The Garden Renovation Primer: Moving Established Trees

When renovating an old landscape, almost inevitably you’ll be faced with the issue of what to do with established plantings. On one hand large trees and shrubs add a dignity and grace to a property that is almost impossible to replicate by any means except the passage of time. On the other hand, often poor planning means these fine old specimens are too close together, or shading out other plantings, or simply in the way of a new scheme. Cutting down such established plantings should always be your last option however: what you can destroy in an instant will take decades to replace. Generally, trees and shrubs up 20′ tall or so can be moved to new positions on the property reasonably economically (when viewed against replacement cost) and with a high rate of survivability.

There are essentially two ways to move a large tree or shrub. The easiest is with something called a tree spade, pictured below on a suburban project I did several years back. (Click on any of these pictures for a larger view.)

Appropriately named, a tree spade is exactly that: a large mechanical claw for digging and moving heavy plants. To dig the tree, the two halves of the claw open and encircle the specimen; then the four heavy spades descend vertically into the soil, severing the roots. They then fold together underground, creating a root ball. The tree is lifted out, tipped horizontally across the back of the truck, and is carted off to the new location. To plant, the process is reversed, with the claws literally wedging out the soil to form a hole into which the tree descends. (This is exactly what you see about to happen above. Look closely: there’s a large hinoki cypress, almost identical to the just-planted specimen at the left, within the claw of the spade.) It sounds simple, and it is – in the hands of an experienced operator – and depending on the size of the tree spade (they come in various versions from middling to huge) you can pretty much move any sized tree up to 20-30′ tall. (In case you’re wondering, the tree shown above weighed in at just under 4 tons.) The drawbacks to tree spades are two-fold. The first is cost: a tree spade for a day, with operator, will run about $4000, and can realistically only move 1-4 trees (depending on the distance between digging and plantings sites) in a single day. The second is access: these big machines don’t fit well on small sites with buildings and overhead wires in close proximity, which was exactly the case on our Boston garden renovation project. There, we had a very lovely old American holly, ilex opaca, which both the owners and I insisted be saved. (These plants are quite rare in this part of the world, at the northern extremity of their range.) In the old plan the holly was far too close to its neighbor, but in the new scheme we had the perfect spot for it: in the corner behind our new sunken garden. The question was how to get it there. The answer: ball and burlap, and a lot of digging, pushing & tugging.

So here’s the first part of the process. Russell Gates and his crew at Lighthouse Landscape spent the better part of the morning digging around our holly with an excavator. Once the trenching was complete, they used the front-end loader below to slice underneath the holly, severing the bottom roots, thus allowing the crew to get burlap and ties underneath the root ball:

As the root ball is too heavy to lift to any appreciable height without a tree spade, in order to move the tree to its new location, it has to be dragged along a fairly level roadbed, in this case, a trench Russell dug earlier with his excavator. In the view below, you can see the trench behind two members of Russ’ crew. These gentlemen also give you a good idea of the size of the holly involved, which weighs upwards of 5 thousand pounds.

To move the tree along the track, Russell pulls the chain tied to the root ball with his excavator, while the front end loader pushes. Russell is sitting pretty much where the holly is headed.

And a remarkably, less than an hour later, here’s the holly in its new location, safe, sound and happy in the far corner of the lot. The area in the foreground is precisely where our sunken garden will be built.

In fact, this picture shows almost exactly the same view as the rendering we prepared earlier. There’s the holly in the far corner:

I must say that even after so many years in the business, I find the process of moving from design to reality quite amazing – especially when you combine a group of professionals with precisely the right equipment. One moment it’s there only on paper, and the next, voilà!

Next stop on our project: laying the new back terrace!


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