amputated root system, it will need a little help until the roots are reestablished.
More tree transplanting information and information about individual tree species can be found at Arborday.org.
Here is a video of a large tree being transplanted for the reader to get an idea of the work involved: