Relocating Small Trees and Shrubs in Fall How to successfully transplant

Relocating Small Trees and Shrubs in Fall
  • Posted September 26, 2018

Although spring is the best time to relocate small trees and shrubs, fall also provides conditions suitable for transplanting existing plants in your landscape. The soil is still fairly warm in the fall, allowing roots to adjust, and the cooler air temperatures and typically higher moisture levels reduce stress on the foliage.

Since evergreens retain their foliage year-round, they adapt better to being moved when the temperatures are cooler, so try to plant these later into the fall season. Deciduous plants begin to shut down and lose their leaves as they enter dormancy, so transplant them on a late fall afternoon after they drop their leaves, giving them the cooler evening to begin adjusting.


In the months prior to the move, prepare the plant by pruning it back by roughly a third. This reduces the amount of foliage the plant will have to support with water and nutrients, and it can focus on establishing the roots.

It is also recommended that the roots be pruned in the spring prior to fall transplanting. Root pruning stimulates new root growth, giving the plant a better chance to overcome death from transplant shock due to root loss.

Root pruning should be done before leaf and flower buds appear in the spring. Tie the branches up out of your way, and cut a trench around the plant, cleanly cutting the lateral roots. Once the roots have been cut, backfill the trench with the same soil you removed, followed by the topsoil. Water it well, removing air pockets and settling the soil, and untie the branches.

The American Association of Nurserymen recommends the following dimensions to follow when determining how wide and how deep to dig the trench around a deciduous shrub.

Root Ball Sizes for Deciduous Shrubs
12 inches
18 inches
2 feet
3 feet
4 feet
5 feet
6 feet
7 feet
Minimum Diameter Ball
9 inches
10 inches
12 inches
14 inches
16 inches
18 inches
20 inches
22 inches
7 inches
8 inches
9 inches
11 inches
12 inches
14 inches
14 inches
15 inches


Before you dig, call 811 – the “Call Before You Dig” number – to have any underground utilities marked so you can avoid them. The number is easy to remember: Call 811 so you don’t have to call 911!

Consider where you will be moving the plant to:

    • What is its mature size?
    • What soil, water and light requirements does it have?
    • Try to find a location with similar aspects to minimize shock to the plant.


    1. Dig a hole two times wider than the root ball. The original depth of the plant is extremely important. Use the soil mark on the stem as a guide and adjust the depth of the hole accordingly.
    2. Loosely tie up the branches. Using the root-pruning trench as a guide, dig up the plant, keeping as much of the root ball intact as possible. Placing the ball gently onto a tarp or a wheelbarrow will make the move to the new hole quicker and easier.
    3. Place the plant carefully in the hole, making adjustments to width and depth as needed. Backfill and tamp the soil lightly to remove any air pockets. Water thoroughly, and stake the transplant if needed to stabilize it until it can set down new roots.
    4. Do not fertilize in the fall, as it will encourage the plant to flush out new growth, not something you will want as it heads into dormancy and winter.
    5. Keep the plant well-watered until the ground freezes. Then, in the spring, water regularly and fertilize until the plant is established in its new surroundings.

Related Pages

Pruning Landscape Trees & Shrubs

Pruning Landscape Trees & Shrubs

Pruning of trees and shrubs can help them stay within a certain size limit to fit the confines and aesthetics of a garden space. More importantly, pruning encourages fuller plants – thus more foliage for photosynthesis, more blooms to attract pollinators, more fruits for you and any creatures you share them with.

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Nancy Stebbins
About the Author

Nancy Stebbins is a proud Michigan State University alumna, a landscape designer, and horticulturist at MasterTag – a horticultural printing company.

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Relocating Small Trees and Shrubs in Fall

Keys to Successful Transplants

  • Prune top in advance
  • Prune roots in advance
  • Choose compatible new site
  • Create a wide planting hole
  • Plant at exact depth as in previous site
  • Keep well-watered for several seasons