Transplanting trees takes some care

Tuesday, November 6, 2007 | 4:08 p.m. CST; updated 12:13 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Dennis Sentilles

Now is the prime time of year to transplant a tree from the nursery, or from wherever it grows today. Above ground the tree is now dormant, but once well replanted its roots will make some growth over the ensuing winter and be well set into the soil for the burst of spring that follows. All will give it a better chance against the summer drought that seems likely.

There are exceptions, such as dogwood and hawthorn, that are best planted in spring because they regenerate roots slowly.

I was on a sabbatical years ago to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, known there as “the southern part of heaven”; a place so shrouded in 80- to 100-foot pine trees that the sun does not reach the ground without man’s help. I noticed that folks there undertook great efforts to grow poor specimens of our native Missouri red cedar, while we here undertook great efforts to grow their tall pines to middling height.

This made me a believer in the virtues of planting native species already well adapted to where they are made to live.

If you have access to native Missouri trees, to my taste some of the finest trees available, by all means consider transplanting. While not all transplant successfully, in my experience most do, and the Missouri red cedar — to me one of our most beautiful trees, and so prolific that anyone with a little land probably has many to spare — transplant almost without fail even under the most careless treatment.

I have also easily transplanted redbuds and several green ash, a wonderful shade tree, though it is now a species suffering from a blight that makes a long life chancy.

There are two “tricks” I use in transplanting that I believe help, though one of these is too late for this year’s transplanting. The first and simplest trick is to always replant the tree in its same orientation to the sun, the lifelong source of energy that its branches have organized themselves to reach for. That is, pick a branch on the south side and flag it with a piece of tape, or some such, and when you replant the tree be sure that branch is again on the south side of the tree’s new abode.

The second trick is to select a tree for transplanting one year in advance and cut a circle into the soil around it, severing its roots in that circle. This will cause the tree to regenerate new roots within the circle, so that when you move it the next year by digging up the ball of soil defined by that circle you will be moving a tree with more roots to help it re-establish itself.

Once you have dug around and under the tree and freed it from the soil, with as much soil as possible still firmly attached to its roots, much of the hard work of transplanting is done. What follows next is the same labor and technique that goes into planting balled-and-burlapped trees obtained from a nursery.

Most tree roots grow within a foot of the surface, so a deep planting hole is not necessary as long at the tree is replanted to its original height in the soil, or perhaps slightly higher (it will settle a bit). If, because of drainage problems, you want to plant the tree notably higher than surrounding soil, be sure that all of its roots are covered with soil up to the “soil mark” on its trunk.

More important than a deep hole is a wide hole, at least two to three times the diameter of the root mass. And it is best to refill that hole with the richest soil you can obtain, though not one that is so high in organic matter that its decay will take up nitrogen and other nutrients the tree itself will need. If you are planting a bare root tree, be sure to soak its roots in water for a few (but not many) hours before planting. The subject of pruning is too vast to take up here, but be aware that your tree may need some pruning in proportion to how much root mass it has lost in its travels.

Since phosphorous does not easily move downward in the soil, planting time is the time to supply this essential nutrient, and I make it a practice of sprinkling in several handfuls of bone meal into the planting hole as I fill it. After the hole is filled, heel the soil in well and then water it down, watching it settle yet more. After this, apply about four inches of mulch above the soil, being careful to not mound it around the trunk, but rather keep the mulch more in the shape of a bagel than a volcano circling the tree. Finally, and especially with an evergreen tree, you will want to supply it with some support against the wind until its roots take hold of the soil, at least six months away. I usually stake the tree down with three lines tied to a necklace of cloth circling its trunk, at about two-thirds of its height.

If it’s a cedar, just dig a hole and put the tree in the hole with some bone meal, tie it down, water it once or twice, and give it a couple of years to begin its dense growth that will be Hansel-and-Gretel green all winter long, bending gracefully under every load of snow. And when it is very old and tall, trim all its branches off to a great height above the ground as they do in Tuscany, leaving it perhaps the mostly stately being on your property.

Dennis Sentilles, MU professor emeritus of mathematics, is a Missouri Master Gardener and a member of Katy Trail Slow Food International with a love for working outdoors and eating simply and well every day. He can be reached at

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