Lifting and transplanting shrubs and trees

In my experience transplanting shrubs and trees is an exercise requiring some fitness and careful planning. So I'm including guidance to help you deal with this heavy job in the easiest most manageable way.

Transplant shrubs at the right time

You should transplant at the most appropriate time of year for a particular shrub. Generally, avoid drier seasons or when growth rate is high, the plant in full leaf, flower or fruit and the sap flowing. Deciduous shrubs can be moved when dormant, evergreens in autumn or spring. Avoid drying out.

The start and end of the growing season are useful times for transplanting shrubs and give time to settle into a new soil. New root growth is important to replace damaged roots and reconnect the plant with soil water and nutrients.

When transplanting shrubs and trees one of the biggest challenges is to avoid damage.

transplant shrub step1

Digging up the shrub

  • Align the face of a spade along a radius from the centre of the shrub and dig a circular trench around the shrub.

  • Align a fork with the face towards the plant to lever up and loosen the soil.

    transplant shrub step 2

    These are the best ways to avoid cutting through roots. A tearing sound usually means you are damaging roots.

  • Use a large digging spade to remove loose soil from the trench.

    transplant shrub step 3

  • After digging a circular trench align the face of your spade as described above, but with the handle facing away from the shrub. Working from the bottom of the circular trench now, cut down underneath the shrub.
  • After separating a substantial root ball it may be expedient to use long handled secatuers or a saw to cut through large roots.
  • Gently lever up and loosen the root ball with a fork. Take care if you hear a ripping sound which comes when roots are being damaged. More care is needed when transplanting shrubs than when digging them up for scrap.

    transplant shrub step 4

  • Always leave as many strong branches in-tact as possible because they can be used to help lever the shrub and loosen the root ball. Strong branches may be helpful in lifting the shrub too.

Lifting and moving the shrub

Lifting a large shrub from the hole can be difficult – be careful not to strain your back. Bend at the knees and use your arms and legs not your back to power the lift. Also keep your back straight when lifting. Remove as much soil as possible first, but retain strong branches for use in getting a grip.

Move shrub with WheelEasy

You may have to dig around sufficiently so as to stand on the bottom of the hole. Remove the shrub from the hole to a garden sheet or even better slide onto the Wheel Easy (a sheet with a wheel). The height of a wheel barrow is not ideal when it comes to loading a weighty shrub taken from the hole. I normally work alone these days, but it is worth getting 2 or more people to help when transplanting shrubs that are large.

transplant shrub step 5

One method of loading a wheel barrow is to put it in a tipping position toward the shrub. Then pull the branches over the wheel barrow. While holding the branches attempt to lever the shrub up as the wheel barrow is returned to a standing position. It’s far better to use the Wheel Easy for moving shrubs.

When transplanting shrubs that have to travel some distance or be kept out of the ground for an extended period wrap the root ball in a plastic bag or sacking.

Re-siting the shrub or tree

Over 20ft up, my friend tackles the tree top with chain saw
- Consider the location you're transplanting shrubs or trees into -

Space: are you giving the shrub or tree enough room to grow? Will it grow to overshadow other plants, invade a neighbhours property, obstruct pathways, or window views ? Think of 'dwarf' conifer trees as small compared to a Giant Redwood. By my reckoning they can become substantial trees! - Perhaps you're looking for a 'miniature' conifer instead.

Transplanting trees too close to the house ? Tree roots will penetrate and destroy foundations. The large leaf area and extensive roots of trees remove considerable amounts of soil water. This dries the soil out and in a dry summer contributes to soil contraction. Too close to the house and this can cause subsidence and weaken foundations.

Soil Type: to grow well, your shrub or tree may require a particular type of soil - dry sandy soil, clay, or peat. More on this soon. Rhododendrons and Azaleas for example, won't tolerate limey soils. When transplanting shrubs like these you may need to incorporate peat substitute.

rhododendron garden

Now for the best part - re-planting. Note:- Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Camellias, and the like need special consideration. See how to plant Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias.

Planting and Re-planting

  • Check the size of the root ball. Make a new hole that is big enough to take the roots and give a little room to spread.
  • Make the hole depth so the shrub will rest at about the same soil level as before.
  • Loosen up the bottom of the hole with a fork.
  • Fix a stout supporting stake if required.
  • Put some garden compost on the bottom of the hole.
  • When transplanting bare-rooted shrubs or trees spread the roots out in the new hole.
  • When transplanting from containers don't break apart the root ball. Gently cut away the tangle of roots that circle the inside of the pot so they are not so much longer than required.
  • It is important to enrich the backfill so that roots grow out into it. Mix garden compost and bone meal into the back fill.
  • Gently firm down each layer of fill so as to remove air pockets. Don't compact it down.

    Don't plant a shrub like this

  • Ensure, especially with upright conifers, standards and half standards, that the shrub stem rests vertically in the hole as you firm the back fill.
  • The exception to this comes when planting barrier hedges like holly. Find more on laying hedges for security.
  • Sculpture the soil surface around the tree. A very small mounded against the stem will ensure that it doesn't sit in a pool and could help prevent the hole widening should there be rocking.Further out make a ring to direct water toward the plant and avoid errosion.

After transplanting shrubs they may wilt a little. I usually prune back any weak shoots.


If the soil is moist and the temperature isn’t scorching hot you may think additional watering-in is unnecessary.

But an important reason for watering-in has nothing to do with the amount of water, but rather it helps wash out the smaller soil particles and settle them closely around the finer roots. After you make the bed you tuck in the patient.

Further Information on Transplanting Shrubs

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