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Transplanting a Holly Bush

Moving hollies when they get overgrown

By: Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension

Q. I planted a blue holly several years ago and now realize that it is too big for the location. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days severely pruning this plant back, just to keep it inbounds. I would prefer to relocate it to a spot with more room to grow. How do I go about transplanting my holly and when is the best time?

A. It can be tricky to move a plant once it has become established in a site, but it is possible. Take a minute to evaluate the new site to be certain that it meets the holly’s cultural preferences: full sun to partial shade; evenly moist, well-drained, slightly acid soil; and an eastern exposure to avoid winter leaf burn and summer heat stress. And of course, make sure there is adequate room for the holly’s growth. Depending on the cultivar, blue hollies (Ilex x meserveae) grow about eight feet tall with a matching spread.

Holly Transplanting Problems

Moving established plants is risky because you lose the majority of the fine feeder roots responsible for absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. Root pruning is one way to encourage the plant to grow new feeder roots in the future root ball, prior to the move. Root pruning reduces transplant shock and increases the likelihood of moving the holly successfully. Plan to dig the largest root ball you can manage, at least six inches of root ball per foot of spread of the holly. The minimum recommended root ball for such a plant is 16 inches in diameter, but the bigger you make it, the more feeder roots you preserve, and the more likely it is that your holly will re-establish happily in its new location.

Large Blue Holly
Moving a holly this large is a major project, mostly
due to the size and weight of the required root ball

Root pruning is best done in early fall, to prepare for moving the holly the following spring. Broad-leaved evergreens such as hollies are best planted and transplanted in spring. Unless there is another urgent reason for moving it this spring, wait until next spring so you can root prune it properly in advance.

Root Pruning Hollies

There are different methods for root pruning. The simplest is called spading. Simply push a spade into the soil all around the circumference of the holly, making sure to create a large enough root ball.  Push the spade in 12 – 15 inches deep. Spading is sufficient for small plants and plants that have not been growing in a site for too long. It should be fine for your holly.

Trenching is a more involved method of root pruning, and is usually reserved for larger trees and shrubs, or those that have been established in a spot for a longer period of time. This method involves creating an eight to twelve-inch wide, twelve-inch deep trench around the circumference of the shrub. The outer edge of the trench will become the outer edge of the root ball. Backfill the trench with a soil mixture of two parts good topsoil to one part compost. The idea is that feeder roots will fill the trench by the time you transplant the holly in spring.


Time to Transplant Holly

Whichever root pruning method you use, prune the roots and leave the holly in place until the following spring. Be sure to provide supplemental water when we have dry weather between root pruning and digging. A two or three inch layer of mulch will help conserve soil moisture and moderate soil temperatures and create a favorable environment for new feeder roots to grow. Avoid allowing the mulch to physically contact the stems or trunk of the holly.

Hollies are dioecious.  It's the female
plant that has the red berries.

In early spring, dig the new hole so that it is no deeper than the holly is growing in its current site. Make the hole at least twice the diameter of the holly’s root ball. Water the root ball thoroughly before you move the holly to help it remain intact while you dig. Carefully dig the root ball out of its current site. You can wrap it in natural burlap and secure the burlap around the stems or trunk with twine to help hold the root ball together until you get it to the new planting site. Remember that even though a good-sized root ball is heavy, it is also very delicate. Handle it like a newborn baby! Always handle B & B plants by the root ball, never the trunk or stems. There is a strong possibility that the plant will die if its root ball is broken or cracked.

Lifting a Heavy Soil Root Ball

It will help to use a wheelbarrow, dolly or garden cart to get the holly from the original planting site to the new location you have chosen. Settle it into the new planting hole, and make sure it is no deeper than it was growing before. Do not use any kind of fertilizer in the planting hole because it can burn tender new roots that should begin to grow quickly once the holly has been replanted. Backfill with the soil you removed to dig the new planting hole. Water it in thoroughly and mulch with two or three inches of mulch, but do not allow the mulch to physically contact the stems.

Proper Watering is Critical

Pay careful attention to watering throughout the following year. Check for soil moisture by sticking your hand under the mulch and feeling the soil. If the soil is dry two or three inches below the soil surface, give it a good soaking. If not, wait a few days and check it again. Although you never want the newly transplanted holly to dry out completely, you also do not want to kill it with kindness by overwatering.


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