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Native Plant Gardening: Replacing Small Ornamental Trees

Removing small trees easily

ornamental small tree
Ornamental Holly Tree Before Removal

When we moved to our home, the garden had numerous small ornamental trees: kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), privets (Ligustrum lucidum), and an unidentified type of yew (Taxus). Each either screened a busy street or was a garden focal point. Initially we kept them but as time went by, I realized each location would be perfect for a native tree! Replacing ornamental trees providing little to no ecological value was a significant opportunity to increase the function of a small garden. Even though I knew all that, it was hard to remove each one. They were well established -- probably at least ten years old based on the history of the house. There is something about removing a living thing.

In each case though, after I removed them, I was glad I had. Invasive privets were replaced with small hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), the yew with a native dogwood (Benthamidia Florida, formerly Cornus Florida), and three kousa dogwoods with a native dogwood, redbud (Cercis canadensis) and river birch (Betula nigra). It also hit home that while it takes years for newly planted trees to establish and mature, it takes minutes to remove them. Obvious I know!

I thought I would share this approach in case you are contemplating a small tree removal. This method would work for small trees -- small meaning trunks under five inches in width at the base and nothing taller than 10 to 12 feet.

Most recently, I removed an ornamental holly a garden center long ago told me was a smaller cultivar of American holly (Ilex opaca). It was a Hollie "Nellie Stevens'(Ilex x 'Nellie R. Stevens') -- a cross between an English and Chinese holly. The tree, in recent years, developed heavy black soot and scale. It took 45 minutes from start to finish to remove perennials beneath the tree and take the tree down to the root ball.

I used a tarp to temporarily hold the perennials, a sharp spade, hand pruners, an inexpensive pruning saw, paper lawn bags and rubbing alcohol to clean the tools later. A cool morning after a period of rain offered the perfect time to do this, making it easier on the perennials that would have to be dug up and replanted. Damp soil also makes it easier to dig up the root ball, by far the most challenging part.

I began by digging up clumps of perennials beneath the tree, mostly woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), heuchera (Heuchera Americana) and ostrich ferns (Mattteuccia struthiopteris). I placed the plants on the tarp in the shade and soaked the plants with a hose to make sure the roots were moist.

I started by limbing up the holly, from the bottom up, one small cut at a time and then used pruners to shorten the branches. Once the branches were shortened, I began sawing and removing two and three foot pieces. I bagged the pieces as I went - it's much faster because you touch each piece only once.

Eventually, I was down to the main trunks. I gradually removed those with cuts with the pruning saw. You really need a sharp blade on your saw. If you have to use a lot of muscle power, the blade is likely dull. Replacement blades are readily available at hardware stores and on-line. It should be fairly smooth cutting.

Once I was down to the base of the trunk, I began digging around the root ball. The tree was well established. I slowly dug out and exposed the main roots radiating out from the center of the root ball and then cut those with the pruning saw. I ended up digging out about half way down the root ball.

With other small trees I have removed, I cut the trunk down to the base at ground level and then planted the new tree nearby, skipping the need to remove the root ball entirely. With this location though, the new tree would have to be planted in the exact same location so the rootball had to come out. We bought a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia Virginiana) which was already 6 feet tall and had a large balled and burlapped rootball. The tree was too heavy to move so we paid the garden center the tree came from to plant the tree. Their crew, kindly and amazingly quickly, removed the remaining root ball and planted the new tree in less than a half hour later that day. If I were to have removed that rootball myself, I would have taken two more days - working in half hour increments and using the pruning saw to saw off connections between the root ball and larger roots radiating out. Not pretty but it works. This is also where friends, landscapers and energetic teenagers can help out!

The new tree is settling in quite nicely and I remind myself to give it a deep soak every week during its first growing season in the new spot and moving to a light soak during the winter months - important in the first year. The subtle fragrance of these blossoms amazes.

Happy gardening!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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