The “ABC”S of Moving Large Trees

A 105-inch-diameter tree spade holds a tree being moved. Inset: The same tree spade being moved to a job. Photo courtesy of Environmental Design, Inc.

If you’re thinking of getting into the business of moving large trees, there are three things to know:

1. It requires a lot of knowledge, skill and equipment.

2. It’s definitely not for everyone.

3. It can be lucrative.

Regarding numbers one and three, for it to be lucrative, you must first be successful in moving large trees. “It has everything to do with knowing the tree species and its culture,” says Jim Ingram, president and COO of Bartlett Tree Experts, an accredited, 46-year TCIA member company headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut. That ranges from “concerns over diseases to knowing the tolerance of the species and its optimum growing season.”

In his opinion, “You should not be in the business if you do not know all of that, but that knowledge can be gotten from experience, including trial and error.”

Know thy species

“You do not have to be formally trained,” says Ingram, “but you do have to know the species, their tolerances and the technology to get the job done successfully. Certainly, you need the right equipment, but equipment is not the be-all and end-all.” Because every large-tree move is different, Ingram reiterates, “It’s a process.”

David Cox, western region vice president with Environmental Design, Inc., a Texas-based, nationwide firm affiliated with Davey Tree Experts that specializes in moving large trees, concurs largely with Ingram, adding, “There are some general principles on moving a tree, one of them being knowing when the best time is to make the move.” He says that, despite what one might think, “It could be fall or even winter. It’s different all over the country, and is based on weather and soils and species.”

A balled-and-burlapped tree is hoisted from the bed of a truck toward its new home on the green roof of a building. Photo courtesy of Environmental Design, Inc.

To a large extent, Cox says, the number-one challenge is that tree moving is “a weights-and-measures thing. It’s easy to underestimate those things.” As with Ingram, Cox says getting that right is a matter of accumulated experience.

After that, he maintains, knowledge must extend to caring for the tree before, during and after the move. “Depending on the time of year, root pruning may be as little as two weeks ahead of the move or several months.” Even prior to that and all during the process, “The thing to do is to hydrate the tree. It will take up moisture anywhere from 20 minutes to hours. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – even if it is the day before the move. Root pruning ahead of the move sends a signal to the tree that it has to survive on fewer roots. Similarly, the tree will go through other stages that will put it in a defensive mode.” Ironically, he notes, this is good for the move and the tree’s long-term survival.

This 98-foot-tall, 104-year-old sequoia was moved two blocks, from the grounds of St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center to Fort Boise, a city park in Boise Idaho, in 2017. Photo courtesy of Environmental Design, Inc.

Cox adheres to the adage, “Plant them high, never die. Plant them low, never grow.

“That goes back a hundred years or more and is true today,” he observes – that is, favoring tree planting a few inches above ground level. “Trees interact with soil and draw out soil nutrients and oxygen. An air exchange has to take place.” If planted too deeply, the soil gets solid, Cox continues, “and the tree may suffocate, not drown, as some people think. Same goes for assessing and ensuring the quality of the soil.”

Supporting the importance of hydration, Michael Zimmerman, CTSP and president of Zimmerman Tree Service, an accredited, 37-year TCIA member company based in Lake Worth, Florida, recalls a time when his company was involved in a very long-term government project. His was one of many companies called in to what he describes as essentially relocating a forest within the bounds of a large tract of land. “The major requirement was to water the trees for 30 days prior to moving,” this even though the trees were to be transplanted nearby to their original location on the same property.

While researching this article, it became clear that opportunities in the tree-moving business abound, either short term – here and there – or as a long-term commitment.

“A huge opportunity arose for us,” Zimmerman recalls. “Palm Beach County, Florida, owned a solid-waste facility and decided it had run out of room, and then purchased another property, planning to close one and open another. The new property was heavily forested.

