Moving of blue spruce

katskan41July 6, 2008

Hi all. Our elderly neighbor asked for help in moving one of his blue spruces. He planted it too close to a couple of Norway spruces and it needs to be moved. The blue spruce is a beautiful silver blue and looks similar to a Fat Albert, although I don't believe it's a special cultivar. It's about 4 to 5 feet tall and from what he told us has been in it's current location for about 5 years.

Any suggestions on how and when to move it? I've moved small seedlings before but never a 4 to 5 foot established tree.



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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)

Here you go, make sure you are up to the challenge.

Before Transplanting Root Pruning

Water and nutrients are absorbed by tree roots, but the large roots nearest the tree trunk absorb very little. Tiny feeder roots that extend well beyond the tree perform most of that function. Root pruning stimulates small new feeder roots nearer the trunk. These new roots will be dug up as part of the root ball for transplanting. Root pruning is a familiar practice for bonsai growers. It is also essential when transplanting mature plants.

Root System: A tree's roots extend well beyond the drip line. Only about 25% of the root system will be transplanted.

A tree or shrub to be transplanted in fall should be root pruned in the spring before new buds appear. Plants to be transplanted in spring should be root pruned the previous fall after they become dormant. Follow these steps:

  1. Water the soil the day before pruning. This softens the ground for digging and helps reduce stress to plant roots. It also helps keep the soil attached to the roots.

  2. Wrap or tie the lower branches up to protect them and keep them out of your way while digging.

  3. Mark the area of the zone to be pruned. (Remember, a 10-12" diameter of root ball for every 1" of trunk diameter.)

  4. Begin cutting a trench, using a flat spade with the face turned away from the plant. A sharp edge makes a cleaner cut that will make digging easier. If you encounter large roots, cut them with loppers.

  5. Continue digging the trench, cutting roots as you go, down about 24", to reach as many lateral roots as possible. While digging, separate topsoil from subsoil to return to the trench after pruning.

  6. After trenching around the entire plant, the root pruning is complete. Do not dig underneath the plant. Replace the subsoil and then the topsoil.

  7. Water thoroughly and untie the branches.

New feeder roots grow from the cut ends. You must include these new roots with the transplant (the whole idea of root pruning). At transplanting time, plan to cut the root ball 4-6" inches out from where the roots were pruned.

Transplanting: When transplanting time arrives, the basic steps are the same as root pruning  with a few key differences.

  1. Water the soil the day before to soften the ground, reduce stress to plant roots and help keep the root ball intact.

  2. Dig the new planting hole and have it ready before the transplant. Dig the hole 2-3 times as wide as the root ball, but no deeper. Moisten the hole before installing the root ball to help reduce transplant shock.

  3. Tie the lower branches up to protect them and keep them out of your way while digging.

  4. Gently remove the topsoil from the top of the roots near the trunk and mark the area to be dug. In order to include newly-grown roots, mark 4-6" further out from the trench where the roots were pruned. Begin digging outside of this mark.

  5. Standing inside the marked circle, begin digging with a flat spade, keeping the face turned away from the plant. Continue digging around the plant. Dig progressively deeper, shaping the root ball as you go. If you encounter large roots, cut them with loppers.

  6. When you have cut around the plant down to the proper level to include the roots, begin digging underneath the root ball.

  7. Before cutting the root ball completely, place a tarp or sheet of burlap into the hole beside the ball. Dig under the ball and cut any last remaining roots below. Tilt the root ball over onto the tarp for wrapping and moving.

Always lift the plant from underneath, never by the trunk.

Roots must be kept moist or they will die. Any plant that cannot be installed in its new location immediately after digging should be kept in the shade and the roots kept moist.

A tarp works well to move a transplant to another section of the lawn. If the plant is to be moved a further distance or stored for any length of time, use burlap. Burlap "breathes" and is porous, allowing the root ball to be watered while you are waiting for final planting. It also keeps the soil from falling from the roots.

Water: Watering after transplanting is essential, but there's no exact formula for how much and when. Factors such as soil texture, temperature, winds and the size of the tree itself make water quantity a moving target. To prevent root rot, keep the roots moist but not soggy. If there is no natural rainfall, plan on a deep watering every 12-14 days.
Do not plant a tree or shrub deeper in a new planting hole than it was originally. Planting too deeply creates a basin that can collect too much water. Evidence of root rot may not be visible for several years after planting and then it is too late to save the plant. If you're in doubt, plant so that the ball is a few inches above the surrounding soil level.

After the Move: The hard work is done, it's time for a few finishing touches and a couple of reminders.

