What Is A Transplant Spade: Using Transplant Spades In The Garden

What Is A Transplant Spade: Using Transplant Spades In The Garden

Almost every gardener has a shovel, and probably a trowel too. And while you can get a long way with a few simple tools, it’s sometimes nice to have the perfect utensil for the job. One such item is the transplant spade. Keep reading to learn more about how and when to use a transplant spade in the garden.

What is a Transplant Spade?

A transplant spade looks a lot like a modified shovel. It has a long handle that makes it easy to use from a standing position. Instead of being wide and tapered for moving soil, however, the blade is slender, long, and the same width all the way down. And rather than coming to a point, the bottom of the blade often has a gentler curve to it. This shape is intended to penetrate the soil rather than move it, creating a trench of loosened soil around the plant that’s going to be transplanted.

When to Use a Transplant Spade

Transplant spades are ideal for deep rooted shrubs and perennials. Using transplanting spades on smaller plants isn’t unheard of, of course, and if you want to move your annuals or shallow rooted perennials with it, there’s no reason not to. The key, however, is in the extra depth you can get with its long, narrow shape.

Transplant spades are designed for digging a ring almost straight down around a root ball and then leveraging it out of the ground. They can be used to loosen the soil in the new transplant location.

They also work well for dividing plants in order to separate and transplant them. Simply position the bottom of the blade at the point you want to divide and press straight down – you should get a clean cut through the root ball that you can then lever out of the ground.

SERIES 25 Episode 04

Angus shares some advice on moving native plants

"I've sold up my bush block after eight years," says Angus. "It's a real wrench to leave, in many ways, because you do grow attached to things. And I've got to tell you, I really can't bear to part with some of my plants, so I've done a deal that allows me to take some of the more precious ones with me."

"When you're relocating plants, it's important to have the sharpest spade in the shed. It'll make the job a lot easier and you'll do less damage to the roots. Strappy-leafed plants like Kangaroo Paws and Lomandra are really simple to do." Angus points out a Lomandra hystrix as an example - one of the Mat-rushes (Green Mat-Rush). "Dig around the clump and take as big a root ball as possible and shake out the dirt so you can see what you're doing."

"In my experience, one of the major causes of death during transplanting is excessive moisture loss due to transpiration - that is, the leaves giving off moisture into the atmosphere. Well there's a really simple solution to that. I just reduce the foliage by at least a half which means much less demand for moisture while the roots are recovering. When you've potted up the divisions, put them in a sheltered spot to recover."

Angus has also been breeding a grafted form of the Red Flowering Gum (Corymbia ficifolia cv.) from Western Australia that he thinks could be a promising new cultivar. "It's a beautiful reddish-pink," he says, "so I particularly want to take it with me. Now a couple of months ago, I did prepare by digging around the roots, but before I lift it, I need to reduce the canopy by about a half - just to reduce the moisture loss. Regardless of the type of plant you're moving, fruit and flowers are a drain, so simply remove them." He demonstrates by snipping away the blossom and buds.

He explains the key to moving bigger native plants like the Flowering Gum is early preparation. He cut around the root system of the plant with a sharp spade eight weeks ahead of time. "It gives the existing roots a chance to heal and grow new feeder roots around the cut surfaces. This gives your plant a much better chance of survival when you finally do the transplant."

Angus says timing is also crucial when moving plants. "You shouldn't transplant anything that's actively growing otherwise pruning will simply stimulate new growth and demand for water." He wraps the gum's rootball in hessian because it's less traumatic for the root system than attempting to force it into a pot. He also ensures the rootball comes away in one piece.

"Don't overdo it when you're lifting the plant out - make sure you get a helping hand," he advises. He ties together the hessian sack with twine. "I didn't get as big a rootball as I'd hoped for, but I think it'll still do the job."

