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Need to move a shrub? Prepare them now for moving in the fall or spring

person kneeling down to plant a shrub

So you want to move that shrub? I get it! Perhaps that shrub needs to go to a different spot in the yard. Maybe it wasn’t planted in the correct location to begin with. Perhaps a tree has grown tall casting more shade, or a tree has come down flooding the area with sunlight. Sometimes we just need to dig up and move a shrub!

Best Time of Year to Move a Shrub

The question that typically crosses my path is, when is a good time to move a shrub? This answer can vary slightly. When considering deciduous shrubs, the ideal time for moving them is in the early spring or fall after the leaves have dropped. When it comes to evergreens, I often recommend they be moved in early spring. 

However, the time of year everyone contacts me to ask about moving a shrub is normally around early summer. Digging up a shrub, severing vital feeder roots (and you will be severing roots), and plopping it in another spot right before the most stressful time of year as we go into hot, dry weather is not a recipe for success. 

Root Pruning in the Summer

If you want to move a shrub and can wait until fall or spring, during the late spring and summer you can root prune shrubs destined for a new location. This is a simple procedure and works well for shrubs that have been in the ground for only a couple of years. As mentioned, you will lose feeder roots that absorb most of the nutrients and water for your plant, but we can start preparing for that loss right now. With a sharp shovel, cut through the existing roots just inside the edge of the future root ball. Perform this action around the shrub forming a ring that surrounds the shrub and leaves the central portion of the root ball intact. By cutting off the feeder roots without actually digging up the plant, the shrub will focus on developing more feeder roots, hopefully, on the edge of the ring and in the interior of the root ball. You can repeat this process once or twice more over the summer before digging up the shrub in the fall. 

For shrubs that have been planted longer or are a bit larger, another method is to dig a trench in a ring to start creating the root ball you will eventually move in the fall or spring. The outer wall of your trench will become the edge of your future root ball. Dig the trench 8 to 12 inches wide and up to 12 inches deep. This will be considerably more effort and for larger more established plants it is recommended to use a professional landscaping service for moving shrubs. 

After excavating the trench fill it with a 2:1 mixture of soil and compost. In ideal conditions, feeder roots will develop in this trench and help reduce transplant shock when the time comes to relocate the plant. 

Important Clarification!!! This article is in response to the fact most people contact me in the late spring and summer to move a shrub and ask, "Well, if I should wait until fall or spring what can I do right now?" While I give them an option for root pruning in the summer - here is the ideal method: Root prune in the fall and transplant in the spring. 

How big should the rootball be?

Often I recommend those moving shrubs maintain a rootball that is as wide as the canopy of the shrub. But the green industry has looked into this and they have devised a method for determining what size a rootball should be based on the size of the aboveground growth of the plant. The following table contains information for transplanting both deciduous and evergreen shrubs. 

Table from Penn State Extension, Transplanting or Moving Trees and Shrubs in the Landscape. Data based on the American Standard for Nursery Stock (ANSI Z60.1-2004, American Nursery and Landscape Association) and Watson and Himelick 1997 (Principles and Practices of Planting Trees and Shrubs, International Society of Arboriculture Books).
Plant TypePlant SizeMinimum ball diameter (inches)Change in ball size with changes in plant sizeMinimum ball depth (inch)Approximate soil ball and plant weight (lbs)
Deciduous shrubs3 ft tall144-6 inches/foot991
Needle or broadleaf evergreen spreading shrubs2 ft spread166 inches/foot of spread10124

Whether you are pruning the roots by slicing them or digging a trench around the shrub, you have already caused extensive damage to this plant. Be sure to irrigate during the summer months during stretches of hot dry weather. And mulch the root ball to help hold moisture in the soil and moderate soil temperatures. 

Time to Move the Shrub

Prior to transplanting, the shrub should be well-irrigated. It is not recommended to move a drought-stressed shrub. Avoid completely saturating the soil the day you move the plant as this will increase the weight considerably. Opt to water the plant a day or two prior to moving it. 

When the time comes to move your shrub, dig a trench on the outer edge of where you either sliced or trenched prior. Once you've trenched around the rootball, comes the hardest part (in my opinion). It is time to dig underneath the rootball to try and retain as much soil on those roots as possible.

When moving the shrub, try to keep the root ball intact as much as possible. Slide it on a tarp or move it in a wheelbarrow—anything to reduce shaking the soil off and losing any more roots. 

Replant the shrub in the new location at the same depth as before. (If it was planted too deeply before, this is your chance to plant it higher at the correct depth.) Mulch with four inches of woodchips, avoid piling mulch against the stems. Water the plant well after planting and then provide water over the next year as the plant establishes. The larger the plant the longer the establishment period. 

So now you can prepare to move your shrubs this coming fall or next spring. If you just can’t wait and must move the shrub in late spring or summer, then be sure to water, water, and water some more. Mulch well. And good luck!

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Dig your hole in the new location before digging up the shrub. Why? Because digging up the shrub can be a lot of work, and I don’t want you tiring out before you get the plant back into the ground!

Thank you for reading!

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Chris Enroth is a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Henderson, McDonough, Knox, and Warren counties since 2012. Chris provides horticulture programming with an emphasis on the home gardener, landscape maintenance personnel, and commercial landscapers. Additional responsibilities include coordinating local county Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteers - providing their training, continuing education, advanced training, seasonal events, and organizing community outreach programs for horticulture and conservation assistance/education. In his spare time, Chris enjoys the outdoors, lounging in the garden among the flowers (weeds to most).