Transplanting Plants By The Ball & Burlap Method

Transplant a Japanese MapleThis landscape would be a good example of an older planting in need of a renovation.

The Japanese Maple (green leaf variety) on the corner of the house met the criteria for a good value, high degree of success transplant.

Maybe some of you noticed this maple is in leaf and are thinking “You should not be transplanting this plant now!”  You are correct.

Preparation For Transplanting – Not To Be Taken Lightly

There are circumstances that have you transplanting at less than optimum times of year.  In this case we were confident of success if we did additional preparation.  Prior to the transplant we treated the plant with BioPlex.  This is a special liquid bio-stimulant that dramatically reduces transplant shock.

Plant nurseries practice a process called root pruning.  They do this because the roots of plants instinctively grow outward well beyond the point where a root ball would be dug.  You therefore risk cutting off too great a percentage of roots reducing the transplant’s  chances of survival.

With root pruning you literally dig down, perhaps a year before you intend to move the plant, and prune the roots at a point where you anticipate the root ball to eventually be.  This causes the remaining roots to “branch-out” and produce a denser, more fibrous root system.

We have done root pruning on project sites where it was necessary and justified, but it does require planning, extra cost and a schedule that allows the extra time.  More often we just practice good common sense tactics such as:

  • water the plant in advance of digging to insure good soil moisture around the root system.
  • try to dig on cool, cloudy days which can help with reducing plant stress and transplant shock.
  • use a bio-stimulant product (like BioPlex) for increasing your success rate

Transplanting a Japanese MapleClear the area.  You can’t have too much room to work when digging a plant for transplant.  If surrounding plants are to be removed, do it before digging.  If surrounding plants are to be transplanted, tie all of them up to get branches out of the way.

Dig the smallest and easiest transplants first.

With the area as clear as possible and branches tied up, begin by shaving the top, loose soil over the roots.  At this point you can mark a line that shows the future diameter of the ball as specified in the American Standard for Nursery Stock.

At a distance slightly outside of the marked circle begin to dig down.  Use a sharp spade, with its back side toward the plant, to cut through the soil and smaller roots.  Use a lopper to cut larger roots.

Transplanting toolsThese 4 tools help to make the transplant job go smoothly.  Starting from the left is a spade, lopper, long-handled shovel and a solid steel root-cutter.

Your objective is to dig a trench around the prescribed sized root ball.  Continue to dig down to the depth recommended in the Standard for Nursery Stock.  Shape the ball like a flower pot, tapering in slightly as you go deeper.

When you reach the proper depth (I usually go slightly deeper), you must make a decision as to whether the root ball will be drum-laced or not.  Drum-lacing should always be done if the root ball is either large or appears to be weak and fragile.  You don’t want the root ball to break apart or become loose during the transplanting process.

If you are drum-lacing (this Maple is drum-laced) the base of the root ball remains attached to the ground.  It is only after the root ball is securely drum-laced that it can be undercut.  Drum-lacing is an involved technique and really warrants a detailed post with pictures.  Actually, this would be a good technique to video.  I hope to have video as a part of LandscapeAdvisor content in the near future.

A drum-laced root ballWhen the root ball is smaller and appears nice and solid (usually due to plenty of fibrous roots and cohesive soil), you probably can skip the drum-lacing.  So now you can begin to undercut the ball with the spade to sever any remaining roots and to separate the root ball from the ground.

Once the root ball is free at the base you must set it on a square-cut piece of burlap by either of 2 ways.  If the plant is not too heavy it can be carefully lifted and placed on the burlap square.

If it can’t be lifted easily, roll the burlap square half way, then lean the plant over slightly.  Tuck the rolled side of the burlap in the crease where the ball is still touching.  Now lean the plant over in the opposite direction and unroll the half of the burlap square.  Presto!… I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it right in the middle of the burlap, but usually close enough.

Once the root ball is sitting on the burlap square, lift and tie the opposite corners over the top of the ball by the neck of the plant.

If you look closely at the picture to the right (click to enlarge) you’ll see a “chain-cradle” around the root ball.  This will be used to lift the plant out of the hole and into its new location using a backhoe.

No doubt there are other techniques, tips and perhaps questions out there on this broad topic.  We’d all like to hear them; possibly pick up something new, and help those in need.  Feel free to leave a comment.

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