Transplanting Trees


Seven lovely, specimen Littleleaf Lindens (Tilia cordata) to be delivered to and installed at a client’s home.

We planted them in the nursery seven years ago as small 1 inch to 1 and 1/4 inch caliper trees. (Trees are measured variously by height, or by caliper size, that is, by the diameter of the trunk in inches.)  After years of cultivation, irrigation, spraying, fertilization and careful pruning, they are beautiful 6 to 6 and 1/2 inch caliper trees, about 18 feet tall. We try to have about 20 Littleleaf Lindens in the nursery at any time.

We used to be advocates of hand-dug, drum-laced root balls, which are works of art.

They’re gorgeous.

What’s great about the hand-dug root ball is that the the diggers can adjust as they go to accommodate large or irregular roots. As wonderful as hand-dug, drum-laced root balls are aesthetically, they’re very delicate. There’s really not anything holding that root ball together other than burlap and string. So, the wider the root ball, the more that root ball wants to sag and flex. After you’re done admiring all the aesthetics of thee wonderful drum-lacing and hand work, it’s a very precarious process to plant (and more importantly, to re-plant) them, especially if the root ball is large. Most root balls aren’t any deeper than three feet, no matter how big the tree is. But they can be as wide as eight or nine feet. It’s usually one foot diameter root ball to one inch caliper trunk size. So you can do the math on that. Eight inch caliper tree, eight foot root ball, nine inch caliper, nine foot root ball, and so on. During the summer the ratio increases to 1-1/4 foot diameter for every inch caliper.

Once that root-ball goes into the ground and someone changes his or her mind or conditions change or for some reason you need to move the tree, you really can’t just grab that root-ball and lift the tree. You have to carefully dig it out. You have to slide forks or a bucket under it and strap the tree-trunk, get really creative and hope that when you pick it up again the root-ball stays together. When you planted it you cut a lot of those strings that were wrapped around the top of that root ball. You severed whatever structure the strings gave you. And you hope that it all stays intact. It’s precarious and sometimes it doesn’t happen they way you want it to.

We think there’s a better way and it’s standard practice for many arborists today. A root ball dug with a hydraulic tree-spade and then placed in a wire cage tends to maintain it’s shape really nicely.

The challenge with the cages that you place the root ball in is that they are are are tapered and circular and come in set sizes. If you have a root system that is a little irregular, or a little flatter, a pancake-shaped root system for example, you need to make it work in that circular cage.

In fact, we pre-dig with the tree-spade a year or two before removing the trees from the nursery to encourage root growth consistent with the shape of the tapered, circular wire cages.

To ensure a healthy transplant, we allow for extra room in the cage. More soil. More roots. The ball is heavier and more awkward to maneuver. But with a root ball dug by a hydraulic tree-spade and transported in a wire cage, the root ball stays intact and holds together better over time, which allows for transporting and re-planting later. And that’s a big advantage for the both the landscape designer and for clients who might have new ideas after they have had some time to live with the landscape.

Trees are a significant expense in a designed landscape. And they are certainly one of the design’s most noticeable elements. That cuts two ways. A tree that is poorly shaped (whether due to incorrect pruning, or improper placement or inadequate care in someone’s nursery) will call attention to itself and may fail to achieve the designer’s goals. But a really great tree is a thing of inestimable beauty.

We are one of the few landscape design firms that maintains our own nursery. So we can do all these things the right way – from beginning to end. This ensures that your tree thrives in its new environment and will live happily for many, many seasons. And if you decide to move it, no problem, we can do that.

Learn more about Cross River Design’s tree & plant installation services.

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