Whether you have a tree that has outgrown its container or a large specimen plant that’s now going to be planted in the ground, removing a large plant from its container can be a challenge. You don’t want to damage the large specimen plant or its root ball. Breaking a large decorative container can be expensive to replace. Follow these steps to save the plant and the pot so both can be enjoyed for a long time to come.
1. Start by spreading a tarp on a soft grassy or mulched area. A soft surface will lessen the chance of breaking the large pot if it’s made of ceramic or clay. The tarp will keep the mess contained and can be used to transport the tree if its going to be planted in the ground. Gather a large knife, a sturdy hand spade or trowel and a rubber mallet. Of course you’ll want to have the new location or pot ready for the tree or specimen plant before it’s removed from the pot.
2. The next step is to begin removing any small plants that might be growing in the pot with the tree or specimen plant. Decide if these plants are salvageable and either repot or put them in the compost heap. If the plants have deep roots, then you’ll really need to take care to not damage the tree or specimen’s root ball. If it becomes too difficult to remove the smaller plants’ roots, it’s better to just cut the plants off at soil level.
3. It’s time to start loosening the soil from the container. The easiest way to do this by running the long slender knife inside the container next to the soil, much the same way you loosen a muffin or cake from a pan. This part helps to remove any of the small fine root hairs that have attached themselves to the inside of the pot.
4. Lay the large container on its side to begin loosening the entire root ball from the container. Tap the rubber mallet on the sides of the container, slowly and gently rolling the pot to tap all sides of the pot. Grip the pot firmly and tap the bottom of the pot as well to loosen the bottom roots. If large roots are visibly growing from the drain holes in the pot, cutting those off will help the tree or specimen plant to come out of the pot easier.
5. Continue this rolling and tapping process on the outside of the container until you see soil from the root ball starting to fall out of the pot. Start sliding the hand spade between the inside of the pot and the root ball to further loosen the root ball. Go as deep as you can toward the bottom of the pot with the spade and rotate the pot so all sides are loosened. You might have to repeat this step several times before the plant is ready to come out. When you can see the root ball is loose from the pot, then begin pulling the pot backwards as you rotate it.
6. The goal is to keep the root ball of the tree or specimen plant intact as much as possible to lessen any damage or shock to the plant. It’s tempting to just pull hard at the tree trunk or plant stems to remove it from the pot, but this could break the root ball apart or break the top of the plant. As you’re rotating the pot backwards, it’s fine to gently pull at the plant, but gathering the root ball in your hands is safer for the plant. Your body is going to help catch the root ball and the top of the tree as it comes out of the pot to further lessen any damage.
Now that you have successfully removed the tree or plant from its container, it’s ready to be repotted or planted in the ground in its new location. If the tree or specimen plant is going to be planted in the ground, the tarp is a safe way to transport it to its new home by simply dragging it on the tarp or gathering the root ball in the tarp and lifting it into a wheel barrow or cart. The tarp helps to keep the root ball intact in much the same way as burlap. The tree or specimen plant can safely be placed in its new container or in the ground. You get to reuse the original container that’s now empty again, which sounds like a great excuse to go shopping at the nearest garden center!