How to Transplant a Tree the Right Way

transplanting a tree

In a past career, I worked at a tree nursery and dug many trees for transplanting. It is not an easy job, regardless of how fit you feel you are. I was fortunate to learn how to “ball and burlap” trees from some very excellent workers at the nursery, so I feel qualified to let you know how difficult it is to “ball and burlap” a tree. Before you think about how to transplant a tree from one location to another, really consider your abilities to handle such an arduous task. If not done properly, you could find yourself spending the afternoon at the urgent care center with a pulled muscle, or worse.

Size & DBH

The first thing to consider when thinking about how to transplant a tree is the size of the tree and the size of the root ball that you will have to create to safely move the tree. In my estimation, most homeowners can probably handle a tree that has a DBH (diameter at breast height) up to no more than 4 inches. Anything larger than that should be left up to the professionals.

Timing Is Key

The time of year that you will be attempting to transplant your tree is equally as important. The best time of year to dig up and move a tree is in late fall or winter when the tree has entered its dormant period. You can also transplant a tree in early spring, but once the tree begins leafing out, the success level drops. Transplanting a tree in the heat of the summer is never a good idea unless you really know what you are doing.

Location, Location, Location

The next thing to consider is the location of where the tree will end up. Think about the eventual height that the tree will obtain. Is it a tree that can handle shade as it grows? What are the watering requirements of the tree? In other words, don’t plant a tree with high water needs next to a tree that doesn’t need as much water. It is best to do some research on the tree you will be transplanting so you place it in the best location.

Digging the Hole

It is always a good idea to dig the hole where the tree will be transplanted to in order to reduce the time the tree is out of the ground. Roots dry out quickly, so the less time it is exposed to the air, the better it will be for the tree. The general recommendation is to dig the hole twice as wide as the width of the root ball and a little less shallow than its depth. Since you have not yet dug up the tree, you will have to make a guess. At a minimum, it should be about 3 feet wide and about two feet deep. Once you have a better idea of the size of the root ball, you can always make the hole bigger.

Removing the Tree from Its Original Location

Now it is time to start digging up the tree that you wish to transplant—a task easier said than done. Start by digging a trench around the tree about three feet out from the trunk—you may have to make the trench about 2 feet deep. At this point, you should be able to determine the amount of root growth that is extending out from the tree. Using a sharp spade, begin making angular cuts on the inside of the trench. Continue making these cuts as you begin to make the root ball. You may have to cut some larger roots, which is why you want to start with a sharp spade. In some cases, a hand pruner or loppers may be required. In all honesty, if the roots are so large that you have to use a lopper to cut them, the tree is probably too big to transplant.

The idea is to create a root ball that contains a good portion of the roots and is not too large to easily move. Once you have created the majority of the root ball, gently rock the tree back and forth and undercut the ball to cut any roots that are growing straight down. In the nursery, we usually wrapped the ball with burlap at this point to prevent the root ball from breaking, so following this practice would be a good idea.

Moving the Tree

Once you have freed the roots and the tree can be removed from the hole, it is probably a good idea to seek someone to help you lift the tree out of the hole. If you cannot easily lift the tree and root ball out of the hole, gently lay the tree down within the hole. Using an old tarp or even an old sheet, make a sling by draping it across the topside of the root ball. Once it is in place, gently rock the tree back in the opposite direction and lift the ball out of the hole.
Check the depth of the root ball to make sure the hole where the tree will be placed is at the correct depth. Either add or remove soil so that the top of the root ball is slightly higher than the ground around it. Planting too deep can cause future problems.

The Final Steps

After placing the tree in the new hole, use the soil that was removed from the hole as the back fill. Have a hose handy and after every 6 inches of soil that has been added, use water to settle the soil to prevent air pockets from developing.
Make a berm or bowl with the soil around the perimeter of the new hole so that as the soil settles, it will remain almost level with the surrounding ground. Once that is completed and your tree has been fully transplanted, water it again by placing the hose at the base of the tree and adjust the pressure to a slow trickle. Leave the water running for about 30 minutes so that the soil is thoroughly wet, but not soupy.


It is also a good idea to place about three inches of quality mulch around the tree. Do not pile the mulch onto the trunk (forming what we call a “mulch volcano”). Depending on the weather, water at least once a week, using the same method of a slow trickle at the base of the tree.

Transplanting a tree is not an easy job, but it can be accomplished if you have the time and the right tools. Just be sure you do a little research on the tree you have before you decide to move it. It may even be a tree you don’t want in your landscape at all.

To take your tree transplanting to the next level, be sure to check out our expert tree watering tips. And if you’re looking for professional, worry-free tree and shrub care, give your local Spring-Green owner a call!