Tree lifting, moving & planting

Optimal conditions for roots to develop make September to March an ideal time to plant new trees and relocate existing specimens, Sally Drury reports.

Instant impact: planting of large material is increasingly popular option on estates - image: The Tree & Hedge Co
Instant impact: planting of large material is increasingly popular option on estates - image: The Tree & Hedge Co

The world’s tree population stands at three trillion, according to a Yale University study, but human activity has been cited as the biggest factor behind an almost 46 per cent loss of trees since the beginning of civilisation (HW, 18 September). Today whole forests may be cleared to provide land for farming and housing or for timber and paper production, with no guarantee that the trees will be replaced.

Trees’ environmental benefits are well recorded. They produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, offer shade, act as air filters and sound barriers, help prevent flooding, combat erosion and, of course, provide habitats for wildlife and create landscapes and green spaces for humans’ enjoyment and well-being.

One of the best periods for tree planting is September to November, when conditions are optimal for roots to grow before winter arrives. Many local authorities, landscapers and landowners are now preparing to increase tree stocks by planting new trees. But perhaps we lose too many established trees that could be replanted elsewhere.

Higher survival rates for trees

Moving large trees is big business for a number of UK firms and the evolution of the tree spade has seen tree survival rates rise. The equipment has enabled trees to be rescued from development and be thinned from overcrowded stands.

Buckinghamshire-based Practically Brown acquired its first machine in the early 1980s and now operates a fleet comprising an Optimal 1100 mounted on a Kramer compact loader and Big John 1.6m 4x4 truck-mounted tree spade. The company specialises in moving medium sized trees (30-50cm girth) for parks, private estates, landowners and sports clubs.

"With the introduction of the lorry-mounted tree spade, tree lifting, moving and planting projects have increased and this instant impact — either for aesthetic looks or for screening — has become a focus of garden designers and architects alike," says Practicality Brown horticultural sales adviser Steve Vincent.

"Many established schools, universities, golf courses, business parks and country estates increasingly see tree moving as a cost-effective way to utilise overcrowded woodland areas to enhance new developments, while on new builds and development sites it is often a condition of the planning permission that existing trees must be saved and replanted in appropriate locations once building work is complete."

Glendale Civic Trees general manager Chris Mills agrees: "Tree moving is done mainly to enable developments to take place on a site by rescuing the tree. That and overcrowding, or landowners simply wanting to redistribute tree stock, are the main reasons for moving trees — that doesn’t really change.

"In terms of planting, large tree planting on estates for people who want an instant impact is popular and landscape designers using large trees as part of their design is becoming increasingly common. In addition, clients are hand picking trees and using us for consultancy and consequently planting."

This year, Glendale Civic Trees has been involved in a project that involved relocating memorial trees in crematoria. "The demand for this is increasing," says Mills. "We have been involved in a number of projects that have involved the relocation of memorial trees at the request of relatives."

In May, as part of a seminar on urban landscaping solutions held by the Netherlands Business Support Office in Manchester, Glendale Civic Trees planted a purple-leaved tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima ‘Purple Dragon’) outside Manchester Cathedral, replacing an existing Hungarian oak that was in decline. The tree was donated by one of the company’s main European suppliers, Ebben Tree Nurseries.

Busy lives and the desire for privacy are also driving demand. The Tree & Hedge Co director Alan Jones reports: "People see garden areas, no matter how large or small, as a lifestyle and in recent years this has become ever more popular as they desire to create their own special private outdoor spaces. We are finding that they crave privacy for these areas, not wanting to be overlooked, so our large screening plants — from 2m to 12m high — are becoming regular projects for us."

Domestic and commercial work

Glendale Civic Trees undertakes a mix of domestic and commercial work, but reports that local authority tree planting is becoming more active. "Generally, there has been an increased focus on the benefits of greens spaces, which has resulted in local authorities having better access to funding for tree planting and improvements," says Mills.

