Cottage Gardener Blog

Transplanting Shrubs made easy in Waukesha County this spring

Larger multi stem shrubs can be daunting to transplant. Knowing several helpful techniques will make the job easier and safer. This technique can be used for both large and small, evergreen and deciduous multi stem shrubs.

Timing: Several factors related to timing will influence a successful transplant. Many deciduous and evergreen shrubs can be moved in the spring. Digging shrubs before the new buds begin to grow or in some cases even after tiny leaves have started to form will in most cases be early enough to make a successful transplant. Shrubs that produce a spring flower might lose their flowers for the current season. Having just the right amount of soil moisture at transplant time is important in creating a root ball that will hold together during the transplant. Dry soil will not adhere to the small root fibers resulting in a ball that falls apart. Clay soil that is too wet becomes difficult to dig, forms a mushy transplant ball and is very heavy to move. If your soil is dry you will need to water, if it is too wet you will need to wait a day or two. Most spring weather is cool and many times cloudy, this is the perfect transplant weather, hot, sunny and windy weather will stress the plant especially if the leaves have started to grow. If your weekend schedule is limited and the weather is too hot, transplant in the late afternoon and water the plant well.

How to transplant a shrub:

1 – Start with a walk around to determine the new location for the transplanted shrub. Prepare the new area by clearing the space of other shrubs, foliage or removing sod. This preparation reduces the amount of time the root ball will remain above ground and lessen the drying effects of wind and sun. Hold off digging the hole until you have the transplanted shrub dug so you don’t dig the hole too deep.

2 – Prune 1/3 to1/2 of all the larger branches down to the base or crown of the plant. A larger branch would be anything larger than the thickness of your thumb. Cut the balance of the larger stems in half. This step is important in order to eliminate the amount of foliage the shrub has to support with a reduction in root size.


3 – Tie the remaining branches together into a tight bundle with a stout rope. Having the branches tied together will give you something to grab and get the smaller branches out of the way, making it easier to dig a smaller root ball.


4 – Start digging the root ball with a SHARP spade, cutting a vertical line about 4-6 inches outside the crown of the plant. The crown is where the branches meet the soil line. Push your spade straight down with the back of the spade toward the plant. Make this cut once around and then repeat, following the same line, pushing deeper into the soil cutting as many roots as possible, until the blade of the spade is buried.


5 – Remove the soil outside the vertical soil line that was established in step 4 with the same spade or a SHARP shovel. You will be digging a trench about 16-24 inches wide, away from the vertical line established in step 4, to a depth of about 12 to 18 inches all around the shrub. When you remove this soil try to make clean cuts to the roots coming off the shrub at the point of your vertical line. If you cannot cut through these roots with your sharp shovel or spade use a pruner, saw, or an axe. Remove any cut roots from your trench. This is the most difficult part of the process, if you have a helper have them hold the spade in the vertical position against the root ball while you go around and remove the soil and roots from the trench. Try to pile the soil into a mound on either side of the plant or in a wheelbarrow. Separate the roots from the soil and break up any big clods. Do not cut into vertical soil line you created in step 4, it is important for this soil to remain intact.


6 – Once the roots and soil have been removed to a depth of about 12-18 inches, start making an angled cut with your spade under the root ball toward the center of the plant. You are now cutting the bottom roots of the plant. Soil below this cut should be removed leaving a cavity or space under the root ball. Continue making this angled cut toward the center of the plant all the way around the shrub, repeat, and remove soil and roots along the way.


7 – The final shape of the root ball will now be similar to that of a toy ‘top’ with a pointed end at the bottom. If you have removed the soil from step 6 you will be able to free the shrub from the last of the remaining root(s) by gently pushing the top part of the shrub back and forth until it is free. The term ‘gently pushing the top’ is the important factor here, because if you did not remove enough soil, cut enough roots or create a tight enough ball it will not break free and you will just pull apart your soil ball by rocking it back and forth. Test the transplants readiness by grabbing the tied branching on the top of the shrub, if you can move them gently side to side and the ball moves with them you should be good to go, if not KEEP DIGGING!


8 – When the root ball is free from all the roots holding it to the ground and you can gently roll it back and forth from one side of the hole to the other, it is ready to remove. Never Lift a root ball out of the hole, you can do serious damage to your body. Roll the shrub to one side of the hole and place about 2-3 inches of the excavated soil back into the hole on the open side. Gently roll the shrub onto this soil and place more soil on the opposite side of the hole only slightly higher. Repeat the process of filling the hole and gently rolling the shrub root ball back and forth until all the excavated soil is back in the hole and the shrub is at grade level. NO LIFTING!

8(a)-RollBall 8(b)-Backfill-to-Raise-Ball 8(c)-Root-Ball-at-Ground-level

9 – Transporting the shrub on a tree dolly is the easiest way to move a heavy shrub. If a tree dolly is not available, a regular heavy duty dolly, a heavy plastic tarp or even a scoop type snow shovel will work. I have even used a saucer type snow sled in a pinch. Pulling the device and not the shrub is the best method in moving a heavy shrub and will work as long as you try and minimize pulling the branches and breaking the structure of the root ball. If you want to make the ball strong enough to roll across the yard to its new home you would need to wrap the ball in burlap with a technique that becomes quite complicated.

10 – Once you have the shrub close to where you want to replant it start by digging a hole 1 ½ to 2 times the diameter of the root ball. Try and place all the soil in a single pile or wheelbarrow, this makes it easier when backfilling. Dig only as deep as the height of your root ball, you want the top or crown of the plant to be level with the surrounding grade when you are finished. If you dig too deep and then have to back fill with loose soil, it can sometimes settle leaving your shrub lower or even crooked in its new location.

10(a)-StartDigNewHole 10(b)-FinishDigNewHole

11 – Place the shrub in the hole by gently rolling or sliding it into the hole. Rotate the best side to your viewing area, check that the shrub is level, meets the existing grade evenly, and then start backfilling. Gently step down the soil as you fill the hole to eliminate air pockets. Try not to leave clumps of soil within the backfill soil, use your shovel to break them up. When the backfilling is about 2/3 full run water into the gap around the plant and fill to the top. Now is a great time to take a break and wait for the water to drain down into the soil. After all the water has drained away continue backfilling with soil to the grade of the surrounding soil line. I will sometimes create a small rim of soil 12-18” away from the crown about 2-3 inches high to help keep water around the root zone of the plant when it is watered.

11(a)-PlaceShrubInNewHole 11(b)-BackFillHole 11(c)-LevelSoilToGrade

12 – The plant is now ready for a good 2-3 inch layer of mulch and at least 2-5 (5 gal.) buckets of water. Depending on the temperature you might have to water the transplant 2-3 time a week for the first month with about the same amount of water. Transplant shrubs will require weekly watering through the first year and possibly a balanced fertilizer at the start of the second year. Don’t forget to remove the rope used to tie the branches together.


13 – The second year will require you to check the plant for shape. Prune half of the longer thicker stems that you left long the previous year, cut these to the ground level. Water weekly if the plant shows stress during dry periods in the second year. Continue to prune for shape in the progressive years.

The reasons to transplant a shrub can vary widely. The primary reason is that a shrub was planted in the wrong location. Transplanting a larger multi stem shrub will not only give you the benefit of a larger plant but will also save money. Transplanting shrubs can be a workout, take your time, use sharp tools and plan out your steps before you begin. Always call Digger Hotline 800-242-8511 and have your utilities marked before you begin. Additional information can be found at:


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