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Transplanting dogwoods

By Al Cooke
Posted Monday, August 28, 2006

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Pittsboro, NC - The first questions I have to ask about transplanting are whether and why. And that involves how they got to where they are, how long they have been there, and why they are “tall but slight.”

There is a common lack of understanding about nursery practices that would lead folks to believe that trees are simply planted and then harvested a few years later. Field grown trees to be sold either balled-and-burlapped or bare root are usually grown under conditions that will encourage roots to grow close to the trunk. These conditions include a defined rooting area, regular irrigation, fertility, pruning/shaping, pest management, and root pruning. A balled-and-burlapped tree grown in a good nursery will have lots of small “feeder” roots attached; these are the roots that can absorb water and nutrients.

Conversely, the tree that has grown from a seed in an area that later became a yard has had to be opportunistic about where it grows its roots. They grow wherever they can get what they need, and we don’t know where they are. If you start to dig it up, you may remove several shovels of soil without encountering any roots at all. Or thefirst shovel in the soil may sever the single root that is connecting the tree to 90% of its “feeder” roots. (Trust me, I learned this the hard way.) In that case instead of a live transplant, you end up with a dead tree.

Or in another scenario, if you planted the tree and it hasn’t done well, then you may still have a root ball almost as satisfactory as the one you planted. But unless you answer the question of why it hasn’t done well, transplanting may not solve the problem. It’s possible that such a tree is in a bad location. Dogwoods are under-story trees that thrive in filtered light and may be slow to adapt to full sun if their surroundings are suddenly cleared. If they are planted (or settle after planting) just a very little too deep, they often don’t thrive. They don’t compete well with grasses.

So you may need to answer the question of why the trees are “tall but slight.” Chances are good that they will never be any healthier or more attractive. They didn’t get a good start. Transplanting is likely to be just one more impediment to their survival.

If you are really compelled to dig and transplant a dogwood, I would suggest finding a very small plant with only a single season’s growth to improve your chances of success. The bigger/older they are, the greater the risks for survival. Be sure it is well watered ahead of time. After frost, use a digging fork to carefully tease out the roots and remove it from the soil. Place it in a prepared location and water well.

An even better option may be to purchase one from a nursery. You can buy a healthier more attractive tree more cheaply than practically any piece of furniture. And with reasonable care, it will last longer than most furniture or any transplant not done by a professional. What a deal!

For good information on planting trees, see

If I haven’t persuaded you that this is a bad idea, give me a call and we can discuss root pruning, timing, site selection, soil preparation, orientation, and the vital how to dig questions.

Al Cooke is an agriculture extension agent at the Chatham County Center in Pittsboro, NC 919.542.8202

Related info:
Local Nurseries
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Local Nurseries
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