How to Transplant a Shrub

Digging Boxwoods and larger shrubs

  'Winter Gem' Boxwood next to a Japanese Maple

'Winter Gem' Boxwood next to a Japanese Maple


Tracey emailed Bob with this question:

"I live in a 50 year old home and I have 2 lovely full grown boxwood shrubs seem to get up to 4ft tall and 6-7ft wide. I don't know how old they are but they are in very good condition. They are planted near the home foundation in a wide skinny bed boxed in by the brick foundation wall and a concrete walkway. The bed is rectangular, about 2.5-3ft wide/deep by 15ft long. I want to transplant these to another area of yard. What is the best way to dig up and transplant these shrubs to ensure successful survival? Any advice that you have will be greatly appreciated. Thanks so much!"

BOB: If transplanting can wait until next fall, root-prune the Boxwoods just inside their branch-tips to a depth of 12 to 18 inches with a sharp spade (slant the cut inward to create a tapered rootball) now and move them next fall, since this will improve your chances of success.

Large shrubs are difficult to transplant successfully, especially when working in tight quarters next to a house and other shrubbery. It's important to get a large enough root ball that's intact, and large rootballs too heavy for many people to handle, so you may want to contract a professional landscaper or nurseryman for this project.

 B&B trees and shrubs heeled-in with shredded bark mulch at a nursery in Spring.

B&B trees and shrubs heeled-in with shredded bark mulch at a nursery in Spring.

How to transplant B&B (balled & burlapped) shrubs:

  • Thoroughly water the shrub 3 to 5 days before transplanting if rain has been sparse, and mark the side facing south so it can be replanted with that same orientation.
  • Use some baling twine or lightweight rope to "lasso" the branches, drawing them inward with spiraling wraps from bottom to top, as this will make the root area more accessible.
  • On larger shrubs (over 2 feet x 2 feet) first cut the roots just inside the branch tips all the way around with a sharp spade while slanting downward and inward. Larger rootballs should then have a trench dug outside that initial root cut, all the way around, to make further work with the spade and final undercutting of the rootball easier, since it will be more accessible. Shape the rootball with the spade, making clean cuts on roots as you trench downward around the ball. Leave yourself an exit route when piling-up soil around the hole.
 Notice how the rootballs have been tapered inward toward the bottom and wrapped with burlap. Large rootballs like these are also "caged" with wire baskets or twine drum-lacing secured to tree trunks.

Notice how the rootballs have been tapered inward toward the bottom and wrapped with burlap. Large rootballs like these are also "caged" with wire baskets or twine drum-lacing secured to tree trunks.

  • Locate a large square of burlap or heavy square of cloth to wrap the rootball, which helps hold it together during the move (you can use a tarp or synthetic material but it will have to be removed before replanting). Once the earth ball is shaped (similar to a tapered bottle cork) and undercut at a depth of about 18 to 24 inches give or take, tilt the rootball to one side so you can bunch-up extra burlap or strong cloth underneath, then tilt the rootball back the other way to pull out the excess burlap on the opposite side. Two people can then use the four burlap corners to lift the shrub out of the hole. Once out of the ground, bring opposite corners together (over top of the rootball) and tie them together.
    Note: Smaller rootballs can be carefully lifted out of the hole without burlap wrap if the soil ball has stayed intact, but be sure to always lift plants by the rootball (not the top of the plant) as you may otherwise cause root damage.