How to Transplant Small Trees

Care and How To

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

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.

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

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 radius of the root ball should be approximately 8 to 12 inches for each inch of trunk diameter at chest height. For example, a tree with a 1-inch-diameter trunk should have a soil ball that is 16 to 24 inches in diameter. 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.

Last Reviewed: 
April, 2023