He also sprays the leaves with a coating that slows moisture loss. "I'm applying a biodegradable anti-transpirant, because every little thing you can do will increase your chances of success. It's important to get your tree planted into its new home as soon as possible - especially if it's had a bit of extra root disturbance - and in the meantime, make sure that you don't let the rootball dry out at all."

"Now people get emotionally attached to all sorts of things in life, but for me, it's my plants," says Angus. "It takes a long time to establish a mature specimen, so it's well worth taking the time and the effort to transplant them and take them with you."

Planting and transplanting trees and shrubs

When planting and transplanting trees and shrubs, it's important to consider the site conditions and the type of tree stock. There are recommended trees for each region of Minnesota that will perform well in their specific environment.

After planting, take care of the new tree or shrub by watering, mulching, fertilizing, pruning, staking and exercising winter care.

Planning the site

The conditions of the planting site are as important as the plant. Consider soil type and drainage, available water and sunlight, exposure to drying winds and other factors.

Matching the needs of the plant to the site increases the plant’s performance and longevity.

The first step in checking the condition of the planting site is to examine the soil. Is it sandy and well drained? Is it moist with some organic material? Is it heavy, wet and compacted clay?

Construction practices such as cutting and filling, installation of underground utilities, and backfilling against foundations can create different soil structures. This variability can change with depth and between planting locations on the same property. Investigate each planting site.

Soil texture and drainage

  • Soil texture and drainage are closely related.
    • Sandy soils are well drained, and have large pore spaces and poor water-holding capabilities. They are associated with dry conditions.
    • Clay soils have much smaller pore spaces, are poorly drained and can suffocate plant roots.
  • The pore spaces in soil are very important to plant growth because the oxygen that occupies them is essential to healthy roots.
  • A tree planted in poorly drained soil will be slow to establish, lack vigor, and often will slowly die.
  • A poorly drained soil
    • is high in moisture but low in oxygen
    • prevents proper root development
    • slows growth of beneficial soil microorganisms that are responsible for decomposing organic matter and releasing plant nutrients

Checking and improving soil drainage

  • Check soil drainage before planting.
    • Dig a hole 18 inches deep, fill it with water, and let it stand overnight.
    • If the water has not drained by morning, there is a drainage problem.
    • Do not test the drainage in this manner after heavy rainfall or before the ground has thawed in the spring.
  • If soil drainage is poor, consider planting species that are tolerant of poorly drained soils or improving soil drainage.
  • If a hard pan is present (a compacted, impermeable layer of soil) with an underlying layer of well-drained soil, dig a hole down to the permeable layer to provide drainage for the planting hole.
  • If the soil is poorly drained and there is no well-drained layer below, build a tile system.
    • This is expensive and requires the assistance of a professional for proper design.
    • Simply adding gravel to the bottom of the planting hole will further decrease oxygen availability to the root system.

Compacted soil

  • Compaction of the soil by vehicles or people can reduce pore space and restrict water infiltration.
  • In compacted soil, oxygen is depleted, carbon dioxide accumulates, and root penetration is reduced.
    • This causes physical damage to the roots of existing trees.
  • Aerating the soil will help correct the problem.

Soil pH

  • Soil pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a soil.
    • A pH below 7 (7 is neutral) would indicate an acid soil, and a pH above 7 indicates an alkaline soil.
    • Calcium carbonate or lime raises soil pH.
  • Many plants have an optimal range of pH. Most trees thrive on a pH between 5.5 and 6.5.
    • Consider plant species that will tolerate a high pH for areas with buried concrete, near foundations, or sidewalks, etc.
    • Plant species considered tolerant of high pH (greater than 7.0, but less than 8.0) include: green ash, white ash, amur corktree, ginkgo, hackberry, honeylocust, and Russian olive.
    • Evergreens perform best in slightly acidic conditions.
    • There are some exceptions: arborvitae, ponderosa pine, and Colorado blue spruce can tolerate a wider pH range (6.5-7.3).
  • Before a plant is planted on a particular site, conduct a soil test to determine possible pH problems or nutrient deficiencies.

