Transplanting Trees: When and How

Transplanting 1 scaled

Transplanting trees needs careful planning. Multi-stem trees are tender and delicate in the early stages of their lives. This is one of the primary reasons these plants are raised in a nursery before transplanting to a permanent location. However, they may sustain damage from dehydration, exposure, or other factors during transplanting. 

Seedlings of small-seeded, spread species will outgrow their seedbed by the end of the first year after germination in the spring and need transplanting. Oaks, cherries, and chestnuts are examples of trees with large seeds planted with more space that can be left in place after sowing for an additional year. 

No matter the tree species, effective nursery transplanting is essential for a healthy plant and a high survival rate. This means taking all the necessary measures to prep your ground and tree before and after transplanting trees.

Continue reading for information on when and how to move a tree and ensure its survival in its new environment.

Transplanting trees - at New Wood Trees we use specialist machinery

Prepare for Your Transplanting Trees Project 

Transplanting trees is not a simple endeavour. You need to determine whether you can handle the task as it involves pruning the roots, digging up the plant to be relocated, preparing a new planting hole, lifting and transporting the bulky plant with the rootball connected, fixing the plant, and covering both holes. Plus, only think about transplanting trees if you can water them for a minimum of a year after, that means no long holidays over the summer!

Root pruning must occur before you can successfully transplant any mature tree.  This trains the root system to become denser and more fibrous so when it comes to finally moving the tree, there are more healthy roots, closer to the stems than there would otherwise be. It follows the same principle of creating a dense canopy, in that the more you prune and shape, the more defined it will become.

When it comes to transplanting a tree, you want to save as much of the original root system as possible. The rule of thumb is that the rootball must be 10–12 inches in diameter for every inch of trunk diameter.  For instance, if the diameter of a tree trunk measures 3 inches, you will require a rootball that measures 30 to 36 inches in diameter. The depth of the rootball also deepens accordingly. Be warned that rootballs are deceptively heavy, so if you’re planning on moving large trees, you’ll most likely need specialty equipment and machinery.

Best Time to Transplant 

It is best to transplant trees in the late autumn, winter, or in early spring. Moving the tree after the leaves shed in the autumn, or before fresh buds appear in the spring is recommended.

Prune the Roots Before Transplanting Trees 

As stated earlier, you significantly improve the chances of your tree surviving if you prune the roots before transplanting. This should be done far in advance of when you plan to actually move the tree.

Root pruning encourages new feeder roots closer to the trunk to grow. These fresh roots will be dug up inside the rootball, and give the tree a better chance at establishing more roots once replanted.

Steps to Take for Root-Pruning 

  • Before Pruning, Hydrate 

The day before you prune, water the soil around the tree. This makes the land easier to dig into and helps decrease the stress placed on the roots of plants. It also aids in maintaining the soil’s bond with the roots. This is why we only prune roots in winter as the ground is usually sufficiently wet. 

  • Bind the Branches Together 

Cater to the lower branches by wrapping or tying them up so they don’t get in the way as you dig. You don’t want to cause any unnecessary stress at this stage. 

  • Demarcate the Area 

Make a mark on the region that you want to trim. Remember that the root ball’s diameter should be between 10 and 12 inches for each inch of the trunk’s diameter. 

  • Dig a Hole 

Start digging a trench with a flat spade, ensuring the cutting edge is opposite the plant. You can achieve a more precise cut with a sharp edge, which will facilitate digging. Loppers or even a short saw can help you remove any larger roots you meet along the way. 

  • Dig a Little Deeper 

Keep excavating down to a depth of about 24 inches, removing roots as you go to expose as many lateral roots as necessary. While excavating, set aside some of the topsoil and subsoil to add back into the hole after pruning. 

  • Soil Replacement 

The root-trimming process ends once you dig all the way around the plant. Do not dig the soil beneath the plant. You’ll then need to replace the subsoil first, followed by the topsoil, taking care to not leave any air pockets.  

  • Stake 

If your tree is quite tall or in an exposed position, you should stake the tree to stop it from falling over. It’s very important not to damage the roots so they can regrow, so keeping it steady is a must! 

  • Water 

Be sure to water it adequately and then untie the branches. This means making sure to soak the whole rootball, letting the water seep into the ground. You’ll need to water as much as you would with any tree that’s been recently planted, for at least the first summer. 

NB: The clipped root ends encourage the growth of feeder roots, so the more you have inside and around the edge of the rootball the better. We leave trees for at least two years before root-pruning or transplanting the tree again. 

Steps for Transplanting a Tree 

The fundamental procedures are similar to root pruning when it comes to transplanting, with a few significant distinctions. 

Step 1: Water Before Transplanting 

The day before moving your tree, water the ground to moisten the soil, decrease root stress, and maintain the integrity of the root ball.

Step 2: Start a New Dig 

Prepare the new growing hole for the transfer by digging it. The hole should be roughly the same size as the rootball you’ll make. A nice snug fit, and minimal soil disturbance is best. If the ground around the hole is compacted, you can loosen it with a spike. 

Step 3: Secure the Branches 

Safeguard the lower branches from damage and move them out of the way by gently tying them up. 

Step 4: Mark the Spot Around the Tree 

First, carefully scrape away the top layer of soil from the roots around the trunk, and then indicate the area you will dig. To account for the roots that have grown since they were clipped, extend your line 4 to 6 inches past the trimming hole area, and digging should start beyond this point. 

Step 5: Make a Hole Around the Plant 

Start digging with a flat shovel while standing within your defined circle, keeping your back to the plant. Keep excavating the area around the plant. Gradually dig deeper while shaping the root ball. If you come across massive roots, use loppers or a short saw to cut them. 

Step 6: Dig Below the Plant 

Start digging beneath the root ball once you’ve chopped the plant’s perimeter down to the appropriate level to incorporate the roots.

Aerial shot of the team transplanting trees at New Wood Trees

Step 7: Transfer the Root Ball to a Tarp 

Before entirely removing the root ball, insert a tarp or piece of burlap inside the hole next to it. The last residual roots can be severed by digging beneath the ball. Turn the rootball upon the tarp. Then wrap and transport it out of the hole. 

Extra Tips 

  • Always pick up the plant from the bottom. Never pick it up by its trunk. 
  • Roots need consistent moisture, or they will perish. If the tree can’t be replanted immediately then it’s essential to keep the roots hydrated and, in the shade, until you move the tree to its new home. 
  • Avoid driving an open vehicle when moving huge plants to a new site. Tent the plant or transport it in an enclosed vehicle. Coating the roots in wet burlap or newspaper will help to maintain their moisture level. 


When planting a tree or shrub, ensure the rootball does not extend over the depth of the new planting hole. Also, if you replant your trees too deep, water may pool around the root and cause flooding.  

The first signs of root rot won’t appear for several years after the plant has been transplanted, at which point it will be too late to salvage the plant. Don’t guess how deep to plant it; the root ball’s top should be even with the soil’s surface.  

At New Wood Trees, we are happy to advise our customers on tree care and transplantation.  We offer field-grown multi-stem trees for replanting. Feel free to contact us if you need expert consultation on tree transplanting or book an appointment to visit our nursery.