“With a property heavy with trees, the project,” which Zimmerman describes as picking up a forest, relocating it and recreating the existing habitat elsewhere on the property, “was opened up to anyone who wanted to move them. The cost was fixed, and there were strict watering requirements, but if you had a tree spade, the county was happy to put you to work.

“We went to our bank and were able to buy our first spade, then bought another,” he says. The equipment was capable of digging a 90-inch root ball, he notes.

“From 10 to 12 companies could be working at any one time moving the trees. The only requirement was to move them after 30 days of watering. Before moving, the trees were mounded with soil and the area was flooded (using Zimmerman’s pumps and water from Palm Beach County canals).”

The mission was to use the trees to create a buffer around the new solid-waste facility, Zimmerman states. “There were landscape architects on site, and we had to provide weekly reports. It was a very organized operation.”

He says the project spawned a little more outside work for him and other companies “here and there, and it opened up tree moving to people and governments moving trees of all sizes, especially as city and county governments began to require transplanting of trees. There was good demand for a while, and there still is some, but not as there once was,” he states. Now, he says, the market seems to be focused on “much larger trees being moved with cranes and loaders.”

In another case of “opportunity knocks,” Jack Harder, CTSP and general manager of Harder Services, Inc., an accredited, 59-year TCIA member company based in Hempstead, New York, reports, “I was involved when the New York City parks department would take tree-removal applications from a builder or property owner. The parks department would turn the application into a preservation job.” The reason, Harder explains, is that the city had a no-reduction policy for tree population, and if one had to be moved, it would have to be replanted within city limits.

“I had to figure out things on the fly, and worked with the parks-department forester who explained the requirements, which included having a verified arborist and providing health reports on the tree, as well as coordination for cranes and heavy equipment.” He says that could have involved sidewalk removal as well as balling and burlapping the tree – all on a New York City street. Equipment could range from a 45-ton crane to a smaller crane and bucket truck. “We would have to rig the tree, put it on a flatbed and drive it across Manhattan to plant in a city park, all on the same day,” he notes. Some equipment was Harder’s and some was rented, he says.

The late Neil Cowie, left, an arborist who worked for Bartlett for 50 years, and a young Jim Ingram, now president and chief operating officer of Bartlett Tree Experts, stand on the 24-foot root ball of a European beech moved by Bartlett Tree Experts at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in 1991. Photo courtesy of Jim Ingram.

“Most of our transplants were in New York City from about 2005 to 2015, but now New York does not go out-of-house for transplanting, no longer allowing contractors to do the job,” he says. Harder cites one job involving a construction company called to do the job, and the city informed the company it was now handling those jobs. According to Harder, “The tree has never moved.”

As with Zimmerman, that was the extent of the business, but “we still do some private stuff, such as preserving a tree during construction or for a homeowner who wants to move a specimen.”

“We would have to rig the tree, put it on a flatbed and drive it across Manhattan to plant in a city park, all on the same day,” says Jack Harder. Photo courtesy of Harder Services, Inc.

Harder says there are many times when a homeowner or contractor will ask for a tree to be moved and stored, “heeled-in,” on Harder’s land, but ultimately will have a change of heart and abandon it. “We have acquired some nice large Japanese maples and dogwoods that way.” Of the abandoned specimens, he says, “Sometimes we work one into a project.”

“No thanks,” perhaps?

Harder warns of some challenges facing tree care businesses that move large trees. “Some companies do not own a crane or want to hire one, because the job and equipment opens up the company to issues such as added insurance, rigging requirements, crane-operator familiarity with hoisting plants and trees or the need of a large flatbed trailer, any of which could be cost prohibitive.” He adds that those situations could rule out large-scale tree moving for some businesses. “Levels of insurance are a huge factor; that might by itself cause a company to say, ‘No thanks.’

