How to Transplant a Tree

How to Transplant a Tree

Is there a tree in your yard planted in a spot that’s not doing it justice? Perhaps it’s looking dingy due to poor soil, water, or light conditions. Maybe you’ve re-imagined the layout of your yard, and this tree would fit better in another spot. Whatever the case, transplanting a tree is a much simpler task than you might think. Read on to learn how to transplant a tree.

Step 1: Prune the roots

Tools you’ll need: twine, flat spade, shovel, pruning shears, loppers, mulch

First and foremost, you will need to prune your tree’s roots months before you actually transplant it. Root pruning encourages the growth of feeder roots – fibrous roots that absorb the most nutrients and water. By pruning the tree’s roots, you minimize the risk of transplant shock once it’s in its new location. The roots within the pruned area will grow to form a new, strong, confined root system optimal for transplanting.

For best practice, tree roots can be pruned in late fall or early spring. Prune roots in the spring to transplant in the fall, and in the fall to transplant in the spring. By pruning in the fall, you allow the feeder roots to grow in the winter without the burden of also having to support new growth. 

Water the base of the tree and its roots well the day before pruning with either a drip system or a hose set to a low flow. This ensures that the soil will stick to the roots, and it will make digging much easier. 

Determine how much of the roots will need to be pruned. A good rule of thumb is that for every inch of trunk, the root ball must be pruned to one foot in diameter, or six inches in each direction from the trunk. For large trees with trunks more than two or three inches in diameter, consider reaching out to a tree service as it may be too heavy and fragile for you to move on your own.

Dig a trench six to twelve inches from the trunk, depending on how big you determined your root ball should be. The trench should be dug approximately two feet deep and one foot wide. First, make sure there are no underground utilities that could get damaged and use twine to tie back any low-hanging branches that might get in your way. Push the spade into the soil with enough force to sever the tree’s roots. Continue all the way around the tree.

Keep your topsoil and subsoil separate as you place both off to the side.

Refill the trench with soil that is high in organic matter. This will consist of a mixture of two parts topsoil and one part compost. 

Finally, add a two- to three-inch layer of mulch on top of your soil to retain moisture and prevent cold damage. Ensure that the mulch doesn’t come in contact with your tree’s trunk or any of its stems.

Step 2: Prep the new site 

Tools you’ll need: shovel, hose

Choose your ideal new site, ensuring that your tree and its root system will have sufficient space to grow, as well as proper soil, light, and water conditions. Envision your established tree and what it will need, based on that species’ particular requirements.

Dig a new hole at your desired site that is three times as wide and the same depth as the root ball. If you dig too deep, your roots will rot. And again, make sure to keep the topsoil and subsoil separate. 

Water the hole well to help hold your root ball together during the process of transplanting.

Step 3: Prep the tree to transplant

Tools you’ll need: shovel, sharp spade, pruning shears, loppers

Keep your tree well-watered between root pruning and tree transplanting. Water the soil around the entire circle of your trench one day before transplanting.

Dig around your tree with a sharp spade approximately six inches from the pruned roots, making sure to include all new feeder roots. Get under the root ball fully by digging at least one- to two-feet down. Any old roots that were missed during the earlier pruning process can be cut with pruning shears or loppers.

Dig around and under the root ball to sever any underneath roots that were left behind. It is important that you do this carefully in order to keep the root ball intact. Gently rock the root ball back and forth to ease it loose.

Step 4: Transplant the tree

Tools you’ll need: shovel, natural burlap, twine, mulch, hose

Use burlap to lift out your tree. Never lift by the trunk. Place a sheet of burlap into the hole and shimmy it under the tree roots. The burlap should be big enough to wrap around the entire root ball.

Move your tree to its new location by securing the burlap with twine and carrying it. The root ball can be placed onto a tarp, if the tree is heavy, to drag to the new location. This will protect the roots and keep the soil intact.

Place your tree in the prepped hole, making sure the base of the trunk is level with the ground. Once the tree is secure in the hole, remove the burlap and twine.

Fill in the soil, placing the subsoil on the bottom and then the topsoil over it. Water thoroughly around your tree and to the edge of the hole.

Finally, add two to three inches of mulch, and you’re done!


Q: How do you prep a tree for transplanting?

A: You must prune roots months ahead of transplanting a tree, to encourage the
growth of feeder roots and prevent transplant shock. Prune the roots to one foot in 
diameter for every one inch of tree trunk, and keep it well watered in the months 
leading up to transplantation. 

Q: How big of a tree is too big to transplant?

A: Any sized tree can be transplanted with the help of professionals. For a 
do-it-yourself job, any tree with a trunk more than two- to three inches in diameter 
might be too heavy to transplant on your own.

Q: What is the best time to transplant a tree?

A: Trees should be transplanted either in the early spring or late fall. 

The last word

Now that you’ve been given the proper steps for transplanting a tree, get out there and create that dream yard of yours. And remember, not everything has to be done on your own. Reach out to one of Lawn Love’s lawn care professionals if the task seems too daunting, or your tree is just too big.

Main photo credit: Ozgur Coskun | Shutterstock

Madeline Hoppe

Born and raised in Tampa, FL, Madeline Hoppe is a customer service expert with a deep respect for the written word. In her down time, she enjoys low-key nights watching movies with her family or heading to one of Tampa Bay's local beaches on a summery day.