How and when to transplant oak saplings?
November 28, 2019 8:39 AM   Subscribe

I have about a dozen tiny (1 ft high) and medium (2-3ft high) oak saplings scattered around my yard in places where they will not be able to mature. Could any mefi friends of plants and trees point me the right direction for resources or give me an orientation?

My dream is to move them to places where there is plenty of room to grow, but I have no idea how to get started and google hasn’t been helpful. I am in the Philadelphia suburbs.
posted by lagreen to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's not much to it. Make a little hole where you want the sapling to go, dig it out and move it. Now's a good time of year. If the soil's heavy, it's worth loosening up the soil in the area around the chosen spot, just to give the roots an easier job to establish. Throwing in a little mycorrhizal fungi (available in granular form) is an extra thing I'd do, if you can get where you are; it's helped saplings establish well for me.
posted by pipeski at 9:02 AM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

The best times are late fall and early spring, right now is actually pretty ideal if you can still work the soil. Try to make sure you plant them at the same soil depth the are now. They will settle, so you want them to look like they sit atop a small mound when you first plant them.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:05 AM on November 28, 2019

When I move things about that size that have grown from a seed I use a spade to cut out a square of a spade's width on a side and full spade depth. Then carefully break out the base and move to a new location. This way there's not much settling, and you preserve more roots.
posted by unearthed at 9:48 AM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

San Francisco Gate has a guide, with details on how much space to give a sapling (24-inch diameter on the earth around the tree trunk, and 10 inches down, which doesn't seem deep enough, from my past efforts trying to transplant saplings and only getting really long tap roots). Good luck!
posted by filthy light thief at 3:43 PM on November 28, 2019

If you can do it now, do it now. Don't smush up the soil too close to the trunk, you want the slight flare above the soil line. Fluff the roots and if you mulch, keep it away from the root flare. You don't want it to look like a lollipop stuck in the ground. I hope that makes sense. (Probably just transplanting it at the depth at which you dug it out is fine.)

If you live with deer pressure you'll maybe want to protect them with chicken wire.

I believe oaks are mainly tap-rooted, meaning they grow down like a carrot as opposed to spreading horizontally like a maple (their root systems are huge so this is a rough generalization) but my understanding is that this is why it's good to transplant oaks when they are quite young, so you can get a good amount of the root system.

Plant them twenty, thirty feet away from each other, where they'll get a good amount of sun. They mature very slowly so it's not like there will be a dense forest tomorrow. You could plant them closer together, and just accept that at some point, there will be a reckoning.

One nice thing about planting very young trees is it makes it really easy to build a small garden around their base with ferns or hostas or heuchera and while they pay-off is slow on the tree, you can make a lovely little garden around it without disrupting roots and it will mature with the tree. You'd want shade-loving plants that can tolerate sun.

Oaks take a long time to get....oak-sized. You probably know that. They're great & super important to native ecosystems -- I have some I keep meaning to move around too....maybe I will tomorrow, when I'm recovering from Thanksgiving.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:56 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you all so much for your help. Excited to hear that now is the time to act!
posted by lagreen at 4:29 AM on November 29, 2019

One final note: oaks are sensitive and/or finicky transplanters. They do best from seed, but because you have saplings in the wrong places, there's no reason to not move them. Just don't expect all, or many, to take.

For example, mitigation for oak removal often requires more new plants than other trees because of the lower success rate, even with nursery-bought oak saplings.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:20 PM on November 29, 2019

Question: since oaks create so many seedlings unaided and are not endangered, why do you want to transplant the starts? There will be more, every year.
posted by tmdonahue at 12:57 PM on December 2, 2019

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