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Tree Planting & Transplanting

After you’ve conceptualized your finished yard, it’s time to buy and plant your tree! It may only take a few hours to transplant a tree, but the process often determines whether or not the tree will be successful.

Using quality plants and following up with good tree care practices, such as watering, pruning, and fertilizing, are not enough to save a poorly planted tree. Follow the proper recommendations (below) to ensure a healthy and viable tree.

Many homeowners purchase soil balls to get started. Also referred to as Balled and Burlapped (B&B) trees, these soil balls are the most common method of transplanting field-grown trees to their new home.

Using B&Bs is recommended for novice tree caretakers, as it circumvents the difficulty of nurturing seedlings and provides the homeowner with instant results. This method also makes it easier to handle the tree, and to picture how it fits into your overall landscape design.

B&Bs aren’t the only option out there, however. Homeowners can also purchase Bare-Root and Container-Grown trees from their local nursery. Keep in mind, each type of tree stock has different advantages, limitations, and needs, which are listed below:

  • Bare-Root trees are typically sold with the roots bare, save for moisture-retaining medium encased in paper or plastic. If you purchase a bare-root tree, moisten the roots prior to planting, and spread them out evenly across the hole. Holes for bare-root trees  need to be large enough so that the roots can be spread out evenly.
  • Container-Grown trees have the advantage of a root system that is relatively undisturbed. Take care to avoid “pot-bound” container trees, which can be identified by large roots which completely circle the inside of the pot. Pot-bound container trees are difficult to transplant successfully, and the roots have difficulty expanding beyond their established perimeter.
  • Balled and Burlapped (B&B) trees are moved with a ball of soil protecting their root system. Soil balls are heavy, so professional arborists who have proper equipment should be hired to plant large trees. Smaller B&B trees can be managed by the homeowner.
  • Boxed trees are moved in boxes of soil. These are typically used by professionals in areas with sandy soils. They are commonly used to plant palms, as well. Boxed plants can be heavy and are limited to professional use.
  • Tree spades are large machines that professionals use to transplant large trees. Use of tree spades is an acceptable practice, however these machines should only be used by professionals.

Once you’ve decided which kind of nursery stock suits your needs, follow these guidelines to finish transplanting:

Preparing the Site

If possible, prepare the site and the tree before you get started. Keep the root ball well watered, and keep the tree shaded until you are ready to plant. If you still feel ill-prepared, read “Prepping to Plant” for landscaping and design tips.

Digging the Hole

When digging the hole, remember – wider is better! If the hole is too narrow,  your tree’s root structure will not be able to expand sufficiently to nourish and properly anchor the tree. To ensure your hole is the right size, follow these simple steps:

  • Root Ball Depth (Planting and Transplanting)Measure the height and diameter of the root ball or root spread.
  • Dig the hole deep enough so it is a sufficient size for rapid initial root development during the first year. The hole width should be 1.5 times the diameter of the root ball or root spread. If your soil is compacted, the hole will need to be larger.
  • Make sure you don’t dig too deep; this is the most common cause of tree or shrub failure. A good rule of thumb is to never dig the hole deeper than the depth of the root ball. The depth of the root ball is determined by locating the trunk flare of first large root.
  • Break up compacted soil. Sides of planting space should not be packed, and the bottom space should be left firm.
  • Holes for bare root trees may need to be larger to accommodate root spread.

Planting the Tree

This is the fun part! Once the hole is measured and arranged, follow these steps to successfully transplant your tree:

  • Lift tree into planting space by root ball – not the trunk – and place it in the center of the hole. Carefully remove the soil from the top of the root ball to the first large root. The top should be planted an inch or two higher than the surrounding grade, to compensate for expected settling.
  • For bare root trees, spread out the roots evenly in the hole.
  • For container plants, remove the container before planting. You may need to cut the container off. If the plant it pot-bound, return it to the nursery to exchange it for a higher quality plant.
  • Cut away strings, burlap, nylon, wire, twine and/or plastic to expose the root ball. Leave the soil in the root ball.
  • Fill hole with soil from the planting hole, using water to settle the soil around the root ball. Do not tamp the soil by stepping on it.

Mulching & Maintenance

Good tree care practices, such as watering and pruning (and fertilizing when necessary) will nurture your canopy to its full potential. Immediately after planting your first tree, take care to mulch the planting area with 2 to 4 inches of an organic mulch, such as composted wood chips. Do not mulch up to or against the trunk; start the mulch 6 inches away from the tree trunk.

While fertilization is not recommended at the time of planting, this sort of upkeep – along with pruning, pest management, and other tasks – will be necessary in the years to come. To learn more about long-term tree canopy maintenance, read our “Tree Pruning FAQs” and “Soil & Roots FAQs.

Use TCIA’s search tool to hire a professional arborist or tree care company.

7 thoughts on “Tree Planting & Transplanting

  • I really like the planting instructions. I’ve been looking for a place to tell our customers where they will find good instructions. I’m particularly pleased that you say not to create mulch volcanos, something we see far too often done by landscapers who don’t know better. So far a great website. Just one little thing, get someone to proof read everything that is written. I found several mistakes on the first page. I know you’re better than that.

  • I have some really large trees in my backyard that I either need removed or moved before I renovate my backyard. I didn’t really think of the possibilities of moving the tree instead of just getting rid of it. Thanks for the idea, I will have to look into it more.

  • It was nice how you said that the site where the trees will be planted should be prepared prior to starting the project by watering the root ball and keeping the tree-shaded. Maybe it’s because trees are sensitive in their own way, I don’t really know. My parents are planning to get the landscaping improved by next spring and adding trees are among the things that they were considering. Thanks a lot! I’ll be sure to let them know about this article.

  • It’s so cool that a tree spade can be used to transplant a tree to a different area. My tree is currently trying to grow into my sewer pipes, so It’s sounds like using a tress spade could help us move it to a different area. What tips do you have for choosing a tree spade?

  • I recently transplanted several trees in my backyard and they have been having some trouble ever since. I wish that I had discovered this article earlier haha

  • I didn’t know that holes need to be large enough for root spread. I need to hire a contractor to plant some oak trees. I don’t have the equipment to do it myself. I’ll have to hire someone with a spade and saw to come help me.


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