“On the upside is money,” Harder says encouragingly. “It is a specialized type of business with a lot of touches (things to do to the tree) if you are to do the job right and have the greatest chance of success. Water, prune, root prune, fertilize – it all has to happen in advance, then there are multiple visits and the timing of equipment and personnel, right down to drivers and flaggers. Many times, you cannot drive straight to the spot where the tree is being transplanted.”

Harder also stresses that there are issues to be handled after the tree goes in. He says that while working with the city of New York, trees needed watering every week the first year and every other week from April to October the next year. “Driving around Manhattan to water trees regularly, if you can handle it, could be pretty lucrative.

“But,” he warns, “a transplant is not a sure thing long term, and that is why we take the right steps for a favorable outcome.”

Environmental Design, Inc. (EDI), is a full-time tree-moving outfit, moving trees for private estates, museums, hotels and resorts, universities and golf courses. When asked if tree moving can be lucrative, David Cox says, emphatically, “Yes. We grew the business from a few thousand dollars a month to $30 million a year.

The cost of insurance when moving large trees may be a big enough factor for a company to say, “No thanks.”
Photo courtesy of Harder Services, Inc.

“My brother, Tom Cox, and I started EDI in 1977. I left twice, 1985 and 1999. In 1999, I started National Shade, which Davey bought in 2002, and I worked for Davey until 2010, when EDI and Davey decided to merge Davey’s tree-moving operations, which I was running for Davey, into EDI. That transaction closed in January 2011. I have managed the western United States operations for EDI since then.”

One continual assignment was on the Linus Pauling estate on the California coast from 1993 to 2004. “What was done on that site was phenomenal; we got into million-pound root balls,” Cox says. “We normally would not have had the opportunity to do that, but the owner was open to new things. New methods were developed and incorporated into the business.

“To get into the tree-moving business, you may first have to be part of a project or sub out to another company, or hire an employee with experience,” Cox advises. “To just jump in with zero experience? I would not discourage it, but because of the risk and investment, I’d talk with someone first and seek advice before taking the plunge. Or establish some opportunity for a joint venture. Get some personal experience first.”

Learning the hard way to start

Cox concurs with Bartlett’s Jim Ingram regarding learning by trial and error. Becoming proficient is often a matter of “learning the hard way in the beginning, occasionally doing things wrong and having to pay for it,” says Cox.

“More and more I see this as an extremely large business. We used to do three to four giant trees, in excess of 30 inches in diameter, over the course of a year. Now we move 30-inch or larger trees every day across the U.S. Just about every community, university, development or business project will find a tree issue, especially with the growing number of tree ordinances,” Cox states. “Invariably, more and more come to us asking what to do – move, save or change property design to preserve trees. People are more aware of trees.”

“Knowing the tree-species culture is probably the most important part of moving a tree,” Ingram says, because it leads to “writing a prescription for optimum growing conditions and having ample time to prepare. For a conifer, that may be a month. With deciduous trees like the European beech, I would not want to touch them without a month of prep time and using experienced people.”

He likens that preparation time to “pre-game.” Then, “On game day, the tree is picked up. The post-game can go on for many years, because we want to maintain adequate soil conditions and have adequate pest management for insect and diseases, which can be troublesome,” Ingram maintains, adding that “Carrying on the post-game program for several years may be the most important thing.”

He points to an apparatus that is quite popular, the air spade, which helps create a big pit that is conducive to new and optimum growth.

Ingram advises that anyone in or intending to enter the large-tree-moving business look at the science of each species to be moved – one species at a time. “There are some really good books where you can find information, such as Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.”

He concludes that every job is different and one never knows what to expect. Take, for example, the time his company was moving a tree with a 28-foot-diameter root ball for Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts. The hospital was moving a European beech to another location, and because of the size and proximity to Hyannis Airport, the airport’s flight pattern had to be changed (during the move).”

In the end, moving large trees is a big job with the potential for very big returns. The consensus is that it’s OK to jump in without a lot of experience, but do become as knowledgeable as you can about both the tree species and the mechanics of the job.

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