May 07, 2020
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How to transplant found tree seedlings on your property

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
Trees add so much to the Maine landscape and transplanting ones on your own property can be a fun and worthwhile project.

Maybe you’d like to move some shade trees to a sunny spot in your yard. Or perhaps have some trees growing closer to a window so you can observe the birds and wildlife who feed on or live in those trees. Transplanted trees can also make good windbreaks along open driveways and always add to the beauty of your landscape.

Anyone with some native tree species already growing on their land has a ready-made natural nursery from which to select seedlings for transplanting. It’s a matter of identifying the species you have on one spot of your property that you’d like to have growing on another spot.

Maine has 66 native tree species growing from Kittery to Fort Kent. These include evergreen species like cedar, pine, fir and spruce; and deciduous species including maple, elm, oak, aspen, birch, ash and willow.

From an ecological standpoint, all of the native species evolved to grow without human-added soil amendments in the Maine ecosystem. At the same time, insects, reptiles, wildlife and birds native to Maine evolved right along with these trees and need them for food and shelter. Simply put, you can’t have one without the other, so by transplanting native trees and promoting their growth, you are helping Maine’s native creatures survive.

Here’s what you need to know.

How to dig a seedling

The first thing you need to do is find a seedling. Look around the base of that tree to find its seedlings which are basically its babies. By following a few simple steps you can safely dig that seedling out of the ground and replant — or transplant — it as far as you want from the parent tree. With a bit of tender, loving care, that seedling will eventually grow into a mature tree.

Dave Hobbins, retired professor of forestry at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, has spent decades transplanting native trees on his Fort Kent property with great success and minimal equipment. All he uses is a shovel with a sharp blade and a file to keep it sharp.

Using his shovel, Hobbins digs a circle around the seedling covering an area that lets him collect as much of the tiny tree’s roots and soil as possible.

“My rule is to dig up as much as I can carry,” he said. “The more roots and soil you can capture, the better.”

Using a sharp shovel, he said, allows him to cleanly cut the tree’s roots out of the ground without tearing them. A root that has been cleanly cut grows faster and stronger than one that has been torn, Hobbins said.

“If I notice a root has torn, I’ll use a pair of garden clippers to snip the end off to give it that clean cut,” he said.

Most of Maine’s trees have fairly shallow roots, so you don’t need to dig too deeply to collect a seedling, Hobbins said.

Once the seedling, roots and soil are dug up, place them in a container like a bucket, box or cloth bag for transport to its new location.

Transplanting the seedling

Before putting the seedling in the ground, you need to dig a hole wide enough and deep enough for the roots to be completely covered by the soil and to spread out.

“A common problem people have is putting seedlings in narrow holes that don’t allow the roots to grow out easily,” Hobbis said. “If you don’t spread those roots out when you plant the seedling, they will actually grow in place and strangle the tree, killing it.”

Once the seedling is transplanted, Hobbins said it should be watered daily or as often as needed to keep the soil around it moist for two or three weeks after planting.

When to transplant

According to Hobbins, there is a right and a wrong time of the year to transplant tree seedlings.

“You want to make sure you are digging up the seedling when it’s dormant,” Hobbins said. “That means before its buds “break” or open up, or after the season’s new growth has hardened up.”

In Maine buds typically break as soon as temperatures warm up in the spring in April and May, so you want to get your seedlings before then. Exactly when a tree starts to bud is species specific, so if you have your eye on a particular specimen, it’s a good idea to get out there as soon as the ground thaws enough to allow you to dig, but it’s not warm enough to trigger the new season’s growth.

If you miss that window, wait until late July and August when Maine’s trees have stopped growing for the year.

“The seedling is going to react to having its roots cut off and you will have a bit of die-back no matter how careful you are,” Hobbins said. “If its buds are open there is a good chance they will also be damaged [so] moving it with unopened buds presents less chance to damage them and is one less thing the tree has to deal with.”

Planting for success

Trees are amazingly resilient and can survive a great deal of abuse, according to Hobbins. But you still want to give them every chance you can to grow.

“With seedlings you want to give them space without a lot of competition,” Hobbins said. “You especially want to keep them out of sod [because] grass is thick rooted and it will take the tree seedling’s roots five or six years to start going anywhere [through the grass roots] and for the tree to grow.”

As for what seedling size is the best for transplanting, Hobbins said you can safely transplant a seedling ranging from a few inches to several feet, but smaller is generally better as you can collect most of its roots.


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