How to Move a Tree

Sooner or later, we all come to the realization that a favorite tree or shrub is simply in the wrong place. Maybe it’s not getting the right amount of sun or shade. Maybe we can see that it is going to get too big for its place in the landscape. Maybe a new project is going to need that space. Shrubs and small trees (up to 3 or 4 inches in trunk diameter) can be moved without hiring a professional tree expert. It just takes planning ahead. Learn all the tricks to move a tree in this blog.

The best time to move a tree is in the spring – so it will have a whole season to grow new roots and recover from the shock.


The single most important thing you can do to insure success is to root-prune the tree a year before it is to be moved.

Dig a donut-like trench around the tree about as far out in feet from the trunk as the diameter of the trunk is in inches. If the tree to be moved has a trunk diameter of 2 inches, use a sharp spade or shovel to dig the trench about 2 feet out from the trunk. Make the trench the same width as the spade and about 18-24 inches deep. Fill the trench back in with the same, now loosened, soil. Soon, new fibrous roots and root hairs will begin to grow into the soil within the trench.

After a year or so, cut a circle around the tree 6-12 inches further out than the original trench. Water thoroughly. Force the shovel under the root mass and lift up the tree, keeping as much soil as possible in contact with the roots. Any of the fibrous, hairlike roots that dry out will die.

Slide a tarp under the root ball and wrap it up the sides before trying to move it. Remember: The root ball must be kept constantly moist and shaded until it is transplanted into its new hole.

To transplant the tree to its new location, dig a hole a foot or two wider than the tree’s root ball and about the same depth. Build up a little mound in the center of the hole and center the tree’s root mass on that. Spread the roots straight out so that they are not bent or encircling the root mass. Backfill soil into the hole around the roots, stopping to water a couple times to make sure the soil settles in all around the roots. Do not put fertilizer in the hole as this can damage tender roots.

Deciduous trees can be planted 1-2 inches deeper than they were originally growing; evergreen trees should always be planted at the same level as they were.


Water thoroughly to settle the soil in around the roots. Build up a dike around the trunk a few feet out that will hold water over the root zone so it percolates into the soil rather than running off. Do not fertilize for the first year.

At the time of replanting, the tree should be pruned back because the roots that remain are probably inadequate to supply enough water and nutrients for the whole tree. A good rule of thumb is to remove about one-third of the transplanted tree.

Use this opportunity to begin training and shaping the tree. For a standard tree, pruning should favor a single leader (the main shoot) and a favorable pattern of lateral branches.


Once the tree is in its new position, it will need to be babied for a year or two. If it doesn’t get an inch of rain per week, you will need to supply the difference. Water thoroughly and deeply once a week or when the soil gets almost (but not completely) dry. Do not attempt to keep the soil around the roots constantly wet, because this will prevent air from reaching the roots and lead to rot.

Cover the ground around the tree’s trunk out to a foot or so beyond where the roots ended with an organic mulch 2-5 inches deep. Keep the mulch an inch or two away from the trunk. You can use hay, straw, pine needles, dry leaves, bark chips, or well rotted compost.


After a year in its new location, you may want to fertilize the tree. If the tree is growing well (i.e., it has adequate nitrogen), and you know the soil has adequate levels of potassium and phosphorus (from a soil test), fertilization is not necessary.

For young trees that may need a nitrogen boost, we recommend a complete fertilizer with emphasis on the nitrogen, such as a 10-6-6, unless the soil is known to be deficient in phosphorus or potassium (soil test!), in which case something like a 4-8-7 formulation is appropriate. Apply fertilizer anytime between spring and mid-summer. Don’t fertilize in late summer or autumn, because you don’t want to stimulate new growth that would be susceptible to a killing frost. Read more on winter care.


The fine roots and root hairs that do most of a tree’s water and nutrient absorbing tend not to be located close to the trunk. Rather, they are concentrated in a zone that starts about a third of the distance between the trunk and the tips of the outermost branches (the drip line), and then continues beyond that, often for a considerable distance beyond the drip line.
As a rule of thumb, we can assume the roots that do the majority of water and nutrient absorbing extend a foot beyond the drip line for every inch of trunk diameter. If the tree trunk has a diameter of three inches, its water and nutrient absorbing roots are concentrated in a donut-shaped root absorption zone which begins a third of the way between the trunk and the drip line, and extends three feet beyond the drip line.

This is the area we want the fertilizer to reach. You can drill holes a foot or so deep and spaced a couple feet apart throughout the root absorption zone, then place a handful of fertilizer in each hole. You also can use fertilizer spikes. Most of us simply spread the appropriate amount of fertilizer (follow label directions!) over the root absorption zone, and rake it in a little. Read more about tree roots.

Next time you get a new tree from Perfect Plants, be sure you carefully consider its permanent location!