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How to successfully transplant a mature tree

The relocation of large and mature trees has come a long way during the past 20 years in South Africa. We can now be regarded as world leaders in the relocation of large trees, specifically in the challenging Mediterranean regions in South Africa.

But let’s first start off by defining the term “successfully transplant”. Anybody that can apply the yellow machines and big cranes, can transplant a tree or the remains of a tree from point A to point B. However, to “successfully” transplant a tree, the typical architecture of the species may not be altered, the full extent of the tree must stay alive, and the tree must thrive without the aid of artificial watering. Hence, success can only be determined two years post relocation in the case of a smaller tree and 5 years later in the case of the largest trees.

It should also be made clear that the art of relocating trees as discussed in this article, does not include the transplanting of palms trees, which is regarded as a relatively simple task for the yellow machines and low bed truck operators. It also excludes the transplanting of trees for which no minimum root ball is required such as for example baobabs and cycads.

Aspects to be considered when assessing the viability to transplant a tree are listed in order of most important to least important:

  • The size of the tree. The bigger, the less viable and the longer the rehabilitation period.
  • The tree species.
  • The type of soil where the tree to be transplanted occurs.
  • The root distribution within the root ball zone – a result of soil type and soil moisture patterns, often influenced by irrigation in the immediate surroundings.
  • The health of the tree.
  • The age of the tree.
  • The space available to prepare a minimum diameter root ball.
  • Access for a crane truck/crane to establish and manoeuvre, on both the harvesting as well as the new location sites.
  • Any obstacles along the route to be transported.
  • Reliable water availability at the new site.

Should the transplant be considered as viable, the following process and important techniques should be followed:

  • The best time of the year should be determined, should there be no time constraints, which rarely is the case.
  • Prepare an appropriate size root ball in relation to the size of the tree. A general rule of thumb for the root ball diameter is 10cm for every cm stem diameter. However, there is a lot of variation from this rule based on very specific knowledge.
  • Excavating and shaping a root ball into a “cup” shape should be done by hand. Big roots must be sawn with a saw. Indiscriminate use of heavy equipment results in torn roots with lifelong unhealed root wounds.
  • The root ball must be bound firmly with hessian and ungalvanized 90mm hole size wire netting (international standards) that can stay on the root ball when the tree is planted in its new position. Plastic wrapping is a cheap and easy alternative, which is not recommended, but is sometimes better than no wrapping at all.
  • Except in the case of deciduous trees in full dormancy, trees should never be lifted (with straps) attached to the stem.
  • The most critical and hence the most challenging task is to keep the root ball intact during the process of lifting, transporting and planting in its new planting location.
  • Shrink the canopy to reduce its size by tying branches in for transportation on public roads, rather than just taking the easy way out by cutting branches to fit the road.
  • During planting and backfilling ensure that there are no underground air cavities and ensure that the root ball cannot move during strong winds, else make sure to stake the tree firmly.
  • Water the tree appropriately resulting in the wetting of 100% of the root ball WITHOUT drowning the tree. For large trees it is of critical importance to install a computer controlled multi-drip point irrigation system
  • Specialist tree and soil moisture monitoring and corrective adjustments and care for up to five years in the case of the largest trees, is of paramount importance.

Outdated concepts and techniques, some of which are still being taught in horticulture:

  • Trenching the root ball and back-filling as a form of conditioning for relocation is desirable in theory, but due to time and budget constraints, never happens in practice.
  • Reducing the crown canopy prior to relocation should not be done.
  • Sealing any branch cutting surface wounds with sealant does more harm than good.
  • It is not necessary to plant the tree in its new location facing the same direction as where it came from.

Final remark: If you consider relocating a tree, do it the correct way, any short cuts to save money will result in wasting whatever money you did spend, as well as losing the tree.

We are the experts in mature tree relocation. Our track record is our guarantee. In 2019, we won 4 Golden SALI awards for the successful relocation of very large trees. Read more on the individual projects below.


The video below shows our precision, care and success!

This article was written by Dag Willems 

( Conservation Forestry US)

Owner of Trees SA.


It was published in the Prolandscaper July 2019 edition.

Follow the link below to access the magazine edition for free.



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