Transplanting Mature Conifers

garcanad(5)March 31, 2008

After agonizing for a couple of years, I have decided that I need to move my pinus mugo 'Aureum' and picea pungens glauca 'Pendula' because of overcrowding. The problem is these are about 20 years old. Few questions:

1. What would be your estimate of survival probability (>20%?) assuming mother nature is kind this year?

2. What is your experience on relative survivability of spring or fall transplant for mature conifers?

3. Would a root pruning one year ahead be an absolute necessity?

4. Any other ideas or suggestions?

My concern is, if I do not attempt the transplant, I will lose them anyway or has to put up with a couple very sickly looking plants that have negative ornamental value in the garden.

Thanks for your help.

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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

first.. have ruled out moving other things.. to leave these where they are ...

in other words.. would you be more willing to lose the other things ...

3. forget root pruning ... why stress it now.. to move it and stress it again later??? ... unless you were willing to root prune it.. and leave it for 2 or 3 years... for it to recover enough to transplant it ...

1. it depends on your skill and ability to do the job .. do you have much experience??? .... i would put a skilled person at 90% .. and a hack at 10% ...

2. in MY ZONE 5 ... first two weeks of april .. gives you 6 to 8 weeks before the heat of summer .... ANY TIME IN OCTOBER ... another 6 to 8 weeks before ground freeze.. 6 of this... half dozen otherwise.. in z5 .....

one might argue that October gives you two cool seasons before the next heat ... i would tend toward that logic for real treasures ....

but you should do some this spring.. to increase your learning curve ...

oh .. and i will tell you .. the spreaders.. and ground hugging pendula like p pungens .. are extra hard.. because you have a hard time getting a good ball.. since in at least one direction.. you arent going to be able to dig there .... because of the pendulus branching ....

4. this is the hard one to wrap your head around.... IF YOU CAN BUY A DECENT REPLACEMENT FOR SAY .. $100 ... IS IT GOING TO BE WORTH THE EFFORT .. 4 TO 6 HOURS OF DIGGING AND PLANTING.. AND WORRY ....

not for all of them.. but for things you really want ...

say e.g that your life would end without a P glauca pend ....if so ... why not leave the ugly one... while you start a new one .... so that in 5 years.. if the old one is real ugly ... you will be more willing to be done with it, yet have a replacement ...

there have been planting mistakes i have made... and i have moved 10 little ones.. just to avoid moving the monster ... REALLY THINK OUT YOUR OPTIONS... think outside the box as they say ...


    Bookmark   March 31, 2008 at 2:29PM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)

#1. you couldn't physically move a properly dug root ball on a 20 year old Picea g. 'Pendula' or any conifer 20 years old or more. I have moved a 8 ft. 'Hoopsii' and man it was all I could handle.

If you are serious about moving this beautiful conifer and want it to have a good chance of survival have it machine dug providing they can access your planting area. Not as expensive as you think. Find a local company to do this. Not a job for an amateur trying to move a expensive conifer that has mature roots down deep in the ground.

Oh my aching back. Please. I would rather be horse whipped then take this on.


Here is a link that might be useful: Can you dig it?

    Bookmark   March 31, 2008 at 3:48PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

If a contractor is hired insist they dig a larger hole for re-planting, using a backhoe and not a tree spade - which would compress and glaze the sides of the planting hole. I have seen trees re-planted in spade-dug holes at a universtity here lift sitting by the contractor perhaps as much as a foot above the top of the planting hole. Apparently when riding in the spade bucket the rootballs loosen up enough to no longer fit in the same size hole they came out of. Or some other phenomenon occurs. You want loosened soil around the re-planted tree for its new roots to grow into so you don't want anyone planting your prizes in spade-dug holes anyway.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2008 at 4:02PM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)

I don't know who is doing your university spade-dug holes but I think I would find another contractor if left in the condition as you described Ron.

I have seen my fair share of spade dug trees/conifers moved with never any issues provided done correctly. I have never seen one die using this method.

"Apparently when riding in the spade bucket the root balls loosen up enough to no longer fit in the same size hole they came out of. Or some other phenomenon occurs".

Should not happen if handle correctly. When you place the tree in the basket, you can compress it and make it as tight as when it was in the ground,. When we talk about survivability, it has to do with compactness, tight and undisturbed. It goes in the hole with never knowing it had been moved. Of course it's your responsibility to care and water it for at least a year.

I suppose you can back hoe nothing wrong with that except the extra expense incurred along with supporting the plant because the surrounding soil has been disturbed.

What ever way you decide to go don't hire Ron's university contractor. A recipe for disaster.

Just kidding Ron. He probably had a bad day and said the hell with it.


