Moving trees and shrubs

Sometimes it is necessary to move an established tree or shrub. Deciduous plants can be moved in winter or early spring, and evergreen plants in spring. This is best done in two stages if you have to move an evergreen plant, but sometimes situations arise, due to weather conditions or moving house where a shrub or tree has to be moved urgently.
This advice is for moving trees and shrubs small enough not to require the assistance of mechanical equipment.

  1. Dig a deep trench around the plant you want to move, using a sharp spade to cut through the roots. The trench will usually have to be dug inside the drip-line of the plant, otherwise the root ball will be too large to handle. The drip-line is the area of soil directly below the outer edges of the foliage – where rain runs off the leaf canopy onto the soil. This is where the feeder roots usually lie.
  2. Water the area thoroughly, but do not apply fertiliser. Then prune back the foliage, or remove whole branches in the case of frangipani. This is necessary to compensate for a smaller root ball, so that the plant will not suffer water stress.
  3. If possible, leave evergreen plants in position for about a month, watering it regularly. This will help the plant to produce some feeder roots within the reduced root ball area.
  4. When ready to move the plant, make sure the soil is damp. Get a large piece of hessian, shadecloth or weed mat and some cord. This will help to keep the root ball intact during transplanting. A trolley, or tarpaulin or another large piece of strong fabric will help to use as a sled to drag the plant to its new planting position if the plant is too large to lift into a barrow.
  5. First dig the hole where the plant is to be positioned. Fill the hole with water. This is important for two reasons. How quickly the hole drains indicates whether drainage is good or you will need to plant the tree or shrub in a raised mound. If the surrounding soil is not damp when you transplant, the water you apply after planting will be drawn away from the root ball into the surrounding dry soil, and the plant will look stressed several days after planting.
  6. Work the spade around the trench dug previously, easing the spade further and further under the root ball until you have cut through all the roots.
  7. Place a clear mark on the north-facing side of the plant so that it will be positioned in the same orientation.
  8. Ease the fabric gently under the root ball. It will be much easier if someone helps by slowly tilting the plant to one side. Gather the fabric around the root ball and tie with cord.
  9. Carefully transfer the plant to the new hole positioning it at the same level it was planted previously. Untie the fabric and gently ease it out from under the root ball.
  10. Fill the hole with soil, adding some compost, if available. Do not trample the soil around the plant. Water thoroughly to remove any air pockets around the roots, and apply a 5 cm layer of mulch around the plant, keeping it a hand span from the trunk. Job done.

Staking a replanted tree or shrub will stabilise it until it becomes established in its new position. Gardening Australia has an excellent video on how to support plants using 3 stakes. See: 3 stake method

** Please note: Moving Eucalyptus taller than 45 cm, or other plants that have tap roots is often unsuccessful.

3 thoughts on “Moving trees and shrubs

  1. I was given a frangipani tree, yanked out of a garden, just before garden was flattened for redevelopment. The tree stands about 2 m, has a single trunk with 4 small branches on the end, that currently have leaves, no flowers. Unfortunately the root ball is very small and there are only half a dozen short roots, and nothing big. The trunk of this tree is about 3-4 inches in diameter.
    I am unsure whether to chop off what remains of the roots, and just put the trunk into the ground, or to try to nurse the root ball inot growth. If i put the trunk into the ground, after cutting off the root ball, would I need to water it? Do I pull off the leaveas. I have read your posts on frangipanis and on ttansplanting shrubs and trees. I live in Perth. The weather is just now really warming up, with max of 34 today, but expected to be max 41 in 4 days time. Thankyou

    Prue, you can try planting the whole tree with the root ball intact, as they are better than having no roots at all. The tree will need staking (3 stake method is best). Don’t remove the leaves as they are the factories that make energy for plants to grow. If the tree is finding it can’t absorb enough moisture, it will drop the leaves itself. Definitely, water it regularly until you see signs of new growth. However, I would also remove one of the branches and plant it in a pot as a back-up, as it is a big ask to expect such a large plant to establish with so few roots. Then gross your fingers, and hope for the best.

  2. Hello Organic Gardening, I live in Adelaide and have a 4m tall Frangipani tree I am attempting to sell/give away. Unfortunately I’m unable to dig around the root ball as it is too close to the fence and the neighbours rain water tank, but needs to be removed for renovations. I read your above comment about being able to cut the trunk and replant the tree. Is this possible to do around end of winter for a good chance of survival? Thank you

    Lauren, it would be very difficult to get such a large tree to regrow if you are unable to provide a root ball, as it would take too long for the base to grow enough roots to support a tree that size. You would be better taking cuttings from the tree before you cut it down, following the guidelines under the ‘Frangipani’ post, and selling/donating them.

  3. Hey, We have been thinking of transplanting a frangipani tree we found on Gumtree, but the vendor doesn’t want to dig up the root ball for fear of damaging surrounding underground services. It’s the reason the tree is being removed anyway. How big is too big for a tree to be safely transplanted without the root ball intact? Is it possible to do it? Tree is at least 2m tall and advanced. We are in Brisbane. Thanks.

    Hey Eric, the tree without its root ball would be a large cutting, and it is not the best time of year to take cuttings of frangipani, particularly such a large cutting. It seems odd that someone would be selling the tree when it has little chance of survival.

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