Early spring is a great time for transplanting trees and shrubs, but
you must do so before they wake up. Transplanting a plant is a very
traumatic experience for the plant if it is awake. It’s like doing
surgery on a person while they are awake. Dormancy starts in the fall
as soon as you experience a good hard freeze, and the plants remain
dormant until the weather warms up in the spring. This is when you
should transplant, while the plants are dormant.
You can transplant in the spring up until the plants leaf out. When
the buds are green and swollen you are usually safe to still
transplant, but once the leaf develops, you should wait until fall.
When transplanting you can dig the shrubs out bare root, just make
sure they are out of the ground for as short a time as possible, and
keep the roots damp while out of the ground.
Make sure there are no air pockets around the roots when you replant
them. When possible, it is always better to dig a ball of earth with
the plants when you transplant them. The rule of thumb is 12” of root
ball for every 1” of stem caliper. If the diameter of the stem of a
tree is 2”, then you should dig a root ball 24” in diameter.
Click here to learn how to ball and burlap dig a plant.
Don’t be afraid of cutting a few roots when you transplant. Just try
not to cut them any shorter than the above guidelines allow. Cutting
the roots will actually help to reinvigorate the plant. It’s a process
simply known as root pruning. When the roots are severed, the plant
then develops lateral roots to make up for what is lost. These lateral
roots are more fibrous in nature, and have more ability to pick up
water and nutrients.
Some nurseries drive tractors over the plants in the field with a
device that under cuts the roots of the plant just to force the plant
to develop more fibrous roots. This make transplanting the plant the
following year much more successful, and makes for a stronger and
The old timers root pruned by hand by forcing a spade in the ground
around their plants. If you have a plant in your landscape that is
doing poorly, a little root pruning while the plant is dormant could
bring it around. It’s worth the effort.
Michael J. McGroarty is the author of this article. Visit his most
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