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About Git subtree merges

If you need to manage multiple projects within a single repository, you can use a subtree merge to handle all the references.

In this article

Typically, a subtree merge is used to contain a repository within a repository. The "subrepository" is stored in a folder of the main repository.

The best way to explain subtree merges is to show by example. We will:

  • Make an empty repository called test that represents our project
  • Merge another repository into it as a subtree called Spoon-Knife.
  • The test project will use that subproject as if it were part of the same repository.
  • Fetch updates from Spoon-Knife into our test project.

Setting up the empty repository for a subtree merge

  1. Open TerminalTerminalGit Bash.
  2. Create a new directory and navigate to it.
    $ mkdir test
    $ cd test
  3. Initialize a new Git repository.
    $ git init
    > Initialized empty Git repository in /Users/octocat/tmp/test/.git/
  4. Create and commit a new file.
    $ touch .gitignore
    $ git add .gitignore
    $ git commit -m "initial commit"
    > [main (root-commit) 3146c2a] initial commit
    >  0 files changed, 0 insertions(+), 0 deletions(-)
    >  create mode 100644 .gitignore

Adding a new repository as a subtree

  1. Add a new remote URL pointing to the separate project that we're interested in.

    $ git remote add -f spoon-knife
    > Updating spoon-knife
    > warning: no common commits
    > remote: Counting objects: 1732, done.
    > remote: Compressing objects: 100% (750/750), done.
    > remote: Total 1732 (delta 1086), reused 1558 (delta 967)
    > Receiving objects: 100% (1732/1732), 528.19 KiB | 621 KiB/s, done.
    > Resolving deltas: 100% (1086/1086), done.
    > From git://
    >  * [new branch]      main     -> Spoon-Knife/main
  2. Merge the Spoon-Knife project into the local Git project. This doesn't change any of your files locally, but it does prepare Git for the next step.

    If you're using Git 2.9 or above:

    $ git merge -s ours --no-commit --allow-unrelated-histories spoon-knife/main
    > Automatic merge went well; stopped before committing as requested

    If you're using Git 2.8 or below:

    $ git merge -s ours --no-commit spoon-knife/main
    > Automatic merge went well; stopped before committing as requested
  3. Create a new directory called spoon-knife, and copy the Git history of the Spoon-Knife project into it.

    $ git read-tree --prefix=spoon-knife/ -u spoon-knife/main
  4. Commit the changes to keep them safe.

    $ git commit -m "Subtree merged in spoon-knife"
    > [main fe0ca25] Subtree merged in spoon-knife

Although we've only added one subproject, any number of subprojects can be incorporated into a Git repository.

Tip: If you create a fresh clone of the repository in the future, the remotes you've added will not be created for you. You will have to add them again using the git remote add command.

Synchronizing with updates and changes

When a subproject is added, it is not automatically kept in sync with the upstream changes. You will need to update the subproject with the following command:

$ git pull -s subtree remotename branchname

For the example above, this would be:

$ git pull -s subtree spoon-knife main

Further reading