* Adding a 2-3" layer of mulch (no deeper) around the base of the new transplant will help retain moisture and moderate soil temperature which in turn will promote root growth. Keep the mulch pulled a couple of inches away from the trunk.

Staking: Should not be necessary on a 4-5 ft. spruce.

Do not fertilize a newly-transplanted tree or shrub. The stress to acclimate to a new site is enough, fertilizing will stimulate unwanted new growth.

Good luck,


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 9:12AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

timing is everything...

for the best odds of success MI.. move it in late sept or oct .... depending on how hot sept is ...

i would NOT move it in the heat of the summer in MI ... which is today thru sept ... no tree wants all its roots cut off.. and then the potential for 100 degree days


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 9:18AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

i have been mulling this over ...

personally ... with hundreds of conifers.. i would NEVER move a 5 footer .... well i have.. and they have all died.. and i know what i am doing, on some level ...

i respect dave .... but if you are going to root prune in advance.. i would move it as soon as the ground thaws around 4/1 in MI ....

why stress it now.. and then again by moving it in october?????

all that said.. IF IT WERE ME .... i would invest $50 in a new named variety ...

and use this one as an xmas tree .... i would NOT put in 4 to 6 hours of backbreaking labor... to give myself a 50/50 chance at survival ....

in the other alternative.. is to have a few scions grafted in january .... to save this specific tree .... and then be done with the big one .... maybe $25 invest or so ...

gee tree farm in just north of jackson state prison off I94 ... google them.. take a ride.. buy a new one.. and avoid the back breaking labor ...

you are talking a 3 to 5 foot root ball that you are going to have to lift out of the hole and drag to the new hole ... are you ready for that.. or would you rather spend a few bucks ... and have a pleasant drive?????


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 1:53PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Timing: two words: NOT NOW

One addition to Dave's method: fill new planting hole with water at least twice the day before, and let drain.

If it's going into a sunny spot, consider making temporary shade (if ignoring the first two words).


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 2:33PM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)

Just keep thinking Ken...your ideas are always good.

I did a 6 ft. 'Hoopsii' move 3 years ago.... never again. If again it would have to be something special.

Since he asked I though he should know what it entails to move a conifer this size. Not a piece of cake with the root ball being the real challenge to lift out of the hole and transport.

I like the xmas tree idea.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 4:43PM
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There's nothing wrong with the rootpruning concept, but as a practical matter, this job is hard enough without that, and in reality, it is unnecessary.

Thousands of spruce this size and bigger are moved every year with no advance rootpruning. Dig a decent distance out from the trunk, shovel turned away from trunk, and cut through soil/roots as described. It takes some oomph to do this well.

After this initial cut, dig out a bit further in the normal fashion, to create the beginnings of a trench around tree. Take out any soil you can. Separate topsoil and subsoil? I'd say that too is a degree of care beyond what is actually necessary.

Now, begin ccutting down and in towards what will be bottom of rootball. As before, you want to cut through roots, not just bang on them and shake everything loose. A short-handled tree-digging spade is very helpful for this task.

continue until you've completely undercut the root ball. Shave off excess soil if you can do so without jeopardizing too much more root system.

Find a piece of burlap, tarp, or what have you, that will fit underneath, and up and around root ball. Roll it in half, placing the rolled up material downward as far underneath rootball as you can. Now, gently rock tree towards side tarp/burlap is started from so that you can grab hold of the rolled up section and guide it all the way underneath to other side.

Now you've got a good way for you and a friend to lift the tree out of the ground and carry to where it's going.

A predug hole should be waiting. Of course, if it's a good deal wider than the rootball of the transplant, new root growth will be aided.

Plant at proper depth (Not too low) and water in well. Pay close attention to water needs for first year.

I realize I've both repeated some of, and contradicted some of what Dave told you. Perhaps you will synthesize our two responses and come up with a plan that'll work for you;^)


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 6:18PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

last thought from me ....

there is a big world of hurt between what can be done [theoretically] and what should be done ....

as i get older .... what i CAN do .. and what i usually end up doing... is worlds apart ...

good luck whatever you decide


    Bookmark   July 7, 2008 at 8:05AM
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I'd like to thank you all for your excellent comments. The root pruning advice was very informative. I've heard of this technique but have never tried it before.

I also appreciate ken's point of view. Probably if it were my blue spruce, I'd do as he suggests, simply buy a new one and be done with it. However, the elderly neighbor who asked for the help really likes his tree. I owe him a favor anyway so a few hours of labor might be worth it.

Thanks again everyone!



    Bookmark   July 8, 2008 at 5:39AM
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