Newly planted trees or shrubs require more frequent watering than established trees and shrubs. Depending on rainfall amounts, you may need to water your newly planted tree or shrub by hand.

Water immediately after you plant the tree or shrub. This reduces transplant stress and helps settle soil around the roots.

Apply water directly over the root zone of the plant.

  • Apply 1-1.5 gallons per inch of trunk diameter. For example, a tree with a 1-inch diameter trunk requires at least 1 gallon of water at each watering.
  • Newly planted shrubs require about 1/4 to 1/3 of the volume of the container that the shrub was purchased in.

Water your new tree or shrub as follows, depending on rainfall amounts.

  • Water every day for 1 to 2 weeks after planting.
  • Water every 2 to 3 days for 12 weeks after planting.
  • After 12 weeks, water weekly until roots are established.

A steady 1-inch rain may replace one day of watering. Mulching the root area of your plant will also help hold in moisture. When in doubt, feel the soil around your plant.

Planting in wet conditions

Standing water or a high water table means low oxygen content in the soil. Select plants that are tolerant of excess water for low areas where water may be standing or very close to the surface, or where a heavy clay soil exists.

  • Trees that tolerate moisture: river birch, larch, hackberry, bicolor oak, red maple.
  • Shrubs that tolerate moisture: silverberry, willow, alder, leatherwood, swamp rose, elderberry.

Planting in dry conditions

Drought tolerant trees can withstand extended periods with little water and are best suited for sandy soils.

  • Trees that tolerate dry soil conditions: ginkgo, hackberry, Kentucky coffeetree, northern catalpa, honeylocust, serviceberry, hawthorn, linden.
  • Shrubs that tolerate dry soil conditions: sumac, alpine currant, hydrangea, elderberry, buffaloberry, spirea, potentilla, ninebark, viburnum, lilac.

For more plant choices, visit our plant selection database, Plant Elements of Design.

  • Although some plants can tolerate low light conditions, most require full sun to maintain their vigor and attain their full potential.
  • Trees that are more shade tolerant include: green ash, white ash, river birch, ironwood, Kentucky coffeetree, American linden, Norway maple, hackberry, red maple and sugar maple.
  • Some plants may require some protective shade to prevent leaf scorch and desiccation.

The location of the planting site in relation to other trees and objects such as buildings, fences, etc. will affect temperature and moisture conditions.

  • Prevailing westerly winds will have a drying effect on non-protected sites.
  • The south side of a building will be much warmer and drier than the north side.
  • The warming effect of the sun on a cold winter day can cause injury to the bark and may cause the tree trunk to split.
    • For evergreens, this warming can cause water loss and needle damage when the temperature is again lowered.
  • The amount of protection provided by individual microclimates can affect plant hardiness.

Different tree and shrub stocks

  • Bare root plants are dug from nursery fields in the fall or spring. Soil is removed from the roots, and plants are held in humidity and temperature controlled storage over winter.
  • Plant them in early spring before growth begins.
  • Many roots are cut during field digging, so bare root plants suffer severely from transplanting shock.
  • Bare root stock is normally the least expensive, but if handled improperly, can have the highest mortality.
  • When handling or transporting bare root stock, keep the roots moist and protected from sun and wind at all times.
  • Packaged trees and shrubs are bare root plants with their roots packed in moist material such as peat moss or shingle tow.
  • Plant them in early spring before growth starts.
  • Keep packing materials moist, and the package cool and shaded until planted.
  • Treat these plants as bare root plants.
  • Field-potted nursery stock are field-grown plants dug with a ball of field soil intact, then placed in a container.
  • Sell and plant them during the spring, as field soil will not provide good plant growth in a container.
  • Disturb the root ball as little as possible during the digging and planting process.
  • Containerized trees and shrubs are dug from the nursery in the spring or fall as bare root stock.
  • They are then placed and sold in a container with a special growing medium
  • If containerized in early spring, most plants will be sufficiently established in the container. Transplant them in late spring, summer or fall.
  • Roots must be established in the container and hold the media together before transplanting.
  • Do not completely break up the root ball at planting time, but do cut any circling roots prior to planting.
  • The tighter the root ball, the more the root system should be disturbed.
  • Container grown stock has been growing in a container throughout most of its life.
  • Container grown plants suffer little transplant shock because their roots are not disturbed during planting.
  • Plant them any time during the growing season.
  • Plants that have outgrown their containers may have deformed root systems, which can result in girdling roots.
  • Large plants may be root bound in the container. The root ball of these plants must be torn or cut open to eliminate subsequent circling or girdling roots.

