Transplant Trees and Shrubs in Fall

Jennifer Noonan | Improvement Center Columnist | October 26, 2016

Spring's not the only time to transplant shrubs and small trees. Fall is also an excellent time for this garden task. Cooler temperatures reduce the stress plants experience when moved, but the ground is still warm enough for their roots to get re-established before winter dormancy. Transplant in fall, and your trees and shrubs will be ready to grow once spring arrives.

transplant shrubs

Why Transplant?

  • Landscape Changes. Perhaps you're adding a deck, or expanding your driveway, and plantings are in the way. You can use them somewhere else on your property if you carefully transplant them.
  • Space Issues. Some trees and shrubs are planted in spaces too small for their mature growth. You can move them, or adjust their spacing, to increase their chances of remaining healthy, and looking great.
  • Failure to Thrive. All plants have different light, water, and soil requirements. If a shrub or tree is underperforming, it may need a change of scene. Some flowering shrubs manage to live in shady environments, but their blossoms won't flourish without six hours of unfiltered sunlight daily. Similarly, drainage problems may waterlog the roots of a plant that prefers dry soil conditions. Transplanting these specimens may give them an opportunity to shine as nature intended.

Tips for Transplanting

  • Choose the Right Location. If you're transplanting for lack of space, avoid the same mistake again. Be sure there's room for the tree or shrub to grow to maturity. Ensure its new home will provide the right light, soil, and water requirements.
  • Dig the Right Hole. You should dig a new hole that is at least 2 - 3 times as wide as the root ball, to allow the lateral roots to spread out. Only dig as deep as the root ball, so the weight of the plant or tree is well supported. Dig the new hole, and water it well, prior to removing the transplant from it's old location. This will minimize chances the roots will dry out.
  • Water Well. Water the soil well around the tree or shrub the day before transplanting. It will make digging easier, and help soil stick to the roots as you remove the plant, reducing stress.
  • Root Pruning. Do not prune branches when transplanting, as that will stimulate new top growth. You want the plant to concentrate on re-establishing roots instead. Root prune as you dig up. Remove the top soil from the roots around the trunk or crown and mark the area where you'll dig. Use a sharp, flat spade to dig around the plant, going progressively deeper to create a root ball. As you run into big roots, cut them with a lopper. After you've completely root pruned the circumference of the root ball, dig under the plant to sever the roots beneath.

Care After Transplanting

After transplanting, your job isn't over. New transplants require ongoing care and consideration. Don't expect them to come back in full force for at least a year, as they need to acclimate to their new space before sending out new growth above ground.

  • Mulch. Add 2 - 3 inches of mulch around the base of transplants to help retain moisture and moderate soil temperature. That helps promote root growth as the plant settles in. Be sure to keep mulch away from tree trunks and the crown of shrubs, to keep air flow optimal and prohibit rot.
  • Water Deeply. It's important to water a newly transplanted tree or shrub thoroughly, and consistently, for a couple of weeks after moving it. Give it a very deep drink every day that it doesn't rain substantially.
  • Stake Trees. If you've transplanted a tree, you need to stake it, at least for the next 6 - 12 months. Use 2 - 3 stakes, making sure any wire or rope used doesn't strangle the trunk, damaging the bark.
  • Don't Fertilize. Do not fertilize newly transplanted trees and shrubs. That encourages new leaf and branch growth, when all the plant's energy needs to focus on rebuilding the root system.

With planning and careful attention, you can transplant shrubs and small trees in your landscape with success, giving them the opportunity to bring you enjoyment for many years to come.

About the Author

A confessed DIY junkie, Jennifer writes about home improvement, gardening, upcycling, and all things do-it-yourself. She lives in Delaware with her husband and daughters, where she is ardently teaching the next generation how to use power tools.