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Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

img 1827 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Yes we all do it, plant a plant in the wrong spot or a spot that for various reasons, ends up being the wrong spot in the end. But what to do with it? The cost of mature plants is a fair bit of £££ now and it’s such a shame to lose such a beautiful plant, and there’s that new perfect spot, Just there in the corner, it’s a perfect size, will cover that item you would like to hide quite nicely but the plants just too big to put a spade around it and heave it up. So what’s the best way of moving it and giving it the best choice of surviving. The answer is of course is to lift it with a root ball attached. This rootball is a area of fibrous roots still in their soil just lifted carefully. The key work is fibrous root system, plants that produce more of a tap root or fang type root system. Tools needed for this job are a digging spade and fork, a border spade and fork, a sheet of hessian sacking and if you are doing a lot of them, a sack needle and 4ply string.

The method is pretty easy but does take time and practise to perfect it, this is a roughly how I do it

img 1867 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Working out the size of the rootball can be tricky, there’s no method that allows you to work out the size but more comes down to the age of the plant and how long has it been in there for. For this size shrub that’s been in the ground for a few years, I went big at just over a length of a spade. Bearing in mind it’s the fine fibrous roots you are after and they are normally found on the drip line of the shrub/tree. Once I have worked out the estimated size of the rootball, I go around the outside of the plant a little bit bigger than I require, with a spade, pushing the spade into the ground to the full depth all the way around. This is to cut though any roots that are there

img 0620 1 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Next step to work out the exit point ie the point where you want to remove the plant from the hole. It’s important to think of it now before you start digging. Once that’s worked out, start digging a trench around the outside of your spade cut that you have made already. The areas shaded red in picture above.

img 1821 1 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

You can see the trench is formed now and the exit point has been kept clear. You need to go down a couple of spades deep. This area is your working channel for the next bit

img 1824 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Now using a fork, gently tease back the soil until you hit the fine roots like in the picture, this bit takes time, it’s best to do a little at a time and work your way around the rootball doing this. Once you have teased some soil away, clear it out of the trench. You have to tease the soil away without putting any pressure on the rootball, so it’s almost like a flick away more than a tease. As you do this around the plant, it is also time to start going underneath as well. This is more tricky but follows the same method of going around the outside but this time you are going under! Using the curved in part of the fork, start making a slight V shape underneath the plant, again flicking the fork rather than put pressure on the rootball. Dig under the bottom of the V to give yourself a little more room. Just keep on going around until you are at least a third (preferably a bit more like 4/10ths) under on each half. Any roots can be either cut with a saw if big or just a sideways movement of the fork will snap them

img 1827 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

img 1133 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Then you should get to a stage when the plant will be able to start moving slowly and should be able to break free of the ground. This is the time you need to be very careful of any cracks forming, these cracks can quickly destabilise the rootball making it fall apart. The stop them, it’s a case of reducing more soil from around the cracked area and so reducing the pressure on that part.

img 1868 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Next part is to get a sheet of hessian sacking that’s approx 1m bigger in length and width than the root ball you are lifting the roll the width up until 2/3 or 1/2 way up. Then fit it underneath the rootball so the rolled upside is soil side and the flat side is rootball side. Then push this under the rootball as far as it can go, gently push the plant over slightly onto the hessian, clear a bit of soil from underneath section that was still attached and unroll and pull the hessian though, having it rolled side down makes it so much easier to pull through!

img 1135 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

Then grab the two left hand corners of the hessian and wrap together until it’s tight to the rootball and then do the same of the other side and there it is ready to lift out!

img 1137 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

If it’s too heavy to lift out of the hole, you can either make a ramp to drag it out or lay the plant on its side, add a bit of soil underneath the rootball and then push it over on top it’s opposite side and add more soil, keep on doing this until the plant is at top of the hole and can be slid out onto boards

img 1829 Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

It’s not an easy job, indeed it can take many years of trail and error to get right but it is certainly a skill that’s worth mastering in the garden!

7 thoughts on “Step by step guide to Rootballing shrubs and small trees

  1. Very informative Thomas but gosh I hope I never have to do it!!

    1. Thank you Julie, it’s a very rewarding job to do, always worth a go on a smaller plant

  2. I did it 10 years ago for a big rhododendron that was north of my garden, sickly and poor in flowers. I had to use a wheelbarrow and 2 people to move it to its new location. I was able to enjoy its flowering after 2 years and I don’t regret having done. Great blog post to explain how to do!

    1. Thank you Fred 😀, it’s certainly a hard old job to do isn’t, the hard work is worthwhile isn’t

  3. Of all the topics I address, I never bothered to write about this, and we actually need to do it often for our field grown rhododendrons.

    1. It’s one of those jobs that just gets done isn’t, it is a dying skill in the uk sadly but it’s a very useful one indeed, I maybe a little sad as I enjoy the challenges of lifting them like this 😂😂

      1. Funny for us, the biggest plants we grew went to the smallest gardens. Our big and lanky field grown rhododendrons that probably should be cut down because they are so bare down low sometimes get dug and sent to San Francisco where they get installed into an atrium, or between the sidewalk and a home with minimal setback from the sidewalk. From downstairs, they have nice branch structure. The flowers are visible from upstairs.

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