Balled and burlapped (B & B)

  • Balled and burlapped trees and shrubs are dug with a firm ball of soil around the roots, and held securely in place with burlap, twine, and sometimes a wire basket.
  • A broken, damaged or dry soil ball can result in serious damage to the roots. The stem should not wobble in the soil ball.
  • B & B trees can be difficult to transport and plant without special equipment because of the weight of the soil ball.
  • B & B stock is often the most expensive, but if handled and planted properly, is as reliable as container grown stock.
  • Always lift B & B plants from beneath the ball, never by the stem.
  • Plant B&B stock in spring, summer and fall.

Larger plants are often moved with a tree spade, a machine that digs a mass of soil including the plant and some of its roots.


  • Tree spade may be the best option if a tree will otherwise be lost or if the value of the tree outweighs the moving costs.
  • Spading also saves labor, planting time and years of maintenance of the juvenile tree.
  • It eliminates the possible risk of mower damage that commonly occurs on younger, smaller trees.

Planning to use a tree spade

  • The plant and root ball may stay in the machine until it is planted into a pre-dug matching hole, or it may be placed in a wire basket lined with burlap.
  • The size of the root ball is critical and species dependent.
  • Matching soils from the dig site to the planting site is important, as is compaction within the planting hole.
    • Roughing up the sides of the hole can offset some of this compaction.
  • Plants can be moved in most seasons with a spade.
    • Plants dug in summer and early fall should have an oversized ball and receive special attention relative to species, condition, handling and irrigation.
  • Many native trees that have grown in the wild should not be transplanted to open, exposed locations.

Tree spade sizes for deciduous and evergreen trees

Tree spade size Deciduous tree - trunk diameter Evergreen tree - height
44 inches 2 to 3 inches 5 to 7 feet
66 inches 3 to 5 inches 7 to 10 feet
92 inches 6 to 8 inches 12 to 15 feet

Due to safety issues, and the complexity of the equipment and processes involved, it is strongly recommended that individuals hire an experienced contractor specializing in tree spading to transplant trees. An experienced machine operator can make the difference between success and failure.

Prior to planting with a tree spade, locate all utilities to prevent cutting through wires, cables, etc. Call the Gopher State utility location numbers as follows:

GREATER MINNESOTA: 1-800-252-1166

Make the call at no charge. It is better to be safe than sorry.


Transporting nursery plants

  • Take special care when transporting plants from the nursery.
  • The proper vehicle, a truck or trailer, can reduce the risk of injury from loading and unloading.
  • Protect leaves and needles from the sun and wind by wrapping or covering while in transit.
  • Cushion stems and branches from injury.
  • Always tie the plants down securely and avoid high speed travel.

Preparing the planting hole

Successful planting starts with proper site preparation. Digging the hole for a new plant is the first step.

