How to Transplant Sassafras

by Amelia Allonsy

Common sassafras (Sassafras albidum), also called root beer tree, not only looks attractive -- it has aromatic root oil that's long been used to make tea and fragrant soap. Grown in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, moms and kids alike will surely be intrigued by the three distinct leaf patterns, including a bi-lobed, mitten-shaped leaf; one tri-lobed leaf; and one unlobed, elliptical leaf. Container-grown sassafras trees are most adaptable to transplanting, but you might find some success digging up a small sassafras tree to shade your favorite backyard relaxation spot.

1 Measure a few potential sassafras transplants and select a tree to transplant that is still in the seedling or sapling stage, or no more than about 5 feet tall and with a trunk diameter of no more than about 1 to 3 inches. Hold a measuring tape up against the trunk to measure the diameter.

2 Draw a circle around the tree, using the blade of a digging spade. The circle diameter should measure at least 12 inches for every 1 inch of the trunk diameter, or as large as possible beyond that size. Cut out a circle to prune the roots, using the digging spade to cut the soil to a depth of about 12 inches. This is best done a few months before transplanting so the tree has time to establish a dense network of smaller roots closer to the trunk, which reduces transplant shock. Prune the roots in fall before transplanting in spring, or root-prune in spring before planting in fall.

3 Clear all vegetation from the new planting site and loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches, using hand digging tools or a rototiller. Clear a space two to three times the diameter of the root-pruned circle. Select a planting site located in full sun to partial shade that receives between five and eight hours of direct sunlight daily.

4 Blend organic amendments with the native soil -- you can use materials such as finished compost, aged manure, leaf mold, coarse sand and dried grass clippings. Sassafras tolerates heavy soils with poor drainage, such as clay, but organic matter improves soil tilth and drainage, and adds beneficial nutrients to the soil.

5 Dig a planting hole that measures two to three times the diameter of the cut root circle, and 12 inches deep or the depth of the root ball. Set the soil aside for backfill. With the addition of soil amendments and the size of the transplant's root ball, you'll have some extra soil that can be used elsewhere in your garden.

6 Water the sassafras tree deeply the night before digging it up, so the soil and roots are moist and better able to adapt to transplanting. Water the bottom of the new planting hole just before moving the tree.

7 Cut along the cut circle to sever any roots that grew outside the root-pruned circle, using the digging spade. Insert a round- point shovel into the cuts, pushing it under the root ball, and pull back on the handle to pry the root ball out of the ground. Dig deeper than 12 inches, if needed, to dig up the entire long taproot. This taproot is one of the reasons transplanting sassafras is difficult. Use bypass pruners to cut any other roots that continue to anchor the tree to the ground. Enlist a helper to hold the sassafras back so you can cut the roots.

8 Lift the tree out of the ground, keeping as much of the root ball intact as possible. All that moist soil, the trees and roots can be quite heavy, so ask one or two people to help you get the tree out of the ground. Set the tree on a tarp, which you can use to drag the tree to the new planting site. If you must transport the transplant to a new planting site off the property, wrap the root ball in wet towels to retain moisture.

9 Set the sassafras tree in the new planting hole so the top of the root ball rests evenly with the surrounding soil level. Hold a carpenter's level against the trunk and add or remove soil from the hole until the tree is plumb.

10 Backfill the planting hole with the amended native soil. Make the backfill soil even with the surrounding soil grade and the top of the root ball. Do not add soil on top of the root ball. Pack the soil gently to remove air pockets and add more soil, if needed.

11 Spread a 3-inch layer of bark chip mulch or shredded bark mulch over the entire planting area, but do not push the mulch directly against the trunk because this can lead to rot and invite infestation. Mulch is a busy mom's best friend in the garden, because it reduces weed competition, insulates the roots and retains moisture in the soil -- which translates to less work needed to care for the tree.

12 Water the soil in the planting zone deeply until evenly moist, but not wet. If water pools up on the surface, wait a few minutes for the water to drain before continuing to add water. Water the sassafras deeply at least once weekly to maintain moderate soil moisture; increase watering frequency during periods of drought. This is an easy enough task that kids can help.

13 Apply a water-soluble, complete fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, as part of the regular water supply. Mix 1 tablespoon of water-soluble fertilizer granules with 1 gallon of water and pour it around the root zone. Repeat fertilizer application about once monthly to boost tree growth.

Items you will need

  • Measuring tape
  • Digging spade
  • Hand digging tools
  • Rototiller
  • Organic soil amendments
  • Round point shovel
  • Bypass pruners
  • Tarp
  • Towel
  • Carpenter's level
  • Bark chip mulch or shredded bark mulch
  • Water-soluble fertilizer

Tip

  • When planting a potted, nursery-grown tree, simply eliminate the root-pruning and digging steps, and follow the same steps when preparing the planting hole and planting the tree.

Warnings

  • Sassafras is allelopathic, meaning that its roots produce a chemical that kills surrounding plants. Keep sassafras trees planted far away from other trees and flower beds. Try planting sassafras as a specimen planting in the center of your yard with a wide mulched area around the base so you don't have to worry about it killing grass.
  • Only add coarse sand to lighten clay soils and only when added in addition to other organic matter. Sand blends with fine clay soil particles and hardens into a nearly impenetrable form similar to cement.
  • Keep children and pets away from fertilizer and other gardening chemicals.