Moving large plants isn’t easy

When you work in the field, you will often find plants that are beautiful but too large for their environs. 

I have had the experience and pleasure of moving large specimen plants many miles to a new destination and landscape.

I first started out by moving palms. Palms are extraordinary in that they do not drop leaves or debris into the garden. Most evergreen and deciduous trees do. It may be argued that some species of palm do drop material, but for most of the time they remain clean.

Palms have a unique root structure in that they have a root ball composed of small finger-like roots that do not change in diameter over time as the tree grows. Often these roots will eventually lift the trunk of the tree upwards and out of the ground.

Roots like these are relatively compact and make removal an easy task. For large palms like a Phoenix canarienses or Canary Island date palm, you would need a 6-foot-by-6-foot root ball to guarantee a vibrant tree.

You might be wondering, “How deep do you dig for a large palm when you are trying to move it?” The answer is easy. Simply look at the side cuts along the root ball as you go into the ground. With palms, the roots will begin to disappear 2 to 3 feet below grade.

I once pulled a Canary Island from a grove of orange trees on a very steep slope. The tree had been growing on top of the decomposed granite rocks and soils. So, being a neophyte of decomposed granite and palms, I rented a jackhammer with a compressor and cut through the rock around the tree.

It was a stupid move, the crane simply peeled the tree right off the granite without pause and the tree survived. Palms are very resilient as long as they have good drainage and regular water.

Working on the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, I was part of the crew that set and installed more than 500 Canary Island date palms around the hotel and on top of the volcano and waterfall at the entrance. Palms are really no more than prehistoric grasses. They are monocots that only grow by pushing a new frond up and out of the heart of the palm called the petiole.

Over the years, after moving many other specimen trees, one becomes acquainted with the techniques and tricks needed to ensure a positive result. I have successfully moved California peppers, king palms, jacarandas, olives and even Dracena dracos so large we had to have a travel permit for transporting.

One secret to the bare root moving of a delicate trunk or multi trunk tree is to either dig the tree completely free, or to dig it adequately and wrap a chain down low around the root ball. If you wrap the chain tight enough under the base, you can hook it together and pull it vertically with the remaining leg of chain breaking it free from the ground without damaging its structure.

For the most part, the common denominator is agua. You have to water the larger specimen trees adequately with a large basin built of soil around the bases of these trees. Daily water to hydrate the tree is key.

Ironically, the most difficult trees to move are those that survive the easiest. The Dracena draco or dragon tree is nothing more than a giant succulent. It has a very shallow, web-like rootball and can virtually survive without water after transplant.

I was once hired by a Chinese software engineer who worked for Qualcomm to crane a 14-foot-by-16-foot high Draco over the top of a house into his backyard. That was the easy part. Harvesting it and driving it to Del Mar unbroken was the other.

Another interesting tree to move bare root is the Schinus molei. This tree can drop all its leaves and survive. Known as the California pepper, it’s really a transplant from the lower deserts of the Andes and is found in Peru, Argentina and Chile where it takes over the savannahs and follows the tributaries to the drought lands.


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