  • The hole should be at least 1-2 feet wider than the size of the root system (except for direct tree spade planted trees).
    • Make the hole as wide or wider at the bottom than at the top.
    • A larger hole will allow for better root growth, especially in poor soil.
  • Roughen the sides of the hole with a shovel.
  • Planting depth is critical.
    • For compacted clay soils or poorly drained soils, plants should be planted at or slightly higher than the depth that they drew in the nursery.
    • For B&B plants, plant the tree or shrub so that almost 1/3 of the height of the soil ball is above ground level after planting. This will improve oxygen availability to the roots.
  • Allow for settling, especially if the hole has been dug deep and backfilled.
  • Eliminate air pockets by watering during and after backfilling.
  • Amend poor soils with organic material or loamy topsoil depending on the improvement needed.
    • Do not use peat for poorly drained, clayey soils, as it can act as a sump and draw too much water into the planting hole.
    • Never completely backfill with a soil amendment only create a transition zone to the existing soil where the roots must eventually grow.
    • Too much soil amendment can create moisture gradients and cause roots to be confined to the planting hole.
  • Remove rocks and debris from the hole.
    • Never put rocks or gravel in the bottom of the hole to improve drainage unless it is connected to a drain tile.

Gardening Shovels

Shovels are a gardening must-have. You can dig, chop, scoop, and pry easily with a quality shovel. The design of a shovel makes slicing straight lines difficult, but it makes most other gardening tasks a breeze.

Types Of Shovels

Digging shovel

Digging shovels are the most common shovel in a homeowner’s shed. This shovel is perfect for digging up or dividing plants, moving soil, and cutting through roots and tough soil.

These shovels have a curved-scoop blade with a rounded, pointy tip and a footpad. The handles of a digging shovel can be long or short.

Scooping shovel

When you need to relocate large amounts of dirt, compost, or gravel fast, a scoop shovel is the answer.

These shovels have a wide, flat blade, with a straight tip. The blade has sides to keep the material from falling off during use.

Trenching shovel

Trenching shovels can be a gardeners friend when you need to clear long trenches for laying out vegetables or to install soaker hoses.

These types of shovels have a long handle. The blades feature squared-off sides, slightly pointed tip, and an elongated, slim shape that clears away dirt quickly.

Trowel shovel

When you need a small hand tool in the garden for repotting, weeding, and planting a trowel is the only shovel for the job.

The grip of the handle directly attaches to the pointed blade giving you all the control you need to handle minor garden tasks in tight spaces.

Multi-purpose shovel

A multi-purpose shovel incorporates all the blade features you may need while gardening.

This multi-duty tool has a blade wide enough to dig and move soil. It also has teeth on the outer edges of the blade to cut through roots, grass, or impacted earth.

Shovel features

A shovel has an angle or bend where the handle connects to the blade. This design makes it easier to scoop and lift loose material. The shape also provides more force when prying up tough dirt or digging out rocks.

Blade Choices

Like spades, you can find many blade options like:

  • Round and pointed/Square and flat
  • Flat/Concave base
  • Angular
  • Serrated
  • Footpads

Each blade option can make performing different garden jobs easier than others.

Shovel handles can be long or short. I find long-handled shovels easier on the back when turning over garden soil or gathering up compost. Short-handled shovels are nice in tight areas.

Shovel blades are steel. Handles can be wood, fiberglass, or metal. D-handle grips can be metal or plastic. Many long-handle shovels offer a foam or rubber grip at the end, just like shorter D-handle types.

What is a shovel used for?

A shovel has a design made to move loose material from one area to another efficiently.

I find a garden shovel indispensable when digging holes for new shrubs, turning the soil, lifting out plants, scraping up mulch, and prying up stones.

A shovel can fill a wheelbarrow with dirt or compost quickly.

Quick Tips: Small & Large Transplants

  • Any tree larger than 3 to 4 inches in diameter should be dug up and transplanted by a professional. The process is too shocking if done by hand.
  • If you have to have the tree and the subsequent root ball out of the soil for longer than a few hours, wrap the root ball in a moistened burlap wrap and keep it wet until you’re ready to replant.
  • If you need to move a tree in the hot sun, then you should be prepared to provide plenty of shade after the transplantation is complete—your tree’s leaves will be extra susceptible to the sun’s heat.

Watch the video: Awesome Machine - Moving and Transplanting Trees with a Tree Spade