How to Transplant Small Trees

Occasionally the need arises to move trees within the home landscape. Follow these tips to move small, young trees successfully.

Small trees, like this tree found growing as a seedling, can be successfully transplanted during the dormant season.
Small trees, like this tree found growing as a seedling, can be successfully transplanted during the dormant season.

When to Transplant Trees

Early spring (before growth begins) and fall (after leaf drop) are the best times to transplant deciduous trees. Evergreens are most successfully transplanted in early spring and late summer (late August to mid-September).

How Large Can the Tree Be?

Home gardeners should limit themselves to transplanting trees with a trunk diameter of 2 inches or less. Trees with a trunk diameter greater than 2 inches should be moved by an experienced landscape contractor or nursery professional.

Digging Trees

To minimize damage and improve their chance of survival, dig and move trees with balls of soil adhering to portions of their root systems.

The soil should be moist when the plant is dug. If the soil is dry, thoroughly water the area 3 to 4 days before digging.

When digging trees, the ideal radius of the root ball is determined by the caliper of the trunk and the overall height of the tree.  Minimum root ball sizes are outlined in the table below.   

When using this guide remember caliper of the trunk is measured 6 inches above the ground and root balls of conical evergreens and broadleaf evergreens are at least one size larger.

Caliper (inches)Minimum Height (feet) 2Minimum Ball Diameter (inches)
 18
 210
1/2312
3/4414
1516
1-1/2620
2724

Using a spade, dig a trench around the tree to a depth of 1-1/2 to 2 feet. Then cut beneath the roots, rounding the bottom of the soil ball. Tip the soil ball to one side, place a piece of burlap in the trench on the opposite side, then carefully tip or roll the soil ball over onto the burlap. Tightly wrap the burlap around the soil ball and if needed secure the burlap with twine. 

If trees are being planted immediately after digging and the soil ball is firm and not easily broken apart, a tarp, sheet, or plastic sheet can be used instead of burlap.

Moving and Replanting

Move the tree by lifting and carrying the root ball or carry grasping the material wrapped around the root ball rather than grasping the trunk. If possible, replant the tree immediately.

Dig a hole that is 2 to 3 times the width of the tree's root ball. The depth of the hole should be approximately 1 to 2 inches less than the height of the soil ball.

If wrapped in burlap, carefully lower the tree into the hole, position it correctly, and begin to place soil back into the hole. If the tree was wrapped in a material other than burlap, position the tree directly adjacent to the hole, unwrap the root ball, and carefully slide and lower the root ball into the hole.  It is important to not allow the root ball to break apart.

Firm the soil around the tree's root ball with your hands. When the hole is about two-thirds full, cut and remove the twine around the soil ball, if used, and cut away the exposed portion of the burlap. Then, complete the backfilling of the hole and water thoroughly. Do not allow the soil ball to break during the digging, moving, and replanting process.

Learn more about care of the tree after transplanting in this article: Care of Newly-Planted Trees.


More Information

Last reviewed:
March 2024