How to Transplant Seedlings?

achang89(Z6)September 24, 2006

At my property near the woods, there are many many seedlings. Most are oaks and red cedars. Some are not at where they should be and I plant to move some of them. I'd like to re-plant them when they are dormant.

I tried this some time before and the results are mixed. Most of them, particularly the oaks, have very deep and long tap roots. Some of them would die after being dug up.

What is the best way to remove them?

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Well, apart from telling you about my transplanting techniques, there are no special secrets. I have had a lot of success at what you are trying to do, with almost no failures. But I am famous for my "overkill" with almost any job I do, but then when I do a job I like to do it so I can not only admire my own work as I am doing it, but also have other people come and say "wow!"

I want to note that I am 68 years old now and transplanted my first trees when I was about 7 years old. I couldn't even guess at this point how many trees I have dug and transplanted over the years. I have learned as I have gone, and I think I am still learning to do it better and better.

Anyway, I will take a little time and outline my methods. You say seedlings, so I will discuss trees up to 4 or 5 feet--no bigger.

1. Get a drainspade. This is a long narrow shovel with a rounded blade. Get a strong one--don't try to save money.

2. Depending on the size of the tree--taller, thicker need a larger root ball--start forcing the shovel into the ground around the tree about 14 to maybe 16 inches from the trunk angled in to some degree under the tree. Just cut the soil at first--don't pry or remove any soil. Go around the tree at least two times making sure that you have cut all the soil thoroughly. If your soil is a little sticky you may need to use your foot to hold the soil in place as you remove the shovel after each thrust downward. You should have the shovel go at least 16 to 18 inches deep--more is better, depending on the soil and the root system. If there is any grass or vegetation aroud the tree, leave it--it will help hold the root ball together.

3. If the tree has a taproot, try to save as much of it as possible. On one side of the tree move out another 2 feet or more from the trunk and cut a little trench sloping down to a point headed directly under the tree. Remove enough soil so you can shove the shovel at an angle downward so it will sever any root directly under the tree. You should be able to sit in a braced position so you can really boot that shovel hard to cut any reasonably sized tap root. If the root is too big to cut this way, you will have to dig some more and get some better cutting tool in place--perhaps a pair of really strong loping shears. Do not loose patience and do not in this process break up the root ball that you have cut, but not yet tried to lift.

4. Once the roots are all severed, use the shovel to lift up the root ball--the shovel can act as a lever, especially if you have a strong one. You can move around the tree and lift a little bit at a time, making sure there are no more roots that need to be cut. If the root ball seems loose, or if you are going to move it very far by using a wheelbarrow or car or something, you will need to wrap it in burlap and tie and secure it. For very large trees, larger than we are talking about here, I recommend making a kind of wire basket to secure and stabilize the root ball (see my posting on the recent topic of moving a blue spruce tree), but for the kind of tree I am talking about here you should be able to put burlap around it and tie it securely. For small seedlings, you can just place it in one of those 5 gallon plastic tree containers with some packing or bracing to keep it cushioned and avoid having the soil break off the root ball.

5. Now it is very important to dig a hole at least a few inches wider than the root ball--I like at least 4 inches on all sides as working room. It should also be somewhat deeper than the root ball. When you dig the hole you should save the soil in some kind of buckets or use plastic tree containers. The best topsoil in one, the soil from deeper down if it is not as rich, in another.

6. This is a very important part of the process. Place some of the best topsoil in the bottom of the hole to give the tree a good base and good nutrients when it is planted. Now try out the hole, so to speak. Place the tree in the hole to check the level and get it perfectly straight. If it is too deep, remove it and add topsiol to the bottom of the hole. If the hole is not beep enough, re-dig it. If it is easy to do, remove the burlap if you are using any, but this is not really necessary. If you used anything else that won't rot quickly, remove it for sure.

7. Now fill the hole slowly and carefully, making sure you pack the soil underneath the root ball carefully. Go around the tree several times filling and packing the soil firmly, but not too hard as you go. Re-check to see that the tree stays straight during this process. When you are done and have soil left over--which you should, use it to make a ring or circular dam about 20 or 24 inches from the trunk to help keep water from running away when you water the tree.

8. Do not use any soil amendments or fertilizers either in planting or for at least one year afterward--this just adds stress to the tree.

