Introduction: How to Move a Tree, Vehicle and A-frame Method

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

Don't cut down that fruit tree!
Let someone transplant it to a happy new home.
Here's how. If there's no vehicle access, try the tree dolly method instead.

1: Find a tree that needs a new home. Lots of people give away trees on craigslist.
2: Prune the tree hard. You need to remove at least 1/3 of the leaves and branches.
Your tree will have a lot less roots than it used to, and can't feed as many branches.
3: Do the move at the best time of year. Deciduous trees are best moved during the winter when they're dormant and have no leaves. This orange tree is evergreen and needs to move now, so here we go.

Got a tree in the SF Bay area that needs a new home? Contact me!
I'm also seeking a jackhammer.

Dangerous operations are shown here with big heavy objects, sharp tools, and big machines.
Dangerous like logging, farming, and construction.
Don't get hurt. Proceed with caution!

Many thanks to Kenny, Victor, Brie, and Rachel for a great tree moving adventure, and to Chelsea for letting us save her beautiful orange tree.

Step 1: Scribe Around the Root Ball

You want to move the tree without disturbing the roots. That means moving it with the biggest undisturbed root ball you can manage.
That's probably between 3 and 4 feet diameter and 2 or 3 feet deep.
I use a pick with a 3 foot handle (which I made myself) to scribe a 7 foot circle around the trunk.
There's pavement there but we're allowed to break it to get the tree out.
I already pruned a lot of branches off the tree.

Step 2: Unpave

This is a lot easier than it sounds and a whole lot of fun.
Remove the pavement from around the tree so you can get at the dirt and roots.
Get the biggest sledge hammer you can find and start smashing. Wear safety glasses.
Victor and Kenny go to town. Take that, civilization!

Step 3: Dig Out Around the Root Ball

Brie uses a long chisel with a curved blade to cut down under the root ball.
You want the root ball to be shaped like a toy top, a sort of inverted rounded cone 2 or 3 feet deep.
Citrus has shallow roots and usually no taproot.
Kenny trenches around the tree with a spade.
Victor uses a pruning shear to cut roots.
We've moved small trees with just a sharp spade. With patience you could cut a tree free with just the long chisel and no digging, but this tree had some really tough roots we couldn't get through with the chisel, so we dug down to get to them.
Digging is fun.
My farm relatives sharpen their shovels with a file during breaks in the digging. They keep their shovel blades in a bucket of oil so they never rust. That makes the digging a lot easier.

Step 4: Insert Big Hooks Under the Root Ball

I made these hooks from the leaf springs of a truck. They're not stiff enough, but they work.
The hook's handle is a pipe with two plates at the end that clamp onto the pipe spring.
Pound the hooks under the root ball to support it while lifting. If you just pull on the tree trunk you could jerk it out of the dirt like a big weed. That would not be a good way to keep it alive.

I'm pounding the hook in with the side of our big sledge. Victor grips the handle of the hook with a chunk of foam so the vibrations don't hurt him.

Step 5: Rigging to Lift

There are four hooks under the root ball.
I've got an A-frame boom on the back of my truck to lift from.
Wrap the trunk with carpeting and bicycle innertubes.
Heavy loops of nylon strap get tied around the padded trunk with a lark's head hitch.
All the hooks and straps get rigged to the lifting hook of the boom.

Step 6: Check Tension

It gets more dangerous now. I should have my hard hat on already.
Winch it up a little bit. Check the tension on all the ropes. They should all be carrying their share of the load. Make sure nothing is bruising the tree's bark. Pad everything that might do that.

Use ropes and straps that are so strong they don't stretch much. If a rope is stretched and breaks or gets cut, it will fling out like a whip and can tear off body parts.

Step 7: Start Winching

Put some more tension on the lifting rig.
Twang the cables and ropes to check their tension.
This is a giant mousetrap we've built here. We rig so that if something breaks, no one will get hit.
The boom cable already broke once before this photo was taken. It was accidentally rigged over a sharp thing that cut it. Fortunately the back bar of the truck's lumber rack kept it from hammering the tree too hard, and everyone was standing clear.

Step 8: Front End Anchor Point

I couldn't think of a good way to attach the boom cable to the front of the truck, so here's what I rigged.
The bottom 4x4 rests against the frame of the truck. The front wheels of the truck are starting to lift off the ground. There are some roots under the root ball that we haven't managed to cut, and they're holding the tree down. Victor is psyched. Our giant mousetrap is looking more like a trebuchet.
Will it fling the tree across the street into the neighbor's house when the roots get cut?

Step 9: Dig and Cut

We dig around and under the root ball a lot more to get at the lower roots. Victor cuts a big root with an axe. The tree lifts and tilts a little. There are more roots left.

