Cutting Tree Roots Without Killing A Tree

Tree transplanting takes much more time and expertise than your typical tree care duties.

Why? Well, transplanting requires tampering with tree roots. Sprawling roots have lots of responsibilities—like anchoring a tree in place, transporting water and storing nutrients. That’s why cutting roots before transplanting can do some serious damage, and in the worst case, even kill a tree.

Before you attempt to prune roots on your own, read below to learn how to keep your tree as safe as possible in the process.

Root prep before tree transplanting

The transplanting process starts with tree root pruning. Trees can’t keep all of their roots in the move, so your task is to prune roots to establish a new root ball, which will eventually be transported to the new planting site.

How to prune roots before transplanting

Before diving in, take these steps:

  1. Measure the diameter of your tree by wrapping a measuring tape around the tree, four feet from the tree’s base. Then, divide that number by 3.14. Generally, you can safely prune roots that are 3-5 times the diameter away from your tree. So, if your tree has a diameter of 3 feet, only cut tree roots 9-15 feet away from the tree.
  2. Decide on the best next step. For your safety and for the health of your tree, you should avoid cutting tree roots if a) the roots are thicker than 2 inches wide, or b) the tree is more than 2 inches in diameter. Instead, ask a professional arborist to handle the job.
  3. The best time to prune roots of a tree to be transplanted depends on whether you are moving it in spring or in fall. Those which will be transplanted in fall (October-November) should be pruned in summer after leaf-out. If Spring planting is desired (March-April) then root pruning should take place in late fall-early winter. Depending on tree type 6 months is usually the optimum wait time between root pruning and transplanting.

Now, here’s how to cut tree roots:

  1. Determine the size of the new root ball. It should be 10 to 12 inches for each inch of trunk diameter.
  2. Mark a circle around the tree that’s the width of the new root ball.
  3. At least 24 hours before cutting roots, water the soil.
  4. With a sharp spade, use the circle as a guide to cut into tree roots, going about a foot deep.

How to remove tree roots from the ground for transplanting

When it’s time to transplant, take a shovel about 5 inches outside of the circle you made for your new root ball. Then, dig around the root ball about 1 or 2 feet deep, and cut under the roots to lift the ball.

Will cutting the roots kill my tree?

Quite a few factors determine whether or not your tree will survive root pruning, like its age, its overall health or how many roots you prune. Transplanting comes with risks, and there are no guarantee trees won’t suffer damage. But the best way to avoid a fatal cut is following best practices, including only transplanting small trees, doing the job at the right time of year, and not cutting too many roots. Perhaps the most important best practice: call an arborist if you’re not completely comfortable pruning roots on your own.

How many tree roots can I cut?

Unfortunately, there is no good rule of thumb for how many tree roots you can cut because every root system is different.

Will cut tree roots grow back?

Only time will tell. If the roots are cut clean, they could regenerate new ones. Our best advice is to contact your local certified arborists.

Root prep before planting the relocated tree

Once you have a root ball ready to be placed in its new home, what’s next? Do you break up the root ball when planting?

Nope! In fact, you should do absolutely everything you can to keep the root ball together. To do that, make sure you have a large piece of burlap on hand when you’re about to lift the tree. Gently roll the root ball onto the burlap, tie it up, and carefully transport the tree.

How long does it take for a transplanted tree to root?

On the low end, it will be a year before your tree starts to grow again after transplanting. But often, trees need even more time than that. Some trees take 2, 3 or up to 5 years to fully recover from transplanting.

Tree transplanting can be tricky. Contact your local Davey arborist for help!

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