Transplanting Plants and Trees | 7 Steps for Success

November 17, 2023

When transplanting plants and trees, you might think to yourself “I’ll just dig it out of the ground and put it somewhere else. How hard can it be, right?”

While moving a plant this way might seem simple and unproblematic – and might even work – there are better ways of doing it; guidelines that will help prevent your plant from going into shock and dying slowly over the next several weeks.




Why transplant?

Some different reasons include:

  • A plant has grown too large in its current spot
  • It was planted too close to a building or structure
  • You want to make room for new plants
  • You’re moving to a new house and want to bring it with you
  • It’s interfering with a new garden design
  • It clashes with the plants nearby
  • It’ll thrive better elsewhere

Whatever the reason, remember to consider the needs of the plant – especially when you’re moving it to a new location. Do a little research and learn what plant hardiness zone it will thrive in. Things to know; Will it get enough sun/shade in it’s new location? Enough water? Will it have to compete for resources with other plants? There’s no point moving a plant if it’s just going to die in its new home.



A couple final things to consider before you begin:

  • Does your city have bylaws around moving larger trees and plants?
  • Will you have to dig down more than a few inches? If so, call BC One Call to make sure there aren’t any electrical, water, or gas lines nearby.
  • Can you physically move the plant? Remember, you have to move the root ball too. A large root ball full of soil, roots, sand, and water can weigh hundreds of pounds. You may need an excavator.

Now that that’s out of the way:


7 Steps for transplanting trees and plants:

Step 1: Wait until late autumn

Around Metro Vancouver, late fall (generally in November) is by far the best time to transplant:

  • Summer: moving plants in hot, dry summers is very risky. It can cause your plant to go into shock and become diseased, because there may not be enough water available to keep it alive once its re-planted. Even if you’re watering it every day, long days of relentless heat makes staying alive a struggle.
  • Winter: moving plants in the winter is generally too cold to be safe for the plant. Moreover, and if the ground is frozen, it might be physically impossible to dig it up.
  • Spring: while it is possible to transplant safely in the rainy spring season, there’s a high chance of delaying or damaging new growth and new flowers while the plant re-establishes itself in a new location.

Mid-late autumn – when the plant has no new growth and when the weather is rainy but not yet freezing – is the perfect time to transplant. It drastically minimizes shock to the plant and ensures that there will be plenty of water and enough sunlight naturally available while it settles into its new home.


Step 2: Dig a wide circle around the plant

The roots closest to a plant’s trunk or stem are the most vital to its survival. In order to prevent damage to these essential roots, dig a comfortably-sized circle around the plant to help ensure minimal damage. A good general rule is to always start digging your hole at least six inches wider than where you believe the root ball ends.

Once you’ve started your wide circle, start digging down below your plant, taking care to sever as few roots as possible. Once you’re able to get the tip of your shovel fully under the plant in all directions, use your shovel as a lever to gently lift the plant out of the ground. But don’t move it just yet!


Step 3: Dig a new hole

Now that your plant is out of the ground, you can see how large the root ball is. Before you start moving it to its new location, you’ll want to dig a new hole for it. Using a tape measure if necessary, dig your new hole a few inches wider than the existing root ball, but make sure the depth remains the same.


Step 4: If you can, wrap the root ball in a tarp or burlap before moving

The root ball of the plant may be delicate and might sustain some damage when you move it to its new location. If possible, it’s a good idea to tie a tarp or burlap around the root ball. Get someone to help you with this step, if you can.

  • Lay out tarp next to plant
  • Gently lift the plant, holding only the base of the trunk or the root ball itself. Do not lift your plant by the upper branches or foliage – doing so will almost certainly cause damage.
  • Move the plant into the centre of your tarp/burlap
  • Tie corners tightly to one another, being careful not to tie around any branches or foliage


Step 4: Moving the plant

If you’re able to lift the plant and carry it over (either by yourself or with a helper), do so. If the plant is too heavy to carry a long distance, lift it into a wheelbarrow or onto a dolly and move with caution. Whatever you do, don’t drag the plant along the ground! This will cause needless damage to the root structure and can even kill your plant. An undamaged root ball is key to ensuring your plant’s survival.


Step 5: Re-planting

Once your plant has reached its destination, place it slowly and carefully into its new hole. Make sure it isn’t sitting too high or too low. The top of the root ball should be perfectly level with the ground around it. Once you’re satisfied, gently remove the tarp or burlap.

Other things to remember before backfilling:

  • Most plants have a “nice” face – an orientation in which they look best. Before backfilling, make sure that the most visible side of the plant is the prettiest.
  • Make sure the plant is standing perfectly straight. Examine the plant from all sides to ensure it isn’t lopsided!


Step 6: Backfilling

Using your shovel, backfill soil into the spaces around your new plant. Then, use your feet to pack it in tightly, removing and air pockets from the soil around it. Not only is this healthier for your plant and vital to its survival, it’ll help keep it from falling over while it re-establishes itself.

After you’re finished backfilling, water the plant thoroughly for at least one minute.


Step 7: Ongoing care

  • Ensure your plant is getting enough water. For the next two weeks minimum, water your plant for at least thirty seconds on any non-rainy day.
  • Consider whether your plant should be staked. Taller, thinner shrubs and trees are susceptible to falling over in strong winds. Use stakes and arbor ties to ensure it can’t topple.



How Can We Help?

Got a plant you love that’s in the way, but you can’t part with it? We’d love to give you a hand. Our skilled, knowledgeable landscape services division is highly qualified and prepared to transplant tricky, large trees and shrubs. We can also make recommendations for new locations, if needed.

Get in touch if you’d like a consultation!

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