    Bookmark   March 31, 2008 at 5:10PM
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kim_dirtdigger(IN 5b)

For what it's worth, I wanted to share our recent experiences in transplanting a couple of very large conifers. Late September 2006 a friend gave us a very large, old Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' or similar cultivar, that is probably 7-8' tall, 5-6" caliper, that had to be removed from a property he bought. We dug it out with a backhoe, hauled it about 10 miles on a flatbed trailer, and transplanted it in our yard. The rootball was very shallow, so we dug a very shallow but very large (5-6' wide) bowl-shaped hole to spread out and accomodate all the roots, hand-packed loose soil under, around and over the rootball, created a nice large berm around it, doused it heavily with root stimulator, mulched, and kept well-watered. The transplant was done in early September out of necessity, and the tree has done tremendously. We have been amazed, especially since Hemlock are very hard to get established in our area.

About a month ago, we were at our local nursery when we overheard the owner tell several employees to "cut down" a huge Picea pungens 'Globosa', because it had outgrown its space next to their office. The owner told us he personally planted it over 30 years ago. My husband expressed his disbelief to the employees that they would cut down such a specimen, the employees were also hesitant to destroy it, so they hopped on their Bobcat with a forklift attachment, stuck the forklift into the rootball, lifted it out of the soil, and sat it in the backend of our pickup, nearly barerooted. This tree was planted in a foundation bed that had been heavily amended over the years, and the soil was extremely loose. Again, the roots were all very shallow, but widespreading. We brought it home and spent half a day planting it, similar to the Hemlock. It's too soon to tell how this blue spruce will do.

By contrast, we have bought quite a few species conifers, all B&B and dug with a tree spade. Huge root balls, but all of the lateral roots were severely cut in the spading process. The bottom 1/2 of the root ball never contains roots.

What we have observed in these experiences is that conifer roots tend to spread much more laterally and shallowly, and it would seem to me more important to dig at least to the drip line or a bit beyond, but not necessarily as deep, to make the size of the rootball more manageable and cut fewer roots. I've also come to believe the root stimulator is an important ingredient when transplanting a tree with cut or disturbed roots.

As Dave stated, the conventional wisdom is that trees should grow their roots deeply, thus slow deep watering, but this is certainly not what we have been observing over the last several years in conifers.

It would have been nearly impossible to move either of these trees without heavy equipment. If you're a strong do-it-yourselfer and have someone strong to help, I would think you could carefully hand-dig the trees, then rent a Bobcat to shallow out your new planting holes and move the trees, provided you have room to maneuver equipment on your property.

I agree with Ken that early Fall would be the preferred timing to give the trees more time to establish before the heat and dryness of summer.

Go for it!!

    Bookmark   March 31, 2008 at 9:56PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

When a tree is transplanted, new root growth occurs at the cut ends. In the case of a tree spade-dug tree planted into a tree spade-dug hole, the new roots are forced to develop either into the narrow space or loose soil caused by the imperfect fit of the two cone-shaped masses of soil or into the undisturbed soil on the planting site. In either case, the aeration and general conditions for the production of new roots are poor. By contrast, when a tree spade-dug tree is planted into a larger hole and the backfill soil is loosened and aerated, a much more favorable environment exists for new root development. This difference in the rapid production of new roots may not make the difference of life or death, however, it can make the difference between trees with severe stress and trees with only moderate stress. The overall landscape contribution of the two trees for the first two, three, or four years following transplanting is vastly different and well worth the extra expense ... A key phrase to remember is that it is not how much real estate you move, but rather, what's in the real estate. This is true with any size plant but increases as the plant size goes up.

--Whitcomb, Establishment and Maintenance of Landscape Plants (1987(1991), Lacebark Inc.)

Here is a link that might be useful: Establishment and Maintenance of Landscape Plants II

    Bookmark   March 31, 2008 at 10:02PM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)

Hi Kim,

Two great stories. It's unbelievable how many beautiful conifers are destroyed because they are in the way or no consideration was given to correct placement when planted. It will be interesting to see if the Picea p. 'Globosa' will pull through. Keep us informed.

As far a root growth habits I'll leave that open ended. I moved a 6 ft. Picea omorika 'Pendula , a conifer that does not take well to relocation if established, with very few lateral roots and 2 main tap roots. You never know what challenges your up against if hand digging. I prefer the lateral growth habit as opposed to the tap root specimens for oblivious reasons They just seem to do better in every respect and a whole lot easier to move.

Concerning spading of large trees/conifers for movement. I myself know that the success rate is close to 100% if done properly. I can only substantiate that in my local growing area in Kansas City. For myself if I needed a large prize conifer moved that is the way I would proceed. I watched our new Federal Reserve Bank construction now for three years. When completed they planted over 200 large trees/conifers (they spend our tax dollars so money is not a problem) on the campus all with the spade method. Nothing was under 20 ft. and all look good.

