Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In which I nervously move a favorite tree...

The weekend was relatively balmy, and so that opened a window of opportunity for transplanting a desert willow from the back yard to the front. There was just the little problem of the flare-up of my occasionally wonky disc between L4 and L5, and the pain it causes when I bend forward. Yes, perfect gardening weather and a bad back. Can there be a better description for frustration?

Nevertheless, I persisted, and even managed to get the new hole dug before finally admitting defeat and calling in reinforcements. Help arrived in the form of husband Walu and neighbor Kurt, shown here digging a root ball for the willow:

The tree is a favorite of mine, for its graceful and elegant openness, and its lovely wine-colored flowers. It was just in the wrong spot, having been planted a few years ago with the idea that it would provide shade to our back patio. But the leaves are too sparse to really do that, and the spot in which it is planted has since been overrun by an ever-expanding raised planter bed. In cutting down the overgrown juniper in the front yard earlier this year, I opened up a space for the willow, a much more suitable tree for that garden.

But since I love the tree, I was nervous about transplanting it. So I did what research I could to prepare for the task. Unfortunately, instruction for moving established trees tends to be sparse. It ranges from the unhelpful "hire a professional," to "buy trees in containers," to the minimalist "don't dig a deep hole." Most of the helpful information I did manage to find was pretty standard and similar to that in Rodale's All New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. It went something like this:

  • If possible, transplant when the tree is dormant, either in late fall/early winter, or early spring, before budding. This causes less stress on the tree as a whole, and particularly on the root system. Bare root trees especially should be transplanted during dormancy (this becomes important in this story in a moment).
  • Ideally, you should begin "root pruning" a season before the move. Cut down around the tree approximately the size of the planned root ball, severing any big roots. This allows the tree to put out new, smaller roots, which will result in a healthier root ball when it is transplanted. (I don't live in an ideal world, however, and never have, so I skipped this step.)
  • Dig a root ball that is 18" across for every inch of the trunk of the tree. Keep as much of the original soil around the roots as possible.
  • Dig a new hole that is slightly shallower than the root ball and just a little wider in diameter Do not amend the soil, but roughen the sides to allow new roots to more easily push into the surrounding ground. When you fill the hole back in, use the same soil you removed from it.
  • When planting the tree, make sure that the junction between the root system and the trunk is either even with the surrounding soil surface, or slightly higher (2"). This latter is apparently preferable, since it allows for settling of the soil and prevents water from pooling around the base of the trunk, which could cause rotting. If you plant it slightly higher, do not leave the roots exposed, but slope the soil from the base of the trunk down and away, like this:

  • Put 2-3" of mulch around the tree, but be careful about applying too much mulch, too close to the base of the trunk.
  • In general, you do not want to stake the tree. Staking apparently prevents the tree from developing its own resistance to the forces of wind. However, you can stake for a short time, just long enough for the root system to establish itself in the soil. If you must stake, do not do it rigidly (allow the tree to bend slightly in the wind), and remove it after a year.
  • Water in the tree to allow the soil to settle, but after that, it is not necessary to apply supplemental watering until the spring. Water the tree regularly during the first growing season so that it can get established.

Thus armed with knowledge, we set out to transfer the tree. And naturally, very little of it went as planned. First, there was the problem of keeping as much of the original soil as possible around the root system. My garden soil is a very friable sandy loam which, when wet, crumbles and falls away if you look at it wrong. Although Kurt and Walu dug a big enough root ball, when they went to lift it out of the hole, this is what came up:

I'm thinking at this point, "Well. This just became an experiment in bare root planting..."

Nevertheless, they carried it to the new hole, and dutiful planted it per my anxious instruction. Here is the lovely result:

Now we wait to see what happens. I'll spread some decomposed granite mulch around its base this weekend, which should contrast nicely with the limestone gravel in the bed.

I think I can hold my breath until spring, but we shall just have to see...


  1. I'd recommend that you go to a nursery (or even one of the big box stores) and buy Super Thrive. It comes in a tiny little bottle because a little goes a long way, and it's absolutely great to use on root systems. I haven't transplanted anything without using it for about 3 or 4 years.

  2. I had to laugh when I saw the bare roots in Kurt's hands. This my idea of gardening - watching two men do all of the work. Let me know when you garden like that again and I'll come join you.

  3. I think it was good that you were forced to direct operations rather than take part. Workers need a leader - to say 'Oh dear let's move quickly on to Plan B'.
    The tree looks good in its new home. I hope it survives.

  4. Susan, I hope the tree not only survives but thrives in its new location. I'm glad you had helpers so your back could be spared aggravation.

  5. Mary--a good tip! Thanks.

    Cheryl--I dunno. I'm not very good sitting on the sidelines. Plus, are you saying that you don't like it when I put you to work laying stone?

    EG--Good point. A good supervisor always does have a Plan B...which she might think of if she's directly involved in the action.

    Mary--Thanks. The back is feeling better, but it still twinges enough that I fear for this weekend's chores...

  6. Wow. A willow's root system looks like that? I'd have thought the opposite. Bon chance avec ca.

  7. It's always a bit dodgy moving a tree that's got established in its old spot, but here's hoping!

  8. It definately is a bit dodgy moving an old tree that is very settled in its spot, but sometimes that the risk you have to take. I have been Tree Moving for a while now and this post is extremely interesting to me.


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