Can I move a big tree?
September 19, 2012 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Can I move a 15-18 foot tree? Best practices for something so big?

I planted a red maple a few years back and it's about 15 feet tall now. Recently, the power company came through our neighborhood, taking down branches from mature shade tress that might fall on the power lines during storms, icy conditions, etc. and it's clear to me that in a few years, this tree's branches will be in the way. So, I want to move it if there's a pretty good chance of success (the alternative would be to leave it where it is and try to prune it so there'll be no branches hanging over the lines, but this may be impossible).

The diameter of the trunk is about 5-6 inches. I would wait until early winter to dig it up and move it. I've moved smaller trees and shrubs around my yard a lot with success, so I know in general how to move things around, but I've never attempted anything so big. Any advice?
posted by kirst27 to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hire a professional with a large tree spade. This means they can pull a large plug of dirt from around the tree and get most of the roots with it. They can move it by skid-steer or other machine. This would give it the best chance of survival because otherwise you may struggle to get enough roots out without damaging them. With a tree this big, it seems impossible to move otherwise.
posted by BradNelson at 6:07 AM on September 19, 2012

...and here is an example. Rental services may provide them as well.
posted by BradNelson at 6:09 AM on September 19, 2012

BradNelson - those tree spades are so cool!

I don't mean to threadsit, but I should have said that it would need to be a DIY project - partly because there's no way to get a piece of machinery into that space without ruining everything else around it and also because of $. I'm curious if there's a way to do it myself (along with some strong helpers).
posted by kirst27 at 6:13 AM on September 19, 2012

I did this once with a red maple about the size of yours. The key is to get as much dirt with it as possible. Do it after first frost and keep it well watered in its new location for the next year or two. It still may not make it depending on things that are out of your control like very hot weather next summer, the size and depth of the roots that have developed already, etc., but I can attest that it is possible.
posted by eleslie at 6:21 AM on September 19, 2012

You can move it. May not live, but you can move it.

Rule of thumb is that the drip line is the root line... meaning the roots go as far out as the leaves above. Maples don't have the same aggressive roots of oaks, so you may not have to go as far down, but you'd better plan for 5 feet.

As you can imagine, it would be a bit of an excavation project and you're not guaranteed a successful transplant.

Maples grow like weeds, and if you planted it a few years back and it's already 6" in diameter (it's probably not, BTW... trunk diameter is measured at breast height (DBH)), you might want to consider just planting another one where you want this one, an in a few years, cutting this one down. You get the benefit of having the tree there in the interim, and the net effect is the same after a few years.

The goal is to have a tree in the right place, right?
posted by FauxScot at 6:25 AM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Certainly possible to transplant a tree that size as everyone else has said, but the rootball of a tree that size would be very heavy. I'm not sure how you'd manage to move it without a bobcat or small tractor.
posted by meta87 at 6:40 AM on September 19, 2012

A big truck mounted tree spade can move this. There is really no other way with a tree that size.

Your best hope is one of the manual tree spades such as that made by Tree Toad. I have the version which is mounted on my tractor and I have used it to move trees up to about 8-10' high.

There is one other possibility, which I have done with silver maple up to about 12' high. Red maple are not too dissimilar and may tolerate it too. You should ONLY do this when the tree is dormant, ie early spring well before bud break. The ground needs to be wet and cold. Here's what you do, and you should be able to achieve this by hand:

1. Dig a big (wide, not necessarily deep) hole where you are going to put the tree and have a mix of black earth and your original soil ready to fill. Pre-soak the hole with some kind of rooting fertilizer, or add bonemeal or something.

2. Dig around the tree to the same diameter as the hole in (1). Go through roots if you have to. Lever the tree out of the hole using forks, crowbars, whatever, and shake the soil off. (When I did this we used a tractor with a spade on it -- you're going to have to improvise. Your aim is to get a bare root tree that you can actually move by hand. This is going to be challenging.

If you are not transplanting IMMEDIATELY, wrap the roots in burlap and keep them moist.

3. Put the tree in the new hole. Backfill with half the earth, add more rooting compound or bonemeal, and fill with the rest of the earth. Cover the roots but no more.

Now you hope for the best, and keep the tree well-watered in the first year.

Now, I must warn you about what's going to happen. A lot of the tree is going to die off because it no longer has enough root system to service the upper part. It will look really scraggy and you'll have lots of bare branches as it tries to establish new roots. You may find that the old tree part basically dies and the root system sends up entirely new, extremely vigorious, shoots. But it will probably live (I've done this with about 20 silver maple and I think we only lost one or two, and that was because we didn't dig a big enough hole, and didn't use black earth I think).
posted by unSane at 6:42 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might be able to hand-dig the tree free, but, if you left an appropriate root ball intact, you'll be hard-pressed to physically move it out of the hole without damaging the tree, or you, or both.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:43 AM on September 19, 2012

Yeah, that's why my method frees the roots and transports the tree bare-rooted. It's a horrible way to move a tree but sometimes you have no choice.
posted by unSane at 6:45 AM on September 19, 2012

Wow, I'm glad I asked this question here. Most helpful replies! Yes, I do think it will be impossible to move enough rootball with just human strength. The bare-root transport idea is intriguing but no, I'd rather not take the chance on survival and/or look at a sgraggly, half-dead tree for a season or more.

I think I will go with Fauxscot's idea - planting a new tree where I want it and keeping the original for as long as makes sense, then cut it down. Brilliant! Easy! Probably cheapest!

Thanks everyone.
posted by kirst27 at 7:39 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my area, the power company will trim trees around the power lines for free - it may not do a pretty job, but it's thorough and doesn't require me to trim near power lines. Yours might do so as well, and it wouldn't hurt to check with them.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:43 AM on September 19, 2012

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