9. If you use this process carefully, you may not ever have another tree die.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 11:20AM
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I'm working on an invention... A manual treespade for homeowners. Too bad it's not ready yet!
How big are the trees you want to take? If they are like a pencil in diameter, I've had good success using a post hole digger which also happens to be the perfect size to scoop the plant into a 1 gallon container.
Just position the diggers over the tree and pound it in the ground with a 4# drilling hammer and press outward on the handles, pull out of the ground and voila. Not for bigger seedlings though.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 11:45AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

spruceman said: But I am famous for my "overkill" with almost any job I do, but then when I do a job I like to do it so I can not only admire my own work as I am doing it, but also have other people come and say "wow!"

i say WOW!!!!!!!

i moved about 15 this spring .... 2 to 4 footers ... pure sand soil .... as soon as the soil is unfrozen .. right around 4/1 for my zone 5 .... 100% success ....

first.. dig the the receiving hole... oops .. first get the water hose there ... then dig the new hole ...

since they are free-bees ... i go twice around the volunteer with the shovel ... or until the shovel will go no further down .. again .. pure sand .... wrench back once.. grab and pull the thing out of the ground bare root .. and clip any remaining root ...

clip all other roots for clean cuts ...

insert in new hole ... back fill one half ... fill hole with water ... come back in about 3 minutes when all 5 gallons are gone [pure sand] .... refill to about 90% ... refill hole twice more .... walk away ...

so they are out of the ground about 3 minutes.. and they are well watered for the rest of spring ...

i do come back july through sept watering the root zone properly for the heat of summer.. and i make sure they go into winter properly watered... i end watering around 11/1 ... or when i fear the water lines will freeze ....

if you are dealing with clay ... good luck... i have no opinion ...

if it were me.. i would get some surveyors tape. .. lime green .. international orange .. hot pink .. whatever ... most hardware stores ... and go for a walk this weekend ... and mark those you wish to experiment on ...

bigger oaks will take many years to recover ... versus the smaller, easier to handle plants ... so in 5 years.. the net growth favors the smaller plant ...

WOW!!! again spruce man .... ken

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 3:56PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

i am still in awe of sprucemans method .... i will raise your 'wow' to 'zowieeeee'....

here is a picture of what one of my wild cherries looks like after it is dug up [ i use the same method for oaks] ... note the surveyors tape .... when i am in a digging mood.. i am not going to waste time walking the yard to determine which are ready to move.. that was done prior.. and the victim is marked with the tape ... the only losses are due to improper water in the heat of the first summer .... there was another thought.. but it is excaping me now ..... ken

    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 8:12AM
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Oh, I forgot to add at the end of my transplanting instructions--MULCH!

Yes, there is the bareroot option and not a bad option at that, but I have sometimes lacked the courage. A few years ago I had a nice shellbark hickory I wanted to move. Where it was was maybe partly OK, but really not good. I started to dig it, but soon realized that the soil was full of gravel-like stones and was somewhat sandy, so I couldn't possibly get any kind of root ball. So I left it where it was. I should have barerooted it, but then I don't know how well hickories like this (about 6'tall) would transplant bareroot. Has anyone had experience with hickories as bareroot trees about this size?

A maple about this size I think would have done fine bareroot.


    Bookmark   September 26, 2006 at 9:27AM
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pam_chesbay(VA 8a/7b)

Spruce, Ken - you all offer such good advice on these topics.

Spruce, your description of your transplanting technique is awesome. Ken, your strategy of preparing things well in advance gave me ideas.

I have a couple of questions. I plan to transplant some young trees from the nearby woods this fall - tulip trees, sweetbay magnolias, sassafras, southern bayberries (myrica cerifera), maybe a few loblollies. Some of the bayberries are fairly large - 6-7 feet. All are growing VERY close to other young trees and shrubs, often bound together with vines.

I planned to mark these trees with tape, then clear an area around them, remove the other seedlings, before it's time to transplant. Spruce said to leave grass or vegetation aroud the tree because it will help hold the root ball together.


Should I just mark the trees, then leave them alone until it's time to transplant? Is it okay to clear other seedlings at a distance of 2 to 3 feet around the trees that will be transplanted? (this would make things easier when it's time to dig)

What is the best time of year to transplant these species? Our first frost is usually in late November or early December.

Many thanks for suggestions and advice. I hope/expect to have more success getting trees established if they are growing here already. I want to give them every chance to live and prosper.

Take care,

    Bookmark   June 22, 2007 at 11:09PM
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I've dug, barerooted and transplanted hundreds of pecans/hickories of that size - some pretty comparable to that cherry Ken showed in his photo - though they usually have much less in the way of a lateralized root system; usually just a carrot-like taproot and a few small-caliper laterals.
They do just fine, if you mulch and water appropriately for the first year. I pretty much figure they'll require at least one year per inch of trunk diameter at the root flare to re-establish and commence any significant growth.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2007 at 12:24AM
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