20 Tips for Transplanting Shrubs and Trees

20 Tips for Transplanting Shrubs and Trees

How often have you heard someone say “Well, we had just got the garden organized, then we decided to add another room to the house, so that beautiful shrub had to go”?

Fortunately many trees and shrubs can be transplanted successfully when the time is right, given a little care. Generally trees over four meters high with a root-ball weighing more than 120kg are too big and heavy for the home gardener to handle, and special lifting equipment needs to be hired.

  1. Shrubs and trees of a convenient size to handle are best transplanted in early winter when growth is at a minimum and deciduous trees are dormant. This gives the tree and its root system a chance to recover before the onset of spring growth.
  2. Several weeks before moving takes place, the outer roots of the plant should be severed. Using a very sharp spade, dig into the ground all around at a radius of 1½ times the trunk diameter, cutting the roots as you go.
  3. Two or three days before the move make a trench where you have previously cut with a spade and then soak the whole area thoroughly. Water should penetrate the root-ball, which then firms it, making it easier to handle. Cover the ground with damp sacks to ensure that ground remains moist.
  4. When you are ready to transplant ensure the new planting hole is ready. Same-day transplants are by far the best but, if it is absolutely unavoidable that you lift the shrub, keep it secure in a shady and wind-protected place.
  5. Cut down the side of the trench you have dug to make enough room for undercutting and wrapping. It will be easier if you cut half-way under the root-ball from one side, then finish the rest of the way from the other. Once the roots are free, wrap hessian around the root-ball as tightly as possible, securing it firmly with big nails or fasteners.
  6. When you are ready to lift the plant from the hole make sure you move it carefully and gently to avoid damage to the roots. Where the plant has to be moved a great distance, tying the hessian with twine or rope will ensure the wrapping stays secure and intact.
  7. As you replant, lower the plant into the hole and then tilt it to release the wrapping – first from one side and then the other. Fill the hole with good soil, packing it down tightly as you go.
  8. Trees may well need to be staked temporarily and larger specimens will benefit from a certain amount of pruning, which will reduce the plant’s immediate water needs.
  9. Bare-rooted deciduous trees and shrubs bought from nurseries are usually packed in damp sawdust or straw to ensure roots do not dry out while you transport them home. If you have not chosen or prepared the planting site it is important to ensure the roots remain in a damp condition until it is convenient to plant. “Heeling-in” is a term for the temporary planting of bare-rooted plants.
  10. If the plant roots should be dried out, soak them in a bucket of water for an hour or so before either heeling-in or planting. With normal care, trees and most shrubs will survive for many years, but thorough site preparation will give them the best possible start.
  11. Careful planting accounts for much of the difference between failure and success. By far the most important step is to dig a hole that will be both wide enough and deep enough to take the fully spread roots. Insufficient room, particularly in soils with a considerable clay content, which causes roots to double up or twist round in an effort to grow, hardly gives a plant a chance.
  12. The roots both anchor the plant in position and take in solution the nutrients it needs from the soil. Unless the soil into which they are placed is friable and capable of supplying those nutrients, and well aerated and drained, the root system will have a difficult time getting established. The old adage “Dig a $10 hole for a $5 plant” has a sound basis.
  13. Once you have dug a generously sized hole, make a shallow mound in the center so the roots can spread naturally over and down. Gradually fill in the hole with some of the soil which has been amended with compost and firm as you go to avoid leaving air pockets.
  14. There is no need at this stage to add fertilizer – that comes later in spring once the plant is well established.
  15. Most plants should be placed so that the level of the soil up the stem remains in the same position as it did in the nursery. In the case of grafted plants always ensure that the graft is above the soil or you will have trouble with suckers growing from the rootstock.
  16. Should any staking be necessary, place the support into position in the hole before planting to avoid later injury to the plant roots.
  17. While it is unnecessary to prune ornamental trees and shrubs at planting time, any broken branches or obviously misplaced growth which will ultimately spoil the overall shape should be removed. Take away any of the thin, twiggy growth of roses. Damaged roots should be trimmed back to an undamaged area. New, fibrous roots will soon begin to emerge after planting, and shrubs will establish quickly.
  18. Fruit trees are sold in branched form or as a single, unbranched slender stem. It is important to establish a good, strong framework in the early years, so both types should be cut back at planting time. Unbranched trees are usually cut back to about knee height and the branched ones shortened to healthy, outward-facing bud. If this initial pruning is a little confusing most local nurseries will be happy to do it for you.
  19. Severe pruning of established trees and shrubs increases the risk of disease and should be avoided where possible. If a large branch has to be removed, undercut the limb for about a third of its thickness; move a little along the branch towards the tip, then cut from above – this will help prevent any tearing of the bark. Once the weight of the branch has gone it is a simple job to remove the stub from the main trunk. Leave as smooth a surface as possible, trimming the edges with a sharp knife if necessary.
  20. With smaller cuts ensure that you prune to a bud. Stubs left without buds will die back to the next bud rather than make a callous over the wound. As new growth tends to grow in the direction in which the bud is pointing, prune only to an outward-facing kind.

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