Question of the Week – Number One: October 10, 2019

“When can I transplant these Nellie R. Stevens hollies, and do you have any tips?”

This particular photo and question were posted to my Facebook page earlier this week. Carolyn A. wanted to know if transplanting them would even be possible, saying that the builder had planted them too close together in her opinion. She said they’d been there for four years.

This photo was posted by Carolyn A. to my Facebook page just a few days ago. It serves as a stand-in for the dozens of other questions of an almost identical nature that I’m asked almost weekly.

My answer to all transplanting questions that involve trees and shrubs is that digging and moving of woody plants must be done while they are dormant in the middle of the winter (late December through early February).

Transplanting begins by cutting the lateral roots at the point at which the soil ball will be formed. Normally that is assessed based on cumulative trunk diameter. For a tree or shrub with a trunk that’s 1 inch in diameter you would figure a soil ball 14 or 15 inches in diameter. For one that is 2 inches in diameter (adding trunks together if there is more than one), figure 15 or 16 inches. For 3 inches the size would be 17 or 18 inches.

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Use a sharpshooter spade to cut the roots. Cut a slit if that’s all it takes, but if you encounter larger roots, use lopping shears or a pruning saw to cut the roots. Your goal is to keep the soil ball intact, and that means that you mustn’t jostle the soil as you do the digging.

The soil ball will need to go as tall as it wide (or at least 75 percent as tall). You’ll probably find it easier to work beneath the soil ball if you cut a trench with the sharpshooter and remove the soil in the process. Dig a ramp on one side to allow you access to any taproot so you can slide your spade in beneath the soil ball to sever the root.

At this point professionals will carefully rock and wrap the soil ball with a piece of burlap and “tie” it in place with nails. If the plant isn’t too large you can work a piece of burlap in underneath and use it to cradle the soil ball as you lift the plant up and out of the hole.

Carry the plant by the soil ball or burlap cradle, never by its trunk. Have its new planting hole dug prior to the move, and carefully lower the plant so that it will rest on the bottom of the hole at the same depth at which it was growing in its original location.

Fill in around the soil ball with loose soil. Carefully tamp it in place as you hold the trunk of the plant perfectly vertical. Run water slowly to settle the soil.

Stake and guy the plant, especially if it’s a tree, to hold it upright. Use burlap scraps to pad the trunk and protect it from rubbing of the cables. Keep the cables taut at all times, and leave them in place for a couple of years.

Specifically back to the Nellie R. Stevens hollies, I suggested that Carolyn be prepared to trim them back by 25 to 30 percent after they’ve been moved to compensate for roots lost in the digging. I would estimate her chances of success with these plants, if the work is done carefully, at perhaps 95 percent – well worth doing.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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