Step 10: Lifted!

Eventually we find all the big roots underneath the root ball and cut them. The tree rises up! The root ball is pretty intact. We're happy.

Step 11: Swaddled

We lift it more. Two of the hooks flex too much and start to slide out. We tie them in place.
We slide a tarp and a comforter under the root ball and tie them securely in place with innertubes. We wrap the whole bundle with ropes to hold it secure and tight.
The two ropes running out to the right are to pull the tree away from the truck so we can lower the tail gate.

Step 12: Loaded!

The winch with the red handle lifts the tree. The winch with the blue handle rocks the boom forward.
We yell "more red handle" and "less blue handle" and debate what's the best way to put the tree on the truck, and what way is even possible. The tree is extremely heavy. It takes all of us and all our equipment to get it onto the truck. The rear springs are bottomed out and the front tires are pretty light on the ground. We wonder if the tree is too tall to fit under overpasses on the highway.

Step 13: Driving

We tie everything to everything else so it's as secure as we can make it, and drive off the lot and into the road. We take a look at our load. It's pretty amazing.

Step 14: Fuel Stop

We're low on diesel. Better stop for fuel. It's hard to get near the pump though, because the tree is too high. The attendant comes and yells encouragement to us, he doesn't care if we scratch his canopy with ours. After fueling we back up and drive back to Berkeley at 45 miles an hour. That's top speed with the air drag from all those branches and leaves.

Step 15: More Digging at the Destination

We get back to the tree's new home without any disasters. Rachel shows up fresh and energetic,  helps us dig the hole to plant the tree. It has to be a lot bigger than we expected, and we're starting to run out of energy. Brie gets pizza. We feast on that and oranges from this tree.

Step 16: Unloading

When the hole is big enough we hoist the tree, pull the swaddling off it, lower the tree,
dig around it and shift and fill to level it.  We pull the hooks out and fill around the root ball with dirt.
It's really good that Rachel showed up for second shift. Good planning everyone!

Step 17: Planted!

We water it and go home. It's 2 am.
That day is cloudy and rainy.
Perfect for a new tree in a new place!
I hope it thrives. Will let you know how that goes!

My east coast arborist pal Libby Shaw says:

Hi, Tim:
Cool that you're moving trees onto your property!  Getting trees to survive in the city has been a passion for me for mucho years.  I'd love to help you transplant a tree while we're visiting.
Your Instructable on tree transplanting moves me to comment:
1)  It's important that the big roots of a rootballed tree be cut cleanly with a clean sharp pair of loppers, and that smaller roots be cut cleanly with a clean sharp pair of clippers.  Torn root bark and crushed roots give opportunistic fungi and bacteria easy inroads into the tree's vascular system.  Plus just as with pruning cuts above ground, a tree can heal a clean-cut root much more easily than a ragged one.
2)  Trees have two kinds of roots:  structural roots, which help secure the tree in the ground, and fine feeder roots, which collect oxygen, water and nutrients from the soil.  The feeder roots are usually within six inches of the soil surface, while the structural roots can be substantially deeper, as you saw with your orange tree.  
When a tree blows over in the city it's usually because its structural roots were cut, destabilizing it.  When a city tree dies back it's often because its feeder root system was suffocated either due to soil compaction or due to a construction-caused change of grade.  Or it may simply have run out of adequate soil volume to sustain the tree.
2)  Be sure to dig the destination hole just deep enough that when the tree settles in, the soil level will be at the trunk flare (where the base of the trunk widens).  Covering the feeder roots with too deep a soil layer will suffocate the tree. 
Also make the hole nice and wide, to encourage the tree to grow new roots into the loose aerated soil around the root ball.
3)  Once the tree is planted, cover the soil with 2-3 inches of mulch, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the trunk.  This keeps the soil from compacting (which suffocates the feeder roots) and helps retain moisture.

4) Keep exposed roots covered with a moist cloth during transport, and keep the root area in the new location well watered for at least a couple years.  If there hasn't been substantial rain to do the job for you, a slow trickle from a hose for about an hour once a week is a good way to water deeply without oversaturating the soil.
In case you want to try it out:  the latest greatest arboricultural wisdom is that the best way to transplant a tree is once again bare root -- but not the way they did it in the old days.  Nowadays the transplant tool of choice is an air spade or air knife, devices which use compressed air to excavate the root system fast and efficiently and with minimal root damage. Substantially more of the root system can be preserved, and the total weight of the transplant is substantially less than when a big soil ball is transported along with the tree.
Here's a couple photo descriptions of air spade transplanting.