"In recent months we’ve done a number of commercially focused projects, supplying and planting semi-mature trees for retail outlets and golf courses in the South East. There has also been an increase in calls for removal and replacement work to protect trees from decay and damage caused by vehicle impact on major roads."

A new name in the market, The Tree & Hedge Co was established by Jones in 2014 and is based in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. The company has been consulting and working with a popular golf club in Oxfordshire, helping renovate and make changes to the course’s 36 holes. "Many days have been spent transplanting hundreds of trees and shrubs around the site, most of the work being carried out using our 1.1m Optimal tree spade attached to a JCB telescopic handler," adds Jones.

Waiting for ideal conditions

For the tree-moving firms, the season for moving deciduous trees is about to get underway — they are just waiting for the ideal conditions. "Traditionally the dormant period has been October to March, but global warming seems to be changing our seasons," Jones notes.

"It’s too early to say when the tree spades will be able to start moving deciduous trees, but I predict a good season of enquires and work for tree spade machines starting in November and carrying on through to March."

Evergreens are a different matter. Jones says: "These can and prefer to be moved in the earlier and later parts of the transplanting season — sometimes as early as September when the ground is still warm and sometimes extending as far as May."

Last season tree spade work remained consistent for The Tree & Hedge Co, with regular requests to transplant trees to screen pylons or nearby buildings. Jones says golf course work also continued with trees moved to change the shape of the playing areas. Developers also supplied work, wanting to soften new builds with instant greenery or needing trees moved where they hindered development works.

At Practicality Brown, Vincent is also positive about the new season. "Several projects were postponed due to excessive rainfall last May and these have kick-started our tree moving operations now," he says.

"As well as several golf club clients and private landowners, we have a project in Essex that will involve extensive moving and planting of semi-mature trees along with native varieties of our Instant Hedge. Our project management team has worked closely with the lead architect to ensure all trees comply with the planning conditions of this environmentally sensitive site."

The weather has the last word when determining when to lift, move and plant. The dry summer, especially July, meant operations were limited to planting containerised trees and Instant Hedge where a water supply was readily available to connect to Practicality Brown’s irrigation systems. However, the surprisingly wet August and a wet start to September allowed the company to revisit long-term projects and plant trees ahead of schedule.

"This unusual summer weather pattern did lead to outbreaks of pathogens and bugs and much time was committed to assisting clients with solutions. Our new autumn and spring feeding programme has been designed to strengthen the root systems of our clients’ trees and hedges as well as promote sustainable growth," says Vincent.

"We work with Dove Associates to monitor conditions to ensure that trees are in peak condition before and after planting." Practicality Brown has a large selection of semi-mature containerised trees at its nursery in Iver.

With Capability Brown’s tercentenary next year, Practicality Brown is proud to be working on a project to re-establish an estate landscape to his original plans. This has involved extensive and meticulous identification and labelling of more than 8,000 existing trees and a programme to remove weak or diseased stock, relocate more recently planted trees and supply and plant new stock in the varieties Lancelot Brown intended in the 18th century.

Ensuring success: tips from the professionals

Planning, preparation and planting

Dry ground could prove difficult for early-season moving. Transplant survival will be affected if preparation work is ignored before lifting.

The Tree & Hedge Co director Alan Jones says: "Areas around the base of the trees should be checked and watered if necessary to create moist soil conditions for the tree spades to operate efficiently. This will help the blades of the machine to penetrate the ground around the root system, which should in most cases lift a more stable, solid root ball."

Carefully plan the new location. Practicality Brown horticultural sales adviser Steve Vincent says: "Consider sightlines and the practicalities of access and aspects. Consider the tree pit size, soil pH, drainage and method of irrigation along with all planting aspects, including machinery required, guying, staking/securing requirements and compost/soil for backfilling."


Transplanted trees need regular and measured watering and feeding to ensure that they establish and thrive in their new environment. Glendale Civic Trees general manager Chris Mills says: "Maintenance continues to be the main element that ensures successful tree planting or moving. Trees that are not well maintained will look distressed."

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