Tree Transplanting Without Killing Your Tree

Root Prep Before Tree Transplanting

Tree transplanting takes much more time and expertise than your typical tree care duties. One of the things that you gotta take extra care of is tree root care.

Why? Well, transplanting requires finicking with tree roots. Sprawling roots have lots of responsibilities—like anchoring the tree in place, transporting water, and storing nutrients. That’s why cutting roots before transplanting can do some serious damage, and in worst cases, kill the tree.

Before you attempt to prune roots on your own, read below to learn how to keep your tree as safe as possible in the process.

The transplanting process starts with tree root pruning. Trees can’t keep all of their roots in the move, so your task is to prune roots to establish a new root ball, which will eventually be transported to the new planting site.

How To Prune Roots Before Transplanting:

Before diving in, take these steps:

  1. Measure the diameter of your tree by wrapping a measuring tape around the tree, four feet from the tree’s base. Then, divide that number by 3.14. Generally, you can safely prune roots that are 3 to 5 times the diameter away from your tree. So, if your tree has a diameter of 3 feet, only cut tree roots 9 to 15 feet away from the tree.
  2. Decide on the best next step. For your safety and for the health of your tree, you should avoid cutting tree roots if
    1. The roots are thicker than 2 inches wide, or;
    2. The tree is more than 2 inches in diameter. Instead, ask a professional arborist to handle the job.
  3. The best time to prune roots of a tree to be transplanted depends on whether you are moving it in spring or in fall. Those which will be transplanted in fall (October to November) should be pruned in summer after leaf-out. If Spring planting is desired (March to April) then root pruning should take place in late fall-early winter. Depending on tree type 6 months is usually the optimum wait time between root pruning and transplanting.

Now, here’s how to cut tree roots:

  1. Determine the size of the new root ball. It should be 10 to 12 inches for each inch of trunk diameter.
  2. Mark a circle around the tree that’s the width of the new root ball.
  3. At least 24 hours before cutting roots, water the soil to allow a moist environment for the new root ball to thrive in.
  4. With a sharp spade, use the circle as a guide to cut into tree roots, going about a foot deep.

Removing Tree Roots For Transplanting:

When it’s time to transplant, take a shovel about 5 inches outside of the circle you made for your new root ball. Then, dig around the root ball about 1 to 2 feet deep, and cut under the roots to lift the ball.

Will Transplanting Kill My Tree?

Quite a few factors determine whether or not your tree will survive root pruning, like its age, the overall health or how many roots you prune. Transplanting comes with risks, and there are no guarantees trees won’t suffer damage. But the best way to avoid a fatal cut is following best practices, including only transplanting small trees, doing the job at the right time of year, and not cutting too many roots. Perhaps the most important best practice: call an arborist if you’re not completely comfortable pruning roots on your own.

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