There are many tried and provable methods out there for transplanting. Ultimately a choice has to be made and can be based on the circumstances involved Careful research and a plan usually has a good success rate.

Ron. Although I have never seen it done your comment on new site preparation does have merit. You will find it in the link below.


Here is a link that might be useful: Techniques for transplanting large trees

    Bookmark   April 1, 2008 at 10:56AM
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Thanks all for your advices.
1. I did a fair bit of transplants on a wide range of sizes but not on tree of this age. So perhaps can give myself a 45% chance.
2. I will take your advice on the rationale for fall transplant preference. We are in similar zone 5, I am curious on your preference of October. I was generally following the notion that September is ideal since the night time temperature is low and the soil still warm i.e. top growth probably stops while the roots continues to grow. Any comment?
3. I was wondering whether root prune is what expert would do for an aged conifer. Your advice suggests that this is not so.
4. Another $100 can mean a few more new varieties of plants, and the garden budget is stretched every year. Hmm...(I still haven't completely overcome my plant collection addiction.)

Your experience and advice are very useful and encouraging.

Dave, bboy
I do use a small utility tractor to dig bigger plants when there is enough room to accommodate the tractor. Unfortunately, these two plants are located in a awkward location. Even contractors will likely need a lot of hand digging. I agree that they will be able to do a much better job, and should it give some serious consideration. Despite their age, these two plants are still quite 'compact' due to various factors. Although the picea p.g.'Pendula' is probably replaceable here though at high cost, the pinus mugo 'Aureum' is probably not replaceable here. (I truly envy gardeners in the US and Europe for the variety of plants available.)

    Bookmark   April 1, 2008 at 11:46AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5


sept.. oct.. 6 of this.. half dozen of the other ... still can hit 80 or 90 in sept ... but its the night temps that are more important ... oct 50 is much beter than 70's ...

but it really is a function of your experience.. and follow up ability ...

on 5 acres.. when moving 60 things in a season ... e.g. .... one might tend to lose one or two to the fates.. forget to water.. followup ... october just gives me more leeway for followup ... or lack thereof ...

fall gives you two cool season.. that fall and the following spring.. to grow roots .. before your first 80 or 90 degree day ....

root pruning ... if you are waiting until fall .. i suppose it might not hurt to do half the ball in spring ... i dont know.. i did it once ... and was told not to do it again .. but i was working with 2 or 3 year old stuff ... the wisdom of such on BIG stock might be different ...

i might go as high as 75% success .... since you have done it before.. and have some experience ...


    Bookmark   April 1, 2008 at 12:00PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

If you cut the roots and force it to grow new ones from the cut ends, then cut the new ones when digging it up later it's like shearing a hedge. You are taxing the plant right before it is going to undergo stress from transplanting, rather than helping it.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2008 at 1:14PM
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I'd not bother with the root pruning, for reasons given. One thing I like to do when we move big stuff via treespade is to rototill just outside of the soil cone that was moved with the tree, perhaps two tiller widths, all around the circumference. This supplies the "breakout zone" for the roots to grow into immediately, which is the critical time. Even if hand-dug, this technique may be employed. Best of luck. I know how hard it can be to sacrifice nice plants.


    Bookmark   April 1, 2008 at 9:14PM
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Do not throw it away. Definitely move it you have nothing to lose and a valuable tree to gain. I am 74 and have had nine northern UK conifer gardens and five in Ontario Zone 4 and 5a, I guess I qualify as having some experience moving plants around. I favour moving or planting in spring when I can report 100% success. I was upset when two mature low spreading conifers were bare rooted when I called to pick them up, but with some misting to stop the roots and foliage from drying, both were successfully moved. Fortunately the weather was very kind being overcast and wet for weeks. I too believe in root stimulating powder and having the new site as perfect as possible BEFORE moving. All my failures have occurred from October planting. Last winter was severe, it came earlier than expected and lasted well over six months. So a transplant then would have been very iffy? Also my experience is that Japanese Maples and small garden conifers five to fifteen yrs old, have very shallow spreading roots. Why some nurseries sell bigger conifers in neat round 16" root balls wrapped in brown sacking beats me. I wouldn't buy one with chopped roots like that. Buy young plants and be patient - if you can, and if getting rid of a mature one why not try moving it to a good home.I have seen people pre-dig 18" deep 3ft around a mature conifer but they ended up chopping through roots. I would try to avoid cutting roots by soaking a 6/8ft root area the day before and loosening longer roots with a fork just before the digger scoops it out and moves it. Chances are more roots will survive that way. Certainly some roots will go out more than three feet from the trunk and an eight foot root spread is probably as difficult as you want to have to manage. Good luck folks.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2014 at 5:05PM
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