How to Ball and Burlap Dig Plants

In order to create this page I had to talk my buddy Larry into letting me dig one of his dogwoods for him. That wasn't hard to do! Especially since I was willing to pay for the tree so I could give it to my son for his new house.

Anyway, you need a good digging spade. Flat as a pancake. The heavier the better. The more expensive the better. A good spade will run you around $90., and once you get used to using it you'll take it to bed with you!

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I'm serious. You'll like it that much! That's once you realize how the weight of the spade can do most of the work for you.

Anyway, let's ball and burlap dig a Pink Flowering Dogwood Tree.

Balling Dogwood
Balling Dogwood

Scrape any vegetation from around the tree. In the above photo it is difficult to see the actual tree because the tree is still dormant and without leaves. If you look closely you can see some grass and weeds around the base of the tree that we do not want inside of our root ball.

Scraping top of ball Scraping the top of the root ball clean
Scraping top of ball Scraping the top of the root ball clean.

A nice, neat root ball is important
A nice, neat root ball is important.

Determine the distance out from the tree. 11" of root ball per one inch of tree caliper, 6" above the soil.

Turn the spade backwards to the tree with the handle tilted toward the tree, and start digging a shallow trench around the tree with the corner to the spade. This will mark the outline of the top of your ball. Don't cross this line.

Marking the outline of the root ball.

Now start digging the trench wider and deeper, but move away from the the line a little to give the ball a round shape. Don't dig straight down. What you are doing is actually carving the ball as a sculptor would do.

Ball formed
Our balled in burlap tree is starting to take shape.

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It's important to dig away from your ball, and not to pry against the root ball with your spade. Notice I am still digging with the spade actually facing me.

Ball formed
Ball a Dogwood Tree

Once you reach a depth of 50% of what your ball will be, you start carving under the ball as you go deeper.

Get under the ball
At this point you go from digging straight down to working your way under the root ball.

Once you get about 75% of the way down, you can start forcing the spade under the ball at an angle, but be very careful not to disturb the ball. A sharp spade is essential, so the roots cut easily and smoothly. With a dull spade, or the wrong kind of spade you will beat the ball to death trying to cut the roots. Professional diggers file their spade several times a day.

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Force the spade
You must force the spade into the ground firmly, but smoothly to keep from braking the root ball.

Once you have the ball completely loose, you can tip it and gently slide the burlap under the root ball, or if the root ball is firm enough you can lift it out and set it on the burlap.

Lift the tree

Lift the tree
Gently lift the tree out of the hole and place it on the burlap.

If the soil you are working in is sand and or gravel, you might have to slide the ball out of the hole on the spade. Also in these types of soils it helps if you firmly pack the soil around the tree before you start forming the ball. Clean the top of the ball as shown above, then firmly pack the soil with the heel of your work boot.

You're not trying to dig a tree in tennis shoes are you?

Pull burlap corners

Pull the opposite corners of the burlap together and tie them together as tightly as you can get them.

Pull burlap corners

Using small nails, (they make special pinning nails that have a rounded head so you don't cut your fingers) start pulling the lose areas of the burlap, then using the nail for leverage, pull them tight and pin them down.

Pin them down

Just pull any loose flap up and as tight as you can get it, fold it over, stick a nail through the corner of the flap, then stick the point of the nail into the root ball just enough so it can't slip, then push the nail over, pulling the burlap tight as you push. Once the nail is pushed all the way over, push it into the burlap and the root ball, but at a very horizontal angle. Sticking a nail straight into the ball will not work at all. It will pull right out.

You have to insert the nail almost horizontal, after you use the nail to pull the burlap as tight as possible. This action gives you a considerable amount of leverage, and with just six to ten nails you can tightly pin up a balled in burlap tree.

Find a young buck to carry the 
            tree out of the field!
Find a young buck to carry the tree out of the field!

Actually this is my oldest son. I gave him the tree as a house warming present, and I even dug it for him. But he had to take the pictures for this web page and carry the the tree out of the field. Seemed like a good deal to me.

But if you enlarge the above photo and look closely, my son is standing in my buddy Larry's backyard. Notice all the beautiful Pink and White Flowering Dogwood trees that Larry has grown? Many of them he grew from seed. That's really easy money. Click here to explore the wonderful business of backyard growing.

Balled in burlap digging is actually pretty simple, especially if you have a clay based soil. Sand isn't too bad, but gravel can make you crazy!

If you lose the ball digging in gravel you often have to dig a hole, lay the burlap in the hole, put the tree with the broken, (or no ball at all) in the hole, then build a ball around the roots.

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When digging in gravel once you make that first cut around the top of the ball, take the heel of your boot and pack the top of the ball tightly. This will help hold it together as you dig.

Some diggers actually dig the ball about half way, then time a string around it to keep it from falling away from the tree, but you normally don't have to do that.

Questions? I do my best to answer all questions on my blog...