Rearrange Your Garden by Transplanting Trees & Shrubs This Winter

Amy L. Dabbs,
Clemson Extension Horticulture Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator,
Clemson University.

HTG 1217

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December is a great time to transplant trees and shrubs, for several reasons: cooler temperatures and ample rainfall, coupled with dormant plants, mean less transplant shock.

Like rearranging furniture, moving trees and shrubs around the landscape can be an arduous task, fraught with backaches and the occasional disagreement. However, it is rewarding when your garden looks as fresh as a newly remodeled room, and you didn't have to spend money on new plants.

Unlike swapping the couch with the chair in the den, transplanting a living tree or shrub requires planning and attention to technique to ensure its survival. First, decide where you will locate the plant. Drainage, exposure to sun or shade, soil pH, proximity to buildings, and other plants are important factors to consider.

Root pruning is a technique used to reduce transplant shock and should be done between one month and one year, before moving a plant. Root pruning encourages the growth of small feeder roots that take up nutrients and water. By encouraging new roots inside a smaller area, moving the root ball is less stressful for the plant.

To root prune a plant that you plan to move in the next month or two, use the root ball size tables available online at The Clemson University Home and Garden Information Center, HGIC 1055 Transplanting Established Trees Shrubs to determine how large the root ball should be for the type and size plant you are moving. Next, carefully tie up the branches of the plant with twine so that you can work without obstructions.

Mark a circle on the ground around the trunk corresponding to the size indicated on the root ball size chart. Finally, use a sharp spade or shovel to carefully slice through the roots around the plant. Be sure to keep the plant well-watered until you are ready to move it.

Root pruning is a technique used to reduce transplant shock.
Root pruning is a technique used to reduce transplant shock.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2017 HGIC, Clemson Extension

To transplant young, small plants without root pruning, the focus should be on keeping the root ball intact, with as little damage to roots as possible. Again, tying branches up and away from the ground will make this easier.

Before digging, it is recommended that you mark the side of the plant facing north so that you can replant it facing the same direction. Also, be sure the new planting hole is not too deep. The root collar is the flared area of the trunk above where it meets the roots. This area should remain above the soil line after planting. Soil should be moist prior to transplanting. If it has not rained, water the day before transplanting.

Dormant, deciduous trees and shrubs less than 3 feet tall, may be transplanted with soil around their roots or bare root, meaning most or all of the soil is removed. Large trees and shrubs and evergreen plants should be moved with soil around their roots.

Hiring a professional arborist or landscaper to transplant large plants is one way to ensure success and save your back, especially when you consider a root ball 15 inches wide and deep can weigh close to 200 pounds!

Once the plant has been dug, carefully transport it to the new location, keeping the root ball intact. For small plants, a tarp or piece of cardboard can be used to slide the plant over the ground. For larger root balls, a piece of burlap can be used to wrap the root ball, while another piece of burlap can be used as a sling when lifted at the corners. A cart or wheelbarrow may also be helpful in moving the plant.

When planting bare root plants, dig a wide hole and create a mound or cone of soil in the center and fan the roots out over the mound. This will prevent the plant from sinking below the soil line when the soil settles around the roots. Gently press the soil around the roots, but avoid stomping on the roots, which can compact soil particles, squeezing out oxygen that is critical for plant growth. A 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch will conserve moisture, just be sure to keep it away from the trunk of the plant.