How to Correctly Transplant a Tree Seedling

evergreen sapling

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Homeowners often need to move or transplant trees within the yard. Trees may have been planted too thickly or threaten to out-grow available space. Size is a critical factor in transplanting. The larger a tree, the more difficult it is to transplant. If you have a small tree growing near your house, driveway, or patio, visualize it at full size and decide now if it must one day be moved. The longer you ignore it, the less likely you will be able to save the tree.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: Takes approximately an hour to dig tree and replant tree (including prep time)

What You Need:

  • Planting or transplanting spade
  • Available water and mulch

How to Transplant

  1. The perfect day to move your tree is when the humidity is high during early spring but just before its leaves begin to bud out. While roots take up most of a trees moisture, leaves will give moisture up through evaporation when under stress. Avoid moving trees with leaves.
  2. Preplanning helps! If you know a tree is to be moved in advance, root pruning will greatly increase the chances of successful transplanting. By severing the roots at or just beyond the drip line of the tree to be moved, the long unbranched roots will be broken. This prompts re-growth of new roots near the main trunk. It takes two to three seasons to fully root prune a tree but can help even as early as six months. This will compact the existing root system and increase the tree's chances of survival once it is moved.
  3. Younger and thus smaller is better. Increasing the size of a tree increases the effort it takes to transplant. It also decreases a tree's chance of survival if not done properly. Leave moving trees over 4 inches in trunk diameter to the professionals. It is easier to transplant small stemmed trees and they will overcome the transplant shock much easier and quicker.
  4. Each tree you move needs a protective "root ball" for proper transplanting. Small root balls (up to about 12-14 inches in diameter) can be done with an ordinary spade. You want to preserve as much of the soil surrounding the feeder roots as you can. The feeder roots are located only in the upper few inches of the soil so be very careful with that portion of the ball.
  5. It is important that you have already prepared your planting site and that conditions are correct for successful growth. The tree you dig should not be exposed to the elements for very long. Be sure the tree will be able to reach full maturity without competition and provide a site where soil is deep, fertile, and well-drained.
  6. Dig the planting hole deep enough to accommodate roots without twisting and breaking either the roots or the soil ball. The hole should be as deep as the root ball and the tree roots transplanted to a depth approximating its original level.
  7. Follow these planting instructions and make sure you correctly mulch and water the transplanted tree. It is extremely important that the newly planted tree has adequate initial moisture and that it is maintained. Do not fertilize the tree for one year.


An approximate rule of thumb is to use a root ball 20 times the diameter of the trunk (as measured just above the basal flare) for trunks up to 1/2 of an inch in diameter, 18 times the diameter of the trunk for 1/2 -1 inch diameter trunks, 16 times the trunk diameter for trunks 1-1 1/2 inches in diameter, 14 times the trunk diameter for trunks 1 1/2 - 2 1/2 inches in diameter, and 12 times the trunk diameter for trunks 2 1/2-4 inches in diameter. For most trees and shrubs, the root ball depth should be about 8 inches for a 12 inch diameter root ball, ranging up to about 18 inches for a 48 inch diameter root ball.