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How to Transplant a Young Tree

Transplanting a small tree (sapling) is a little more involved than simply buying a container grown tree and setting it out - a few extra considerations come into play. Nevertheless, the basic principles are the same, so do not feel that it is too difficult a task.


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    Select a sapling to transplant. The sapling will need to be small enough that you can dig up its root system with it - about no more than 2 or 3 inches / 5 cm - 7.6 cm thick at the base. Also, you need to make sure that it is a variety that can handle the stress of transplanting - sometimes this will just have to be a case of trial and error if you do not know. Some good varieties include oak, birch, magnolia, dogwoods, eucalyptus and tea tree.
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    Choose a suitable spot to receive the new transplant. The soil will need to be a similar type, with similar drainage and sun exposure for the new tree to thrive.
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    Dig the hole to receive the transplant first. Estimate how large the root system will be when you dig it out. Allow for the root system to go into the ground to the same depth it was originally at. If the soil is extremely hard or compacted, you will want to dig the hole much larger to loosen the soil around the perimeter to make it easier for the roots to spread when they begin to grow outward. Normally on a transplanted tree you will want to hold off fertilizing until it begins to get established. Adding too much fertilizer or adding it too early will tend to stimulate the tree to put more growth out than the stressed roots can support.
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    Dig up the transplant tree. You will need to begin by cutting a circle around the root system of the sapling with a sharp, round pointed shovel. Make your cuts about 12 inches / 30.5 cm from the base of the tree, as deep as you can, so that you preserve the roots intact. If the ground is firm enough and has moisture, often you can cut around and down below the main root mass and remove it intact without disturbing the roots. If the soil is very dry, you should water it thoroughly before beginning to dig. If the soil is loose and sandy, you will need a sheet of plastic or some cloth to set the sapling on to support it during the move.
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    Remove the sapling by grabbing it near the ground and lifting it straight out of the hole. If it has a large taproot or large roots extending out from the trunk that are not cut through, you will either have to dig until you reach these or find another suitable tree. When you force these roots out of the ground you will probably do severe damage to all the roots, and the chances of success are much less. If you have pulled the tree up with most of the roots still in soil, you can carry it a short distance to replant it. If it is to be loaded and hauled to another location, set it in the center of your plastic or burlap fabric, drawn this material around it to support the roots and soil, and tie it off around the trunk. Any shaking, jarring, or other action to the root ball will decrease the chances the tree will survive by loosening the soil around the roots and allowing air to reach them, causing them to dry out.
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    Place the sapling in the hole you have dug at the new location. Make sure that the sapling is at the same depth as when you removed it. Ease loose soil in around it to support it, watering as you do so, to eliminate voids or air pockets, but not so much that you wash the soil from the roots.
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    Fill the hole level with the adjacent ground. Use the excess soil that should remain, build a small dike or earth dam about 3 inches / 7.6 cm high around it, some 2 feet (0.6 m) / 61 cm or so from the trunk. This will keep water from running off when you water the tree.
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    Re water the tree after the initial watering has soaked in. This should help the soil to settle and you can assist to refill the hole by adding more dirt.
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    Stake the sapling. If there is a danger of high wind blowing the sapling down before the soil is compacted and the roots begin growing out to establish a new foot hold. This can be done by driving some re-bar, pipe, or wooden stakes spaced around the tree about 3 feet (0.9 m) / 91 cm from the trunk, and tying wire or strong string wrapped around the trunk loosely at the lower branches to these stakes. You may want to wrap the string or wire with a split cut off piece of garden hose where it contacts the tree to keep it from chaffing the bark there.


  • Tag the direction the sapling is facing when it is removed, and try to match it. This is called "sun orientation", and this is important to observe because it eases the sapling's adaptation as it adjusts to the new location. An example would be to mark or tie a ribbon to the north side of the tree before removing it, and planting with this side again facing north.
  • Transplanting is much more successful if the specimen is dormant. This means that the best time for transplanting occurs in the late fall (autumn) or winter. However, if you succeed in removing the roots still covered with earth, the tree should survive even in the summer.
  • Remove any guy wires before they begin to cut into the tree as it grows.
  • Keep watering the sapling at least once a week through its first growing season.
  • If the leaves fall off after moving the sapling, wait and see if it re buds and puts out new leaves. Often stress will cause the leaves to drop even if the tree is living. As long as the branches seem supple and flexible, it is probably alive.
  • Transplanting a sapling can be successful and a rewarding experience, but it takes attention and willingness to follow up after the job is done.
  • Fill the hole where you dug up your new tree so that no one falls in it.
  • If you are searching for a new tree for your landscape, respect the rights of landowners. Do not go on private property or into state or national parks to get your new tree without obtaining permission.


  • Watch for the usual pests if you are in the woods looking for a transplant candidate. These may include snakes and wild animals, but also ticks that can carry diseases, insects like hornets, bees, and wasps, and poison oak, ivy, and sumac etc.
  • Going on private property or state/provincial, federal park lands to remove trees is illegal in many countries, such as the United States, Australia and Canada. Be aware of the local regulations and do the right thing - these laws are there to protect our forests for everyone's future.

Things You'll Need

  • A small healthy sapling
  • A shovel
  • A sheet of plastic or burlap
  • A water container or water source

Article Info

Categories: